On giving feedback

By Dr Anthony Wilson, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter

I found myself in the position of giving feedback to some writers recently. The writers were teachers who had signed up for two Master’s modules about writing. These comprised a critical look at how we teach writing, for which they needed to put together a research project evaluating their own practice via an analysis of pupils’ work; and a creative writing module consisting of a portfolio of creative pieces accompanied by a critical commentary. Guess which one I found harder to mark?

I was surprised. I have been giving feedback to other people’s writing my whole life. I do it every day, in one form or another. Every time I retweet a poem, or text a friend with an image of the page I have just read, I am giving feedback. Every passage I copy in my notebook, every list that I make, virtually or otherwise, is, in some form or other, an attempt at producing an enormous yes, to use Larkin’s phrase. I much prefer this way of working, looking for the good in what I see around me, as opposed to hunting for weaknesses. I used to write reviews of new collections of poetry. Snip, snip, snip, I went, look at this bit here, it doesn’t work, aren’t I clever for saying so? I had to give it up because I could see what it was starting to do to me. After that I belonged to a writers’ group. We met in my kitchen over coffee and Danish pastries. As in school across a desk from younger writers, I found that giving feedback face-to-face was much harder. Receiving it was the easy part. To paraphrase Ian MacMillan, I often found myself straightening a poem’s tie when in fact it needed a whole new wardrobe.

But I have learned, slowly, to do it. Mostly, as with reading, from watching expert others. I think of my poetry heroes Ann Sansom, Jean Sprackland and Michael Laskey. Not only do they sit on my shoulder as I write, but also as I edge my way into praising what I like about a person’s poem, often without knowing the first thing about them. ‘What you’re doing here, it seems to me…’ they will say, surprising the writer with what they didn’t know they knew until they started speaking. At the Teachers as Writers Arvon residential a year ago I marvelled to watch Alicia Stubbersfield and Steve Voake pull off this tightrope walk daily, the miracle of their intuition and knowledge hidden, as it were, in plain view. I hope the teachers who benefited from their wisdom are still putting this skill into practice as much as they do their ideas for generating writing. However experienced the writer concerned, and whatever their level of confidence, it is no less important.

Dr Anthony Wilson
Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education
University of Exeter

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