I think we can all agree that it takes guts for a writer to read out loud in front of an audience. I remember how nervous I felt reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress for the first time at Get Lit. I don’t even like to read my work out loud to myself in private, let alone in front of a roomful of people. I remember my relief when I got to the end of my three pages and heard applause. It was like coming up for air after jumping off of a high dive – I was just thrilled to be alive. So what drives writers to do this scary act? The answer is we want to know what impact, intended or not, our words are having on other people. We wonder all the time. Is this going anywhere? Is it interesting? Or in more depressed moods, why would anyone ever care about this besides me?
As audience members for other writers, how can we be supportive and encouraging to each other? Besides clapping, how can we help a writer really understand the impact of their words?
I was fortunate enough, in my past life as a dancer, to cross paths with the amazing choreographer Liz Lerman who, with her multigenerational dance company, came up with what I consider the seminal framework for giving an artist feedback. Critical Response is a process of constructive criticism made up of three very simple, yet profound steps all designed to give the artist helpful information they can use.
STEP ONE is to summarize back to the writer what you heard, in either a neutral or positive tone.
Tell them what moments stood out to you, or resonated for you in particular. This is all golden information to a writer, either by affirming what they were hoping to get across, or showing them another side of their story coming through that they hadn’t consciously intended. It is not up to you to tell them if it was good or bad. You can’t know that. Just give them your version of what you heard, and they will know exactly what to do with it.
STEP TWO is to get the writer to ask you questions about what they would like to know.
This can be done by asking leading questions such as: “Is there anything you’d like to know from me listening to your work?” or “What stage of the writing process are you in?” or “What made you want to share this particular passage with us today?” This will open up the writer to tell you what their intentions are with their writing, and give you a better idea of the kinds of information you can provide them.
STEP THREE is to ask the writer neutral questions, in light of what you know they are trying to accomplish.
So for instance, if you learn that they are working on their first draft of a novel and they wanted to know if the protagonist came across as a sympathetic character, you could ask them, “Does your protagonist do anything selfless in your story?” or “Have you shown them being vulnerable at any point?” This is also the time you could ask them about parts of their writing that made you confused such as, “How old is your character in this part of the story?”
The beauty of the Critical Response Process is that it takes your ego out of the equation and centers the conversation solely on providing useful information for the writer. It isn’t easy to reorient ourselves to another person’s wants and needs, but I promise if you practice this method it will start to become second nature. Even if you only get to step one, you will give a writer a great gift by showing them that they have been seen and heard. So at the next Get Lit, I encourage you to take a chance and go up to that new writer sitting by herself, looking mortified that she just read out loud for the first time, and let her know what a brave soul she is. Your feedback will give her the fuel to keep working on her story and to come back and share it again.