Sunday 28 October 2018

Peer feedback in writing workshops - Clémentine Beauvais

This is less of a ‘this writing life’ blog post than usual, and more of a vox pop, to gather ideas from authors who regularly do creative writing workshops. How do you deal with the feedback part of the workshop, and in particular, what are your strategies for making sure the texts shared with the group elicit ‘good’ feedback from peers ?

In my own workshops, I would say peer feedback time is often, to begin with, the most squeezed. There’s just never enough time for it – we’ve talked too much before, or the writing bit has run overtime, and maybe that’s just me being a poor timekeeper but I can never sacrifice a good present conversation for the sake of a future perhaps-mediocre peer-feedback session. So, that’s a first issue.

The second issue is that there are so many possibilities for it that I sometimes end up overthinking it, in a labyrinthine sort of way. Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer, ever : it’s about deciding which strategy, this time, for this workshop, for this particular purpose, will be the right one. Evidently, you won’t organise peer-reading in the same way for an eight-month novel writing course for adults and for a one-off haiku writing workshop for 8-year-olds. Not to mention that different workshop atmospheres might lead you, on a particular day at a particular time, to decide suddenly to do thing differently. And that’s particularly what I find difficult, and fascinating : the act of making a final decision, of saying : ‘that hugely important, exposing moment, will be done in that way, structured as such, for reasons X and Y.’

Here’s a map, really schematic, of some of those possibilities for the different steps of peer-reading and feedback.


When it comes to sharing the work itself, there’s already two possibilities : do they have to, or is it optional ?

If it’s compulsory, there’s an added responsibility for the teacher – and everyone – to make it feel safe and comfortable. But if it’s optional, it’s only superficially more free, because of course some people might never dare – and yet secretly desire – to get peer feedback on their text.

In either case, you can also ask them to share it with the group in class, or later (say, online).

And make it anonymous, or let them see everyone’s names ?

Whether the latter or the former : do they get to share it with the whole group, or with just a part of it ?

If the former, of course, it’s a lot of work for everyone – but theoretically, everyone benefits from seeing everyone’s work – but in practice, they might take less care in reading and commenting on each individual piece.

If they share it with a fraction of the group, how many ? one person ? two people ?

If the former : the person directly next to them – who they’re likely to have picked as a friendly neighbour – or mix up the papers, at the risk of causing awkwardness ?

If the latter : as a chain (A gives their text to B who gives theirs to C who gives theirs to A), or as a triangle (A gives their text to B and C, B to C and A, etc.) ? 

In any case : do they read it out loud ? Or just let the reader read silently ? If they read out loud : their own piece, or another person’s ?

And that’s just the sharing part. Then we get to the reading part.


Ideally, peer-reading should be guided and focused : the workshop itself should have introduced a theme, motif, literary device, something to hold onto, that the writing prompt itself should have contributed to intensifying in a particular writing exercise : so the reading, similarly, should close that feedback loop by focusing, ideally, on how well that particular something was done in the text.

Ideally. Because of course, whatever you do, peer-reading is going to be about a lot more than that something. You might be tut-tuttting all you want in the corner, but if this particular workshop was about characterisation and everyone you can hear is telling their neighbour how much they liked the style or the plot structure, it’s not necessarily your fault. Texts are of course always in excess of the prompt you’ve so carefully chosen.

So you can structure the reading by asking the participants, for instance, to annotate the texts or highlight them only for what they do with the particular prompt. E.g. : if the prompt was about metaphor, only read for metaphor. Not the most natural structured reading, but after all it is close to some methods of literary criticism they might already be familiar with.

You can also ask the participants, while they’re reading, to divide up their attention, and therefore their feedback, between the prompt-specific device and the rest.

Or you can ask the group itself, either individually or collectively, to decide – and tell their peers about – what they would most value as feedback ; in other words, what they would like their peer to focus on when listening to, or reading, their work.


When it comes to feedback, again, it’s a maze of possibilities. Ask them to structure the feedback, using, for instance, feedback sheets ? there’s many examples online and most workshop leaders create their own, to fit each workshop, each group, tailoring it to the ages, notably, of the participants.

Or let them give unstructured feedback, and risk an avalanche of ‘yeah, wow, I liked it’, full stop, at the end ?

Ideally, you’ve talked with the group about the feedback process. In contexts where workshops are conducted over several weeks, you can afford to spend half of a session brainstorming all together what constitutes good feedback in writing workshops. Often, it lasts a long time, because it’s a real philosophical discussion : it’s not enough to say ‘constructive’ or ‘encouraging’ or ‘honest’ : you have to dig deeper. What does it mean for feedback to be those things ? In one-off writing workshops, it’s much more complicated to find the space for that group discussion.

The famous ‘I liked this particular thing, because…’ and ‘I felt this could be improved, because…’ is a lovely thought always, and everyone greets the suggestion with energetic nodding, but in practice I haven’t often observed the phrases tumbling freely out of people’s mouths when it comes to actually giving feedback...

Should the feedback be written up, or given orally ? If the latter, who, if anyone, takes notes ?

And then after…

Will anyone get an opportunity to revise their work, and resubmit it ? If so, to whom ? The same person, or another ? And how is that second session going to be run ? Oh, no ! we’re back at the start of the maze…

This is just a very brief overview of some of the possibilities. Obviously, it’s somewhat pointless to overthink them in the abstract – they should always be tied to purpose, situation, audience. There’s also space for much more creative ways of doing things – I haven’t even covered those here.

I’m very interested in opinions from authors, teachers, practitioners who overthink those things as we are prone to doing. So please share your tips, observations and existential questionings in the comments !

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels are Piglettes(Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).

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