Criticism: dishing it out, sucking it up

Recently I’ve been working with a group of young writers, offering feedback on their works-in-progress. It’s got me thinking about critiquing and about receiving criticism. In my writing life I’ve experienced two broad categories of criticism, and lots of variations between: the first kind delivers renewed faith in my ability and energises me to tackle my writing problems; the second leaves me paralysed with despair, questioning whether I ought not just give it all away.

Can you relate to either of these experiences?

In this post I’m looking at tips to consider when giving and receiving criticism. A caveat: I am not a professional editor. I am a novelist and a teacher of creative writing with time spent on each end of the reviewing seesaw. If you’re up for it, join me on this crucial part of the writing journey. I would love your input.

Why have your work reviewed?

I have yet to find anything in the revision process that equals the value of frank, supportive feedback from a trusted reader. Novelist Robert Stone likens the revision process to trying to cut your own hair. You may sense that your story needs improving, but without a clear picture it’s hard to get it right. Stone says that an external reader may not be able to tell you how to style the material, but they can hold up a mirror to help you see beyond your normal range of vision.

Writer’s tip: during the manuscript process, carefully consider who you hope to review your work. Your family and friends may love every word you write, but unless they can pinpoint and articulate your story’s strengths and weaknesses, they are probably not the best means of advancing your story. An independent reviewer, a writing colleague, an astute reader, a teacher or mentor, one whose opinion you respect (perhaps even tremble at a little), may be better equipped to offer practical, productive guidance. This doesn’t mean you are compelled to agree with or act upon every point of call. You are the referee of your own story, free to consider each problem and solution.

First flush

The term first flush refers to the first plucking of a tea plant during harvest season, said to yield the purest tea the plant is capable of producing. A reviewer’s ‘first flush’ reading of your work, free of the echo of earlier drafts, is likely to offer the premium yield. That crucial ‘first read’ invites keen observations and astute queries. Unless you have an unlimited bank of trusted readers vying to see your work-in-progress, be strategic about who you will ask to read your work, and at which stage of the drafting process. If you have the luxury of more than one reviewer, look to each of them as yielding a ‘first flush’ reading. Invest wisely.

Writer’s tip: requesting someone to review your writing, especially a novel-length work, is a big ask, best approached with consideration. Such a review amounts to an extraordinary act of generosity and a monumental undertaking on the reviewer’s part. If the reviewer declines your request, be gracious. If they agree, be sure to acknowledge them for their time and input. Needless to say it would be poor form to expect someone to review your work if you were unwilling to contribute in kind.

Respect your reviewer

The degree of effort and attention a writer puts into their draft is sure to have a boomerang effect. When I read a work that demonstrates care and polish, I know I have been entrusted with something deeply important to the writer. But when a work is riddled with typos and poor grammar, where parenthetical notes indicate incomplete business, the review process feels disruptive, at worst dispiriting. You need your reviewer to be on your side, to see your commitment and to want you to succeed. Author Joyce Carol Oates likens the readers’ role to that of ideal editors: a friend of the text and a friend of the writer. Compare the interaction to any important endeavour: it wouldn’t be in your best interest to rock up to an interview without considering your appearance or preparing as best you can. Recently a writer emailed me their work for review. In the week that followed I received multiple updates with instructions to ignore the previous versions. A reviewer is donating their time and expertise. Enough said.

Encouragement, false praise and brutal blows

Do you remember your earliest days of creativity, when the act of forming letters on a lined page, or making up stories, or drawing or painting or colouring-in was unadulterated fun? Do you remember your earliest artistic creations and the joy you felt at a teacher or parent’s words of praise?

What went wrong?

Well, nothing went wrong, other than adulthood. The downside of developing and honing a skill is a rise in self-awareness and with it the inevitable onset of an inner critic. I respond positively to encouragement. We all do. I suspect so much of the child resides in us all. As I write, and when I review my writing, my inner critic is all too ready to give me a serve of self-doubt. I have to listen to that harsh little voice, I can’t ignore it, but left unchecked, our inner critic holds the power to unravel the positives: creativity, confidence, drive, motivation.

An external voice, one that is measured and perceptive, will look to both the strengths and shortfalls in your work. It will offer praise, encouragement, guidance. That said, is there a place for false praise? And how does the need for encouragement position words of actual criticism?

False praise is about as counterproductive as brutality. As a reviewer you are ultimately doing the writer a disservice not to be up front about areas of the writing that need work. At the same time, a sole focus on the negative does not offer a measured review. I haven’t yet read a piece of writing in which there wasn’t something to admire. Acknowledge those high points. I am mindful when asked to review a work of how far along the writer is in their journey. For some, this will be their first experience beyond school at receiving a review unquantified by a grade. As reviewers, the language we use is paramount. Match the tone and advice to the individual. Be clear. Be kind. Put yourself in the writer’s head and imagine receiving your review.

As for brutality, I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. The objective of a review is never to crush the writer’s confidence, but to enable the writer to see both the strengths of their work and where it may fall short—to offer strategies that advance the work to become the best that it can be. Writing is a courageous undertaking, a commitment of hours and effort, a never-ending school of learning. I’ve always loved this philosophy from my creative writing professor Dan Mueller at the University of New Mexico, back when I was a writing student. Dan’s words introduce a creative writing workshop, but can as easily apply to any writing or review situation:

I believe that every piece of fiction has contained within it the blueprint, or seed, of what it ultimately wants to be. For the author, fully realising a piece of fiction requires carefully listening to what the narrative is telling you during the act of composition, from the first sentence to the last, and at every stage of revision. In this way, pieces of fiction are born.  —Dan Mueller

How will a review best serve writer and reviewer?

Picture this: the writer has completed her third, sixth, thirteenth, nineteenth draft. Whichever number it is, she tells you she feels close to completion and asks for your feedback. Before undertaking a late-stage reading, it behoves reviewer and writer to clarify their intentions. Is the writer being clear (and honest) about what they want from a review? If it came to the crunch, would the writer be willing to discard and rewrite, or have they travelled way beyond that point? You may be asked to review a manuscript limited to word and line-level comments. Does the writer fully appreciate the time and expertise involved in any form of review? I was asked once to review a multi-page grant application. ‘It just needs a light edit,’ I was told. More of a light kidney transplant. Perhaps you’re being called upon because your particular expertise in life fits the subject matter of the work, independent of writing craft. Are you willing to tailor your reading to the request? If not, think carefully about taking it on.

Writer’s tip: isn’t there a part of us all just craving to be told that the work we have produced is genius? Before surrendering your manuscript for review, interrogate your motives. Consider who you are asking to review your work and what you are asking of them. If you are unwilling to receive criticism or act upon it, set your manuscript aside or submit it for publication.

Your thoughts

Was there a mentor who helped you overcome adversity or gave you faith in yourself? Was there an experience that altered your approach to writing or reading? Do you have advice to share? Drop me a line in the Comments box below or email me via this link. I would really, really love to hear your experiences.

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11 thoughts on “Criticism: dishing it out, sucking it up

  1. my own experience with writing groups and classes has been quite awful – thinly veiled hostility, competitiveness and contempt coated with a veneer of artificial collegiality; cliquishness that clearly influenced peoples’ judgments., lots of preconceived notions about what makes “good writing” in place of natural responses. Etc.

    On the other hand, I’ve had lots of good experiences sharing works with friends who respect me enough to be direct and candid.

    I will also say this: get multiple opinions. Take them neither as gospel nor as something to be dismissed, but rather – try to see it from the reader’s p.o.v.. When one person has a particular concern. If, after trying to see the issue, you still feel you’re there’s nothing wrong, stick to your guns. on the other hand, when three different people tell you the same thing, it’s a pretty safe bet that something is not connecting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mr Rotting Post. Your experience of writing groups/classes would be enough to send me running. There is much to be said for approaching a fellow writer with respect — a relationship that allows space for candid feedback. I also give a nod to your advice on (limited) multiple opinions👌 Your comment will be accessible to anyone who clicks the Comments tab. Would it be okay if I also used it, along with other comments, as part of a follow-up post?

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  2. I’ve experienced both the “kill me now, I’m hopeless” despondency with a review of my work that sought to ‘improve’ it and “okay, this is alright, I can live” moment, when 2 different reviewers gave me feedback on the same piece at 2 different ends of the continuum. I know which I prefer 🙂 When I’m reading a piece of writing (as a reviewer) I approach it with care and reverence. It still makes me ill if I have to point out obvious flaws, but I try to do that gently. Especially when I know that it has been given to me for an okay, but I feel that it has a long way to go yet. I have learned to guard my own writing though, and as you say, only after I’ve been diligent with it would I ask someone else to read it. Thank you, Robyn, for confirming something I’ve felt intuitively; you articulate this so well. As my wise friend Liana says, feedback ought to feed your writing, not kill it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Rashida: you put it perfectly! It’s a responsibility, isn’t it, being entrusted with someone’s creative work. Your wise friend Liana (LC, I wonder?) sounds like a smart cookie. I love that saying.

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  3. I was instilled with the mantra “If you have nothing nice to say – say nothing” when growing up and have found it a most useful “rule” in the recent past, having just completed two units requiring “weekly” critiques on other’s online work. I wholeheartedly agree with you Robyn that false praise is counterproductive and it saddened me greatly when fellow students felt that was how they should respond. It is not an “amazing piece of work” when there is no punctuation, full of typos and is grammatically flawed.
    Pablo Picasso summed it up when he is quoted as saying “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”.
    Thank you for a constructive piece on critiquing … I’d like to share it with others if I may?

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    • Greetings, Deb
      I am conscious of the schism between critiquing a fellow writer face to face, versus when the interaction is anonymous, or held at a distance (I’m reminded of unrestrained reviews to be found on public forums such as Goodreads). It can be hard to deliver honest criticism in a way that doesn’t crush — hopefully a skill that we grow better at with practice. I love your quote by Pablo Picasso. That really does say it all. Thanks for your comment and I’d be delighted for you to share the post far and wide!

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  4. Great post, Robyn, and as for giving criticism to young and emerging writers, as I do from time-to-time, I ask myself, what is my objective here? And typically its that I want the writer to finish working on their novel or short story, and to enjoy the journey as much as is possible. So I give praise where its due and point out a few suggestions on how they might want to improve their manuscript. Always “suggestions” never ” they have to change things.” I ‘m big on a writer always feeling like they’re in charge of their own work. Now when receiving criticism, I’m looking for assurance and guidance. I’ve no patience for so-called “brutal honesty,” it’s crazy, and anyone who asks for such a thing needs to be taken out and shot, in my humble opinion. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That balance of praise and suggestion is everything a writer of any age could wish for. ‘Complete a work and have fun along the way.’ I’m going to pin that to my writer’s heart.
      Thank you, Marlish. Your comment will be visible to those who click on the Comments tab; would you be open to me including it in a potential collation, as a follow-up post?

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