These days, almost everyone who writes shows their work in progress to other people before they send it out to publishers, in the hope of receiving helpful feedback. This relatively new stage in the creative process has left many of us wondering: what sort of feedback really helps? In How to Talk About Writing, I share six important discoveries that have allowed me to shift from judging the work I am given (and justifying my judgements) to joining the writer as his or her creative partner in a shared attempt to make the work the best it can be. Here is a quick summary of those discoveries, a fuller understanding of which you’ll find in the book itself, which is available here.

How to Talk About Writing

1. Silence is not golden

Even if I have no idea what to say at first, I take care to make some comment, right away, about something that works well for me in the writing. Even a statement about how I’ve connected with it (“I felt moved by this piece of writing”, or, “I was really absorbed in this”) seems to help out of all proportion to the information I’m imparting, probably because it dispels the writer’s default assumption that silence implies a host of negative judgements withheld.

2. Give energy to what’s working

I’ve learned from experience to focus in whatever works best for me in what I’m reading, on the well-founded principle that whatever we give energy to will increase, while whatever is ignored will fall away – in part, at least, because neither of us is paying any attention to it.

3. Suit the comment to stage of writing

A different order of comments becomes useful at each stage of the writing. Be sure to find out, before you comment, how much work the writer has done on this piece.

  • With writing that is brand new and relatively unformed, I talk about what I particularly connect with – thus implying, perhaps, what I’d like to see more of.
  • When the writing has been revised or “pulled together” to some extent, I also try to stay what I think it’s about.
  • When a writer asks me to comment on a “finished” draft – and only then, I mention what I think could be improved, and why.

4. Read as if you wrote it

Writer or not, I try to put myself in the writer’s shoes when I consider what I see as problems in the writing. Why might I have done what they did? This situates me below the surface of the writing, ready to ask questions that may help solve the problem rather than judge its outcome.

5. Know when you are hooked

When I feel judgemental, righteous, or angry as I read, that signals to me that I’ve been “hooked” by something in the writing. If I want to be able to “read it as if I wrote it”, I first need to identify that hook and detach it before I go on to think any further about the writing.

6. Treat autobiographical writing as writing

I try to approach autobiographical writing the same way I do fiction: to talk about how it works for me as writing. This means I limit my comments to what works best for me, at first, and then proceed according to whatever stage the manuscript reaches thereafter (as described in #3). In other words, I stay with the words on the page, and eschew any inferences about where this writing might have come from, or why.