I think the short answer is that it depends on the length of the piece and on what the feedback is. It’s certainly important to provide some kind of context. A novel is long, some 90,000 words. Flash fiction has a beginning, a middle and an end in some 500 words or so. If you have a piece of writing that relies upon previous scenes for context, or sets the scene for a denouement, then you probably will be wasting your time in reading it out. Or worse, it will be commented upon by helpful listeners and the points raised may be like speed bumps or diversions on your writing journey.
Take this example:
The other night, in a restaurant I overheard the following,
‘He’s a right slime ball.’
There’s no denying that it’s been taken out of context. After all we don’t know:
- Who he is
- What he’s done
- His side of events.
- Who is imparting this judgement – their shared history and back story.
By the way, do you know what a real slime ball is? It is snail vomit. Now, no-one wants to be that . . .be they writer, reader or listener.
When reading out a chunk of writing to others in your group, do yourself a favour and choose something that you think is reasonably self-contained, something that others can follow and hopefully be hooked by.
When it is your turn to listen and you don’t think the dots are quite joined up, consider the effect your words could have. If you have the time, ask to read a little more in private to garner context.
When you have a piece of work in front of you, yours or someone else’s, perhaps consider the following:
- What happens in the story?
Summarise the plot (the gist of the happenings). Think about what this précis leaves out.
- Is the story told in chronological order, or are there flashbacks or flashforwards?
On re-reading, what foreshadowing (hints of what is to come) do you detect?
- What conflicts does the work include?
Obstacles and ways to overcome them are the lifeblood to many a great piece of writing.
- How does the writer develop characters?
Is character revealed by explicit comment or through action? With which character(s) do you sympathise? Are the characters plausible? What motivates them? What do minor characters contribute to the work?
- Who tells the story?
Is the narrator a character, or does the narrator stand entirely outside the characters’ world? What does the narrator’s point of view contribute to the story’s theme?
- What is the setting?
What do the time and place of the action contribute to the work?
- Are certain characters, settings, or actions symbolic?
Do they stand for something in addition to themselves?
- What is the theme?
That is, what does the work add up to? Does the theme reinforce your values, or does it challenge them?
- Is the title informative?
Did its meaning change for you after you read the work?
Above all, remember feedback is like fuel to a car. Put in the wrong type and the writer won’t get far before spluttering to a stop. Or worse still, they will have to clean out the tank and start again.