My first experience of receiving feedback on a poem was in a workshop. The facilitator, a very fine poet and teacher, suggested that the word ‘thrum,’ which appeared in my poem, was ‘dodgy’. There was some sniggering in the group. Someone disagreed “Nothing wrong with ‘thrum’” they suggested. I was a little hurt. My confidence was shaken. After all, it had taken guts to share my work. But several years later I found the poem in question. It was not the word ‘thrum’ that struck me but the overall tone or feel of the poem. It did not ring ‘true.’
Of course the events in a poem don’t actually have to have been experienced for a poem to work. But there has to be some ‘truth’ to the poem, some integrity that makes the poem believable on some level. My poem had been overdramatic and self important and the word ‘thrum’ seemed to me at this later date to epitomise the problem with the piece. In singling out this word the facilitator had been trying to tell me that the overall effect was disingenuous. I should mention that the facilitator did like the last line of the poem, which was about a dorm full of sleeping soldiers, one of whom gave ‘a long low laugh/ that could only arise from love.’
I remember these comments, positive and negative, so vividly, because I was a vulnerable soul holding up my fragile early work for examination. It was excruciating. In those days I was desperate to impress and easily upset or knocked off course. I was equally sensitive to praise and became smug and self-satisfied if positive comments were passed. I’m glad to say I am much more robust when it comes to feedback these days. And, through experience, I am better able to judge my work and better able to recognise valuable feedback when it is given and to ignore unqualified comment, by which I mean un-grounded, poorly explained feedback.
I am interested in understanding how feedback works and what criteria make it work efficiently. I had invaluable experience of working with a mentor on my first pamphlet. His most valuable contribution was in weeding out poems that weren’t up to scratch. At the time I was not very good at judging my own work and tended to think that just because a poem had been taken by a magazine it must be ‘good’. My mentor helped me realise this was not necessarily the case. As we worked, (somewhat erratically and un-systematically as poets often will,) I was able to reject many of his comments and suggestions and to take others on board.
When it came to getting the manuscript for my next book together I was fortunate in having a couple of well respected poet friends to look it over. Each provided suggestions, as well as criticisms and praise. Some of the criticisms initially annoyed me. I got over it; they were, after all, only opinions and were offered in the spirit of friendship and support. The net effect of their help was a boost to my confidence. This was because comments and suggestions were explained. I could clearly see the points being made and make up my mind as a result. And luckily for me, praise was part of the overall package.
I’ve sketched out a few ideas below related to this topic. Many may seem obvious,
particularly to trained educationalists and mentors, but my experiences of receiving feedback so far (in higher education, as well as less formally) have led me to believe that much of this is far from common practice.
1. Meeting to discuss work is often fruitful, but written feedback should also be given to allow time to consider and understand the feedback after the meeting.
2. Written feedback should be sufficiently detailed, stating what the reader considers to be working and why, and conversely what doesn’t and why not. There is little or no value in non-specific or vague feedback.
3. Feedback should be clear and meaningful. Ambiguous or obscure comments are of no value and may even be frustrating or detrimental. Saying ‘I don’t like this’ is not the same as saying why. I appreciate it is not always easy to state exactly why something isn’t working but you should make every effort to do so. If, for example you say, ‘I don’t like this- it’s too heavy’- try to articulate what you mean by ‘too heavy’ and relate it to the content, structure, or whatever it is that specifically causes this response.
4. Clarity helps overcome resistance to criticism. If I don’t understand what you are saying my response is likely to be negative, confused and unproductive.
5. Feedback should be timely It goes without saying that no-one likes to wait too long for a response. If I can’t get back to someone quickly I will give them some idea of when I will and stick to it.
6. Feedback should be constructive no matter how good/ bad / indifferent the work. The idea is to maximise potential by identifying strengths and weaknesses. Highlighting areas for improvement and development need not be done in a negative or destructive way. Measured, thoughtful suggestions for alternative approaches take time and effort but will provide valuable in the long run.
7. Feedback should be honest- if not it will be worthless. Tricky, but see above. There is no point in avoiding pointing out what doesn’t work for you. Again, skill is required in communicating this type of feedback. It is always useful to point out that yours is only one opinion. Simply say why you like something and simply say why you do not.
8. Provide opportunities for the learner to respond and show they have understood or not understood the feedback. Identify helpful examples or sources related to the work. i.e, has someone else written in a similar style or on a similar subject. Would looking at a piece of work help to inform the writer or to perhaps see something in a different light and enable a different approach?
8. Feed- forward Identify possible things to work on next. Again, try to make specific suggestions. Ask the mentee if they are interested in setting a couple of targets, either to do with reading or writing new work within a timeframe. Include a challenge .This relates to the above and has the effect of keeping the relationship going during a period when the parties are not in communication.