“Hello? Has someone joined the call? Welcome,” my sister says after the musical tone (indicating someone new is on the line) sounds.
I giggle and say, “It’s me. Sarah.”
“The author!” says my other sister who was already on the line with the first sister.
I giggle again. It sounds strange to me to hear them call me “the author.”
And then, another musical tone. A third sister has joined the call. (I have seven sisters and three brothers, but just the four of us would be on the call tonight.) We are about to have a book group — about my book — and, yes, I am the author (see my author page).
A few days ago, I sent my sisters an e-copy of my book, and the next day, there was a group text asking for a conference call.
My husband told me that I should brace myself for criticism. He knows that I want to be liked (and want my writing to be liked, too) and feel rejection like a papercut that won’t stop bleeding, but I am at the point in my writing that I really need readers. There are problems with the ending that I just can’t solve on my own (at least not yet), and I want to know if readers catch my allusions and get what I think are clever threads in the narrative. Still, this book is inspired by my family, so I really want to know if there is truth in what I wrote, if I was able to bring alive a part of our lives from so long ago. I want to know if I did something good.
For the next hour, my sister-readers and I talk about the latest draft of my young adult novel inspired my family. I ask them about the reading experience — if it flowed. I ask them what it made them think and feel. I ask them if there were any parts they really liked, and I ask them for help with the part that I am still pondering: the ending.
I listen to my sisters talk about the characters and how the book triggered memories and questions, and I listen to them chime in on the ending, which, as I suspected, did not satisfy. One sister is confused. One sister feels it is abrupt. I take notes easily for there were not metaphorical paper cuts, nothing my sisters said hurt; it was all helpful.
The day after this conference call about my book was, coincidentally, peer feedback day in our 7th-grade writing classes. Writers are working on a four-part blog series on a topic of interest, and they were working on their third post. Like me, these writers had a solid draft of their piece finished days before, and they were ready to learn how their writing impacted a few readers before publishing it to our blog for teachers, parents, and classmates (and perhaps you, too).
We do peer conferencing informally quite often (students trying out drafts or quick-writes with a neighbor), but I’ve found that arranging a formal peer feedback day can support writers who need deadlines or avoid trouble-spots. This formal experience also helps writers by requiring them to really listen, attend to a fellow writer, to be the reader. In this stance, they offer a service to their classmate while also benefiting from their fellow writers’ successes and struggles. Essentially, all writing pieces are mentor texts because every writer is an expert in their topic and voice.
The process is simple:
- Arrange the class into groups of 3.
- Hand out a guide like the green one below — a notebook or sticky notes work well, too.
- Ask every writer to reread their piece silently or in a whisper and write one part on which they’d like feedback.
- Then, the first person should tell the writing group his/her needs before reading aloud the piece.
- The writing group can take notes, but it is important that the writing group does not see the piece –just listens to the flow, follows the ideas. The feedback is not about grammar or proofreading.
- Finally, the writer asks the group for feedback and takes notes him/herself: 1) What did you learn, feel, and/or think? 2) What were the strengths? 3) What was confusing or unclear? and 4) What I need help with is…
Repeat the process for each group member, and then make time for revisions.
All of this presumes the writer is publishing his/her work, sharing it beyond the notebook (virtual or digital). When we write to inform, teach, entertain, and communicate, a reader-audience is implied. We have readers in mind, so it makes sense to try it out on one or two just in case it does not inform, teach, entertain, and communicate as we intended. Of course, writers may not want to hear from said implied reader, may simply want to put that work into the world without interference. I get that. I wanted to put my book out into the world as soon as I “finished” it six months ago, but I was too close to see the gaps. I needed some readers to help me see it anew. Some feedback I applied, and some actually validated my intentions, so I accepted it but did not revise anything. Essentially, feedback is a reader holding up a mirror for you, the writer. The feedback comes with a reader’s prior experiences, familiarity with the topic, and reading stance. It is up to the writer what she does with the reflection, which make be crystal clear and may be distorted.