Feedback on the Page: How to Give Feedback in a Writing Group

Our thanks to Vicki Hudson for the following handout from her session at the San Francisco Writers Conference about how to give feedback in a writing workshop:

In a writing workshop or critique group, the reader has an important partnership with the writer. The writer hands over pages that represent his or her heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams to the reader. The reader’s part is to provide feedback and constructive criticism that will support the writer in improving the final product of his/her hard work.

What if you don’t like the work? What if you hate the story? What if you can’t find anything redeeming in the main character that you can relate to in your own life? None of that matters. Because it is not about you or about the writer, it is about the words on the page, the movement of the story, the flow of events, the development of the characters, and more.

Tools for Feedback

Tools for providing written feedback:

First read the story without critical thought. Just read it through like any story or article you might pick up. Then sit with it for a few moments. Turn it over in your thoughts.

  • What remains when you put the pages down?
  • What are you still curious about at the end?
  • What question pops up for you or what unexpected turn of events makes you chuckle?
  • What are you still curious about?
  • Nothing? Well, that is also important.

After you’ve read and then sat with the piece for a few moments, get ready to read it again. This time, you’ll make comments. Just don’t use that red pen. Red is a loaded color for many writers. Returning the poor writer to freshman English is not a positive experience. Write comments in the margins (writers: make sure to have one inch margins all around) and use the space between lines for recommended language (writers: double space your lines).

What to write about? That’s a long list that includes plot, dialogue, scene, summary, balance of scene and summary, character development, timing, cadence, pace, transitions, technique, point of view, perspective, humor, seriousness, and emotional impact…

Time and Language

If you don’t know where to begin, start with time.

  • What is the chronological pace of the piece?
  • Does that chronological pace make sense?
  • Is it confusing?
  • Does it carry the reader or create obstacles for the reader?
  • Why? (Get used to answering why. Why is a big part of what works or what doesn’t work regardless of what you write about.)

If not time, look at language. Are there phrases that really stand out? Lines that grab and pull the reader into the piece, stopping time and space for the reader or lines that bring the reader back to reality, breaking the hold of the story? Highlight, underline or circle the lines that strike you as bold, chilling, hot, fevered, delicious, enticing, inciting…(you can fill in more).

Look critically not personally. You can find stuff that you like. Zeroing in on something that didn’t work for you, that you didn’t like, or weren’t comfortable with, or didn’t sound right in your head or feel right in your heart when you read the words is vitally important. Why was that your response? And some of that stuff may actually be the gem of the piece. Dive into the dark waters of discomfort.

Editors Edit

A word about editing: Editors edit. Unless you have a pet peeve about a grammatical mistake, and the writer keeps hitting the one thing you hate – leave the copyedits to someone else, down the food chain of the writer’s progress. When she/he has the story at the place where mechanical aspects are crucial – it won’t be a piece brought to workshop for copyediting by committee.

Remember what your mother said, watch your language.

A writer has given you the honor of helping him/her hone the craft. Take that seriously. Be nice. Be truthful. Be honest. Give feedback in a manner that you would hope feedback will come to you. Use real words, not labels, or code because those terms (politically correct/incorrect, clichés, trite, culturally descriptive words that end in ist or ism) mean different things to different people, so define the response you experienced that you want to shorthand by using those terms.

You’ll have comments along the margins, but the meat of your feedback is at the end of the piece or on a separate page.

A four part formula to keep in mind

1. Start with positive comments.

What works well, quote back language, strong character development, solid pacing or cadence – anything you can say that is positive. If you can’t find something positive, look again at language, chronology, or answering what emotions the piece creates for you.

2. Ask questions.

What created a question in your mind? “I felt this at this part. Is that what you wanted to create?” for example.

3. Give constructive feedback about what didn’t work.

What are the areas for improvement in which you encountered an obstacle?

4. Sum up again something that was really positive, that you really liked and a general good point for the writer to remember.

Then sign your name, because when you do, you are saying you stand by what you are saying. You are giving the writer your truth of experiencing his/her story. Take pride in your feedback making a difference.

The simple truth of being part of a writers group or workshop is some people have useful, helpful information to give in feedback, others won’t. Some will just want to hear themselves talk or show off their “wisdom and experience.” You learn over time which members will have something to offer that is worthwhile and who will not. Which comments are worth reading and which to disregard. Be the reader people want to hear from.

(This handout is available online at

(A free download of the book No Red Pen, Writers, Writers Groups, and Critique is available at using the coupon: KL78N which is valid until March 15, 2012.)


Vicki Hudson P.O. Box 387 Hayward, CA 94543 510-200-8749 ©2010 [email protected]

T/@vickigeist, @Vicki_Hudson


The goal of the blog is to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 10th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 14-17, 2013/ / [email protected] / /@SFWC/

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/[email protected]/@SFWritersU

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109



7 Questions for Preparing a Proposal

Many thanks to Jeevan Sivsubramaniam, Managing Director Editorial at Berrett-Koehler Publishers and a speaker at the San Francisco Writers Conference for this first-rate handout:

Many people have great ideas for books to help change the world politically or socially, or to help individuals grow in spirit and purpose. Keep these seven questions in mind when writing your proposal:

1. Is your book really needed?

Authors often write books that they feel people need to read, but that does not mean people will read them. More and more people are getting cancer, recovering from mental illness, overcoming addictions, or getting sick of the economy every year, but there are already 1,001 books on these subjects. Why is yours different? What makes your book especially compelling? If you have teenage children or nieces and nephews, pitch your book to them and gauge their interest –you’ll receive the same response from the marketplace.

2. Is your book tightly focused?

Too many people want to write a world-as-I-see-it-and-how-it-should-be type of book in  which  they comment on all aspects of a particular subject. These sprawling works hold little appeal for most book buyers. Readers don’t want a grand vision or blueprint for a new government or economy or behavioral model, unless you are an influential world leader who has the clout to make these changes happen. Exhaustive books are just that–exhausting. If you can’t sum up your book’s core premise in two sentences, it’s too scattered.

3. Who is the audience for your book?

Don’t look for overly general markets and say that your book is “for everyone concerned about “the environment,” ” democracy,” or “spirituality.” In nonfiction, there is no such thing as a general reader. Be specific and carve out a niche for which a sizable yet specific audience exists. No one walks into a bookstore and asks for a book about “something that could be for everyone.”

4. Are your qualifications, background, and knowledge directly related to your subject?

There are doctors who write about politics, politicians who write about economics, and economists who write about spirituality. The problem is that these people lack the qualifications and professional consulting and speaking experience in the subject they are writing about. Are professional qualifications the only measure of authority on a subject? No, but if you needed surgery, would you go with someone who has conducted a lot of independent research and learned a lot about medicine or a board-certified surgeon? You can disregard everything above if you are a celebrity, which explains why Tori Spelling can write a New York Times bestseller about parenting.

5. What are the competing titles?

This question is related to question number 1. Who else has written on this subject and what other books are already out there? How does your book differ–again, in a compelling way–from those? Be realistic and don’t list books by Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Thomas Friedman, and Malcolm Gladwell as competing titles, unless you are as famous as they are. Then again, if you’re famous, you can write about anything you want.

6. What will the length be and how will the book look?

Be aware of parameters that affect your book. Books are getting shorter, so you will run up against more reservations once you pass the 200-page mark. (Book pages are different from 250-word manuscript pages.) Color photographs and other graphic elements increase the costs for most publishers, so they will have to price the book higher to recoup costs. Inserts such as CDs or other materials also drive up costs. Be mindful of factors like these.

7. How will you actively market and support the book?

Books don’t launch movements; movements launch books. A book doesn’t launch an author’s career and build visibility; an author’s career and visibility are what launch a book, so don’t expect a book to kick-start your career. Don’t tell a publisher you are available to write articles, speak at events, and engage in other promotional efforts. You should already be writing, speaking, and consulting. Have an audience ready to buy your book before you start it so you have a base you can market and sell it to.

A Final Suggestion

Be careful when making assumptions about publishers and how publishing works. Publishing is an industry unlike any other, and the rules that govern other businesses don’t apply. Learn the lesson that Borders learned. The company’s last five CEOs did not have a publishing background and tried to run the company like their previous businesses. What could have worked wonders in other arenas drove a great store to bankruptcy.


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The goal of the blog is to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 10th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 14-17, 2013/ / [email protected] / /@SFWC/

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/[email protected]/@SFWritersU

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109



Putting Your Passion on the Page: 7 Perfect Places to Write

Many thanks to Penny Warner, a speaker at San Francisco Writers Conference and the author of How to Party with a Killer Vampire, for allowing me to share her helpful, enjoyable post:

Cooped up in our RV last weekend, isolated in a giant redwood forest without Internet access, and unable to set foot outside for fear I might freeze to death, I was forced to watch some football games. Four of them. Practically in a row. Talk about a weekend in hell. 

I actually felt sorry for my husband, who only had me to talk to about the games. I tried to look interested, even asked questions like “Why’s that guy crying?” and “Who would name their kid “He Hate Me” or “Ochocinco.” But I’m not very good at faking it. At least, not when it comes to sports.

During the games I entertained myself by focusing on the important details, like “Who picked the colors Red and Gold?” and “John Harbaugh? I thought it was Jim Harbaugh.” That’s the only thing that kept me from going crazy with boredom. Truthfully, I’d rather watch “Ice-Road-Trucking New Jersey Housewife Hoarders” than football.

My husband, on the other hand, seems to experience a wide range of emotions while watching the games. For example, that game the other day between those Red and Gold guys versus those Black and Gold guys? I was afraid I was going to have to sedate him but I couldn’t get him out of his “lucky chair.” First he was shouting. Then he was crying. Then he was biting his nails. Then he was screaming. Then he was outside jumping up and down with some RV neighbors he didn’t even know.

I felt so sorry for him that I offered to host an upcoming Super Bowl Party. I told him I’d make some cute little invitations written on mini footballs and stuff them into large puffy envelopes filled with crushed peanut shells. I would ask our guests to come dressed as cheerleaders, referees, or food vendors.

To create the right atmosphere, I’d set out sports equipment, like hockey masks, baseball mitts, and tennis racquets. Then I’d mark the party room floor with field yard lines using tape. As for a centerpiece, I’d set out Ace bandages, Ben-Gay, and crushed beer cans. And each guest would get one of those big foam “We’re Number One” fingers so they could have pretend swordfights during commercials.

When the game inevitably becomes slow and boring, I’d keep the party alive by having the guests place bets on everything from “Who will win the coin toss?” to “Which player will spit next?”  Then we’d play a sports trivia game, with questions like “What’s the name of the team we’re rooting for?” and “Who’s the cutest guy in tight pants?” At halftime, we could go outside for a brisk game of balloon badminton or planking.

Finally, I’d serve typical ballpark food, such as Pigs in a Blanket, mini-quiches, Jell-O shots, and Vodka lattes. Then, depending on whether his team wins or loses, I’d send the guests home with either a Team Logo celebration banner or an embroidered crying towel.

“I think I’ll just get some beer, make some chili, and call a few friends,” he said when I finished telling him my party plans.

That’s fine. If he needs me, he knows where to find me. At the mall.

The Perfect Place to Write Your Book

I began my writing career typing on a Commodore 64 in a corner of my bedroom. After my son left for college, I moved into his room (boy was he surprised when he came back for winter break…), and enjoyed the quiet and seclusion there.

But a few years ago when I was under deadline—and had already planned a trip to Disneyland with the family—I found myself writing at a café table on Main Street. While my kids headed for their favorite rides, I ignored the crowds, the noise, and the commotion, and amazingly, was able to focus on my story.

From that I learned this: I can write anywhere. I don’t need a garret or a coffee shop, a quiet bedroom or a table at Disneyland, to write. In fact, no matter where I go, each location offers something no doubt finds its way into my book. Except Hawaii. By the time I’ve had my third pina colada, I can’t even remember the alphabet.

Here are some suggestions for places to write that you may not have thought of:

1.    Hospital cafeteria. Think about all the drama that’s going on at a hospital and you’re right in the middle of it! And if you need medical advice, just grab a nearby nurse or doctor on lunch break and grill them!

2.    Airport waiting room. Absorb some of that glamorous jet-setting crowd and write your book as you watch passengers come and go. You may even spot a movie star you can weave into your plot.

3.    Hotel lobby. Find a comfy chair at a hotel like the Claremont or Mark Hopkins, pull out your laptop, and write your book in the lush surroundings of upscale accommodations. Need a latte while you work? Drop by the hotel coffee shop and pick up a pick-me-up to keep you going.

4.    University library. I used to hang out at my university library to meet smart guys, but now it’s the perfect place to pen your novel—and have access to all those resources you might need along the way. Plus, you’re in good company, with the works of your favorite authors.

5.    Secret Passageway. Find an old mansion, do a little wall-tapping, and find yourself a secret passageway. Then hide yourself away and don’t come out until that book is done (or the residents come home.) Talk about atmosphere!

6.    DMV or Post office lines. Instead of wasting your time waiting for the next available clerk, write your next chapter on your portable, lightweight iPad. Tap into that seething emotion from other line-waiters and your story will be filled with passion.

7.    Jail. If you can’t get yourself arrested, you can at least find a spot in the waiting room to write that dramatic action scene. Plus, you’ll find lots of character archetypes and may even overhear some good plot twists.

The eighth perfect place to write is wherever you can produce your best work.

So what’s your favorite place to write?

The goal of the blog is to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community/February 16-20, 2012/ / [email protected] / /@SFWC/

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/[email protected]/@SFWritersU

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109




Bedrock for Writers: What You Can’t Help Believe

What and how you write, how long it is, and the medium you choose to use express your ideas in reveal your relationship to your beliefs. Every time you sit down to write is an opportunity for you to use your beliefs to inspire your best work. As part of the human family, we share many truths. How we express them depends on nature and nurture, the family and culture we grow up in, our vision, our personalities, our creative gifts, and how we see our mission.

The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes believed that truth is what we can’t help believe. People made tools 1.7 million years ago, painted caves and invented the flute 35,000 years ago, and built religious sites 9,000 years ago. Like us, they were born to be free and to create tools to communicate their truths in words, music and art.

Truths I Can’t Help Believe

Seven decades have brought me these irreducible truths:

  • Pain may be an early warning sign. It helps us learn and grow, but most of the time, it only hurts.
  • Injustice and unjustified suffering are obscene.
  • Human needs, fears, desires, and aspirations unite the human family more than money, power, culture, history, resources, religion, and politics divide them.
  • To be born gives one the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, a healthy environment, freedom, an education that prepares one for the work that’s available, jobs that sustain those who do them, and the chance to develop all of one’s potential. These needs aren’t gifts; they are as essential to the health of a community as they are to the individual. Providing them is a test of government; if it fails, the people must replace it.
  • Systems can’t work. Why?

–They were created imperfectly with compromises, lack of foresight, and by the same committee that was asked to create a horse but produced a camel.

–They can’t encompass or respond well to all of the possibilities they encounter.

–The world is changing faster than they can change the system to cope with it.

–They are run by bureaucrats who try to justify their existence, shift responsibility, and resist change.

–There are people who try to undermine them and take advantage of them.

Increasingly ineffective systems become part of the problems they were created to solve. They magnify our burden, because we have to fix both the problem and the systems, which resist change. What would the founding fathers think about how their inability to end slavery led to the Civil War? How would they respond to the challenges we face?

  • Decisions generate trade-offs, so the challenge is to make the decision with the best set of tradeoffs.
  • Morality is a luxury of peace and prosperity. If people’s identity, beliefs, or well-being is threatened, they will fight to preserve them.
  • Nobody has a monopoly on truth, wisdom, or virtue.
  • Being a multicultural country will be an essential source of strength for our future.
  • Whether in art or politics, it’s easy to mistake technique for content.

The Effect of Technology

The rate at which the technology business is relentlessly transforming civilization is accelerating yet

  • No one understands it
  • No one is in charge of it
  • No one knows where it’s going
  • No one can control it.

But we still have to keep coming to terms with technology at home and at work. Author Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2045, computing power will be greater than the collective human intellect. What could go wrong with that?

Technology helped bring about the miraculous changes in the Arab Spring that led to the Occupy Movement. But how do we balance technology’s potential for helping to create change with its potential for political and economic control?

The Laws of Power

  • Power corrupts. What individuals and institutions need is enough power to be effective but not enough to be corrupted.
  • Nobody who wants power should be allowed to have it without controls, including time limits.
  • The first job of those with economic and political power is to maintain the status quo so they can keep it. It takes a quarter of a mile for an oil tanker to make a right turn. The larger and older businesses and institutions are, and the larger–and newer the challenges they face–the harder it is for them to respond effectively, even if they want to.
  • The Golden Rule of Politics: He who has the money makes the rules. Contributions force politicians to favor those who provide them, which is why we have the best government money can buy.
  • People and institutions don’t yield power willingly.
  • If a society must choose between order and freedom, it will choose order.

The Greatest Opportunity Writers Have Ever Had

When Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, immolated himself in a Tunisian marketplace, he set the world ablaze with the unstoppable urge to do whatever it takes to be free, because being human creates the need for freedom. Part of that freedom is the need to learn and share the truth.

Thanks to freedom and technology–writers of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction–have the greatest opportunity writers have ever had to express their truths. In the void left by government, business, and religion, they can use their wisdom, guidance, and inspiration to push humanity in the right direction by helping people to understand what’s in their best interests, and to act on it. Not to do so, in what may become one of the most important years of the century, is to leave the world at the mercy of those whose words and actions benefit themselves, not the human family or the planet.

IBOR: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Two suggestions that will help from Kirk Boyd, a client I met at the conference and author of the regional bestseller, 2048: Humanity’s Written Agreement to Live Together (Berrett-Koehler):

  • Fostering a global consciousness based on what all of us have in common
  • Having an online forum so anyone connected to the Web can express and discuss their ideas with links to different subjects and countries.
  • Having an enforceable International Bill of Rights (IBOR) that’s posted on that you can sign and share. Kirk and I are collaborating on a book about the IBOR.

Another suggestion: Continuing online international groups of representatives, dedicated to the public good, discussing, mediating, and adjudicating issues. Have these discussions streamed live on the Web, so the public can comment and vote on them.

Three Questions That Will Determine Your Future

What’s bedrock for you?

What beliefs sustain you?

What is the best way for you to use your beliefs to serve your readers, your community, and yourself?

Your life will be the answer to these questions. Not to ask them and answer them honestly is to deny the only person and the writer you were born to be.


I will be moderating a panel about writing for change at the San Francisco Writers Conference, and we will be organizing a Writing for Change Conference this year.

I write the blog to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Did I get this post right? Rants, comments, suggestions for changes, questions (or answers) are most appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community/February 16-20, 2012/ / [email protected] / /@SFWC/

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/[email protected]/@SFWritersU

What Editors Really Want

Want to make editors love you and be devoted to you? Here’s how to do it. All editors (and agents) really want is writers who

  • write books with enduring value  that keep getting better
  • love and live to write and serve their readers
  • write as much as they can without sacrificing quality
  • use books and authors they admire as models
  • have literary and publishing goals they are committed to achieving and a plan for doing it
  • are passionate about communicating about their work and themselves
  • have a lifetime’s worth of books they are eager to write and promote
  • have continuing visibility with their fans
  • test-market their work in as many ways as they can
  • are professional in their relationships
  • understand how publishers work and how to work with them
  • submit their work on time and as ready to be published as they can make it
  • know the stars in their field who help them with advice, feedback, quotes, and promotion
  • keep building communities of fans and publishing people
  • take advantage of technology to accelerate their progress
  • assume responsibility for the quality of their work and its success
  • have an agent who mentors them and helps solve problems

If this is too much to ask, just come as close as you can and add the rest later. 

Editors hope that they will love everything they start reading. They love finding new writers they can publish with pride and passion. That’s the best part of their job, because it justifies their existence.

If I left anything out of the list, many thanks in advance in for letting me know.


I write the blog to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community/February 16-20, 2012/ / [email protected] / /@SFWC/

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/[email protected]/@SFWritersU


The Perfect Pitch for a Nonfiction Book: 11 Ways to Excite Me About Reading Your Proposal

The role of the writer is to make bouillon cubes out of chicken soup.

–Susan Sontag

Whether you’re talking about your book to a friend or an editor, the content of your book has to be scalable: You have to be able to capture the essence of it about it in a tweet, a one-paragraph pitch, a one-page query letter, and a proposal.

Pitching your book will take less than thirty seconds. How can you generate maximum excitement for your book in as few words as possible? Without being self-serving, the perfect pitch describes the essence of your book, why it will excite book buyers, and what’s most impressive about your platform, promotion plan, and credentials.

Six of the eleven parts of a pitch are optional; you may not need them. A pitch for a narrative nonfiction book, such as a memoir, will need two or three sentence about the setting, the subject, and the story.

Platform and promotion won’t be as important for certain kinds of books such as reference books, or for small or for midsize houses outside of New York. Here are eleven possible parts of a pitch that will excite me because it will arouse the interest of  editors in the Big Apple:

1. A sentence with the title and the selling handle for the book, up to fifteen words that show why it’s unique or commercial.

2. The model(s) for your book: One or two books, movies, or authors–“It’s The Tipping Point meets The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

3. (Optional) The length of your proposal. Proposals have an overview about the book and author, an outline, and sample text, usually about ten percent of the manuscript. They usually range between 35 and 50 pages. The right time to pitch your book is when your proposal is ready to sell. But if you have the chance to pitch your book before your proposal is ready, take advantage of it.

4. (Optional) The length of your manuscript, if it’s ready to submit.

5. (Optional) The names of people who will provide a foreword and cover quotes, if they’re impressive.

6. (Optional) Mention if you’re proposing a series.

7. (Optional) Information about a self-published edition that will help sell it.

8. The most important thing about your platform: what you are doing to give yourself continuing visibility on the subject, online or off, with potential book buyers, and if the number is impressive, how many of them. Wrong: “I give talks.” Right: “I give X talks a year to Y people.”

9. The most effective thing you will do to promote your book, online or off, and if the number is impressive and appropriate, how many of them. Wrong: “I will sell books.” Right: “I will sell X books a year.” Your promotion plan must be a believable extension of your platform.

10. What is most impressive about your credentials: your track record; experience in your field; years of research; prizes; contests; awards in your field.

11. (Optional) Anything else that will convince agents or editors to ask for your proposal.

For another approach to pitches, read agent Katharine Sands’ excellent book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye. Elizabeth and I have chapters in it. Katharine will be doing a breakout session on pitching, and a two-hour intensive, open to the public, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, February 16-20, There’s more about platform, promotion, and proposals in the fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community
February 16-20, 2012 / / s[email protected] / Mike’s blog: @SFWC /
San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU