Feedback and writing groups
Giving and receiving feedback, like all good communication is a skill
that can be developed. This resource outlines how to provide and receive
feedback, the benefits of participating in writing groups, and some tips
for running successful writing groups. The advice is relevant for a
variety of research contexts including writing groups of all kinds,
research supervision, reviewing academic work, editorial negotiations
with publishers, and other forms of scholarly networking.
The advice in this resource represents a distillation of Joni Cole's
(2006) book Toxic Feedback, and comments in the appendix of
Ursula Le Guin's (1998:151-156) book Steering the Craft.
- criticises the writing, not the writer;
- is delivered in a spirit of humility;
- avoids phrases like 'you need to' and 'you should';
- is offered as a point of view;
- is delivered concisely enabling others to contribute
to the conversation;
- is specific, concrete, constructive, offering
alternatives and solutions wherever possible;
- involves both negative and positive points;
- is grounded in the knowledge that one's feedback,
when delivered thoughtfully, is valid and useful;
- is grounded in the knowledge that the writer will
weigh up the comments and make up their own mind;
- provides corrections for the first few minor errors
and leaves the writer to correct the rest;
- focuses upon substantive issues in the writing;
- offers solutions or alternatives as suggestions.
In addition to constructive criticism and positive comments, it is
also useful to share more neutral or ambiguous comments. For example:
general reactions, first impressions, thoughts about how a draft has
changed from a previous draft, areas of agreement and disagreement with
other feedback and your reasons for this. This kind of feedback is
useful because it gives the writer a sense of how the text has been
Some people think that feedback consists purely of pointing out
what's wrong with a piece of writing. Positive feedback is equally
important because it:
- builds confidence;
- encourages the writer to keep going;
- helps the writer to see what is working for the
reader, and to avoid revising it;
- helps others to identify and model good examples.
for giving feedback
- I really liked ... but you might consider adding a
bit about ... to explain why ... .
- I thought ... read well and I understood that your
project is about ... .
- I wonder if you could delete ... bit on page ... ?
There seems to be repetition of the point about ... with
the content at ... .
- Could you try ... ?
- A few sentences to explain ... might be helpful on
page ... to clarify ... .
- Could you move the second from ... to ... to the ...
section of the text? It seems to work there better
because ... .
- I loved the section on ... such and such writes
about that, would you like the reference?
- I was impressed by ... I thought it would be good to
explain how you dealt with ... ?
- Your text made me think about ... I wanted to share
that in case it was helpful for your section on ... .
- I felt really persuaded by ... but in the second
paragraph in the second section I found ... .
- I think it would make it even better if you ... .
Tips for processing
Make the most of it - don't waste this opportunity, listen
carefully and take notes.
Be open - resist the temptation to defend your work, try not
to talk too much.
Resist the urge to explain - explanations can make it
difficult for the reader to separate what you have told them from what
they have read and can reduce the value of any feedback offered.
Respect others opinions - all feedback is useful even if you
don't agree with it. Feedback reveals how your work can be read or
misread. Considering how others have read your work will enable you to
get your point across better next time.
Prompt for constructive suggestions - if the feedback is vague
or you don't understand, consider asking the reader for more specific
information, reflect back their comments to check you have heard
One comment at a time - in order to avoid being overwhelmed
after a feedback session, sift through the comments then put them aside
and work through one at a time.
- That's a good idea, thanks.
- So you're saying ... ?
- Can you give me an example?
- Can you be more specific?
- What page was that on? What section was that on?
- Could you suggest a word/phrase/sentence I could use
- Where do you think it would be good to insert that?
- How did you find the section on ... ?
- Do you think it would work if I ... ?
It may be useful to consider
the kind of feedback we want to avoid giving others. Bad feedback:
- criticises the writer, rather than the writing ('you
are not a good writer');
- is delivered with a superior tone of voice;
- uses words like 'you need to' and 'you should';
- delivers the feedback as 'fact' ('this is wrong');
- is repetitive;
- focuses only on what is wrong so the writer does not
learn what worked well or what was understood;
- does not allow others to contribute to the
- is negative, vague or general, and leaves the writer
with nowhere to go ('this article is not good enough');
- focuses only on the positive leaving the writer with
nowhere to go ('it's fine');
- avoids sharing a point of view because the reader
feels they have no 'legitimacy' to give feedback ('I
have no right to criticise your work');
- assumes the writer is dependent on your feedback
('you will be too hurt if I comment on your work');
- pedantically picks only on small grammatical errors
and does not engage with substantive content;
- addresses side issues and smaller points and does
not engage with the substance of the work;
- presents solutions as mandates.
It is important to avoid giving this kind of feedback because it can
be demoralising and does not assist the writer to move forward. It can
also undermine the sense of trust and enjoyment in the group.
There are many benefits of
writing groups. Writing groups can:
- reduce isolation
- allow participants to learn from others in the same
- stimulate critical thinking and research clarity
- provide writing deadlines
- provide encouragement to motivation
- improve writing and research quality
- provide opportunities to prepare for seminars,
publications, and other important writing deadlines
- improve confidence
- provide contacts
- provide support in solving problems arising in the
research and writing process
- provide editing support
- provide people to celebrate your successes with
- provide opportunities to practice giving and
At the first or second meeting of a new writing group it is useful to
decide upon and record how the group intends to operate. A list of
operational norms is provided below to act as a discussion starter for
new writing groups. Experienced group participants recommend:
- six to eleven members (which allows for different
opinions without getting too big to manage);
- fortnightly or monthly meetings;
- members be at a similar level of accomplishment;
- manuscripts circulated before the meeting to allow
everyone to provide thoughtful criticism;
- feedback provided in writing on the draft with the
reader's name on the top of the page;
- all decisions made collectively;
- designated time before the feedback session to share
news and raise any concerns;
- everyone takes a turn to provide and receive
- participants arrive on time;
- participants let the group know if they will not be
able to attend (to prevent others feeling the group is
- drafts submitted within an agreed lead time;
- strict confidentiality (no one outside the group to
have access to drafts);
- concise feedback, in turn, and without interruption
- feedback to address substantive issues (nitpicks
addressed briefly or only in writing);
- avoid asking the writer questions that will elicit
- the writer says nothing, or as little as possible
- the writer takes notes of what others are saying;
- feedback be kept concise, to allow time for open
Role of the facilitator
Writing groups, especially those with more than four members, will
usually run better with a facilitator. The facilitator can be the same
person every meeting, or group members can take it in turns to
facilitate group meetings. The facilitator's role is to foster a sense
of community, rather than one of competition by keeping the discussion
positive and task focused.
The role of the facilitator is to:
- raise operational matters (meeting times, food,
submission turns and dates, minutes);
- ensure writer's get equal time, or that time is
negotiated in the group;
- ensure everyone gets a turn to talk (by calling upon
members one at a time, or calling upon quieter members
- use humour and positivity manage digressions,
arguments, rehashing, dominating, side conversations and
put downs and keep the discussion on track;
- reiterate key points before the group moves on to a
- stimulate discussion if the group flags (ask open
ended questions 'Tell me more about ...');
- remain impartial (no favourites, encourage members
to work out any issues with one another directly).
The 'world's worst'
Joni Cole (2006:134-137) provides a characterisation of the 'world's
worst' workshop participants. Cole's descriptions are provided here to
help us to reflect on how we can participate in a positive manner.
The shadow - shows up to meetings, but rarely shares or takes
The dominator - doesn't draw breath, likes to talk about self
and pads comments with irrelevant detail.
The star - assumes their work is the best, brags about their
achievements, doesn't read other people's work.
The grammarian - obsesses with minor errors, avoids being
involved in discussion about substantive themes.
The devil's advocate - contradicts for the sake of
contradiction, enjoys stirring up trouble.
The interrupter - impulsive, impatient, cuts people off, runs
away with others' ideas.
The outpatient - wants to work out issues and connect with
others, not work on writing.
The gossip - talks about other members behind their back,
poisons group members against one another.
- Take your turn.
- Enjoy equal time on the floor.
- Encourage and support others.
- Read and comment on the substance of submitted work.
- Offer alternatives and solutions.
- Build on the comments of others.
- Stay task focused.
- Raise issues about the group dynamic with the group.
Cole, Joni B 2006, Toxic feedback, University Press of New
Le Guin, Ursula 1998, Steering the craft: Exercises and
discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew,
The Eighth Mountain Press, Portland Oregon.