The Power of Peer Feedback for Writers
No matter how advanced you may be as a writer, no matter how many articles or books you may have had published, you can benefit from the feedback of their peers, colleagues, friends, and sometimes even family.
Why? Your point of view on your work is always going to be extremely subjective; that subjectivity is bound to cause you to overlook basic things in your work—facts, form, and function can suffer because your focus might be on some detail of the work. I suggest you seek the opinions of others about your work, and for you to read the work of other writers and offer them your perspective. This exchange is a tried and true method of improving your writing.
I have run across a few Christian authors over the years who thought their work was so sanctified that it was beyond criticism. Thankfully, they are few and far between. Writing created in relative isolation and communion with God really doesn’t reach its full maturity until it’s shared in community with other believers.
Where do you find people who can give you some worthwhile insight about your writing? Here are 3 suggestions:
Nearly every community has a writer’s group—check Craigslist, local writers forums or ask at your local library. If there isn’t one, this may be a good reason for you to start one. Writer’s groups will draw fellow writers of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience—from the 16-year-old poet to the 90-year-old playwright. We can each learn from other writers.
Unfortunately, these days you may find some hostility in local writers groups when you present Christian material, if you do shared readings there, which is a common format. You need to gauge the tone of the group to see how receptive they’ll be. You might want to identify a couple of sympathetic people in the group and ask them privately for feedback on your manuscript.
Of course, this problem is one reason why it would be a good thing if we had writers groups made up of people in the community of faith. Send out a notice to churches in your area to see if you can get a Christian writers group started.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to share your Christian writing with a mixed group of writers. On one hand it may be like presenting pearls to swine, but on the other hand you may get great feedback and you may be able to touch someone spiritually too. Whatever the case, never let anyone discourage you from writing.
Where else can you find people who will give you input?
If you work with fellow writers, such as in an educational setting, there is a wealth of potential here. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, there may be others in the neighborhood who can offer insight. Check around your office or plant too. Don’t be shy about asking a trusted colleague if he or she is willing to supply feedback for your story or essay or a chapter from your book. Most will feel honored that you asked for their opinion.
Pastors can also provide helpful feedback sometimes, though many don’t have the time to read and make remarks. Remember, there are a lot of people with specialized knowledge who attend your local church, and you may wish to ask one of them to give you feedback.
Online peers are another source of valuable input about your writing. There are plenty of online forums, lists, and groups where you can interact with other writers and email your work to them. In some forums, you upload your work and the group can comment and critique online. The benefit is you get more people to give feedback—often from all over the world.
Family can be tricky when it comes to getting an “honest” opinion. A friend of mine, whose father is a novelist and screenwriter, stopped showing his work to family members because everyone did not praise him for his perfection. He expected them to tell him how great he was, not point out flaws in his plot. It depends on what kind of family life you have, but if you show your work to household members, you must ask for honesty and expect it.
These are the people who know you best, after all, and their comments could be more precious than people you don’t know very well.
Still, it also puts your family members in a peculiar position. Your Mom probably thinks everything you do is great, and one of your rival siblings may think everything you do stinks. You have to weigh these things as you process the information you get from family.
Here are some tips that you’ll find helpful as you seek peer feedback:
Wait a while. Don’t show your work to people right after you complete a first draft. Put it aside for a week or two, perhaps even longer, then come back to it with fresh eyes, rework it a bit, then give it to peers, colleagues, and friends for an initial review.
Have a tough shell. No one truly likes criticism. We all crave praise, accolades, and we all want to be told we have done well. However, we must remember that we are not always “right”—no human is—and another person’s perspective on a manuscript can improve the work. There is always room for the opinion of others—that doesn’t mean you have to follow their advice, but it is good for the soul to listen to it. You should develop a tough enough shell to be open and listen, and consider, and then either accept or reject the critiques and suggestions.
Be realistic about absorbing the advice you get. Accept your Mom’s feedback with joy… but you’re not going to put that much weight on her comments unless she also has a Ph.D. in English Literature. On the other end of the spectrum, beware of readers who may be jealous or may have some kind of axe to grind. You can generally weight the value of what they have to offer by the tone they use.
Here is a key concept: No matter the source of the comments—no matter how fluffy or fierce they may be—ask yourself what it was about your writing evoked that reaction. When you start understanding why people say certain things you gain objectivity and maturity as a writer. It’s important to see your writing through the eyes of others and to understand why they see it that way.
Writing can a lonely task. We are within ourselves—our own minds, listening to our own words for many hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. However, we don’t have to be completely alone. Don’t be afraid to show your work to others and ask for feedback. It may seem intimidating at first, but there is much to gain in the process.