These are two handouts I often use when I teach writing. A bunch of people have asked for them over the years, so I’m putting them here for convenience: feel free to use them as you like, just give credit.
There’s a lot to say about critical feedback – including something that bears noting up front: unsolicited feedback is never appropriate, as far as I’m concerned, and just communicates that the person running around flinging their opinion is poorly socialized, narcissistic, and/or went to a really bad MFA program that taught them little but lateral competition/scarcity-model/bulldozer tactics.
If you’re not someone’s teacher, in a writing group with them in which critical feedback has already been negotiated, or if someone hasn’t explicitly asked you for your feedback, anything you “offer” is about your ego, not their work. They didn’t ask you. Zip it. Or praise the parts you like, specifically and accurately. Free-range-critic is another name for patronizing egomaniac.
Why does this need saying? Because there are a lot of patronizing egomaniacs in the world, but also, there is little to no training in how to give critical feedback (or when), and quite a lot of training-by-omission and/or by bad example in how to stomp around in someone else’s work as if making the work more like one’s own is ever relevant or useful.
News flash: it’s not.
Another news flash: there are a lot of dynamics at play in critical feedback, including ones of social power. Be mindful. If a writing group is composed of six white male language poets and one woman of color who writes science fiction, there is a potential for disaster. It might also be great, if everyone is skilled.
Point is: critical feedback by writers for writers – especially working at a high level – is a learned skill that is too often never learned.
Finding really good, close, generous readers who actually help you strengthen your work on its own terms is rare. Treasure and keep them when you find them.
Finding arrogant, ungenerous people who will hurl critical cliches (that were once inflicted upon them, no doubt) about how your poem really starts halfway down or how it’s not imagistic enough or whatever is extremely easy. Avoid these people like the contagion-vectors that they are.
Your poem may in fact start in the middle, you might benefit from stronger images – but a good critical response isn’t pompous, cliched, unsolicited, regurgitated, or aggressive, and it never starts with “Well, what I’d do is – ” Who cares? It isn’t about what the critic would do. It’s about what this writer is doing.
A good critique raises questions, identifies places that need attention, pushes the writer to commit more deeply to what they’re doing, not less, and to do it better.
If you have been asked for feedback, or are teaching, or working in a group, here are some tools I’ve found useful.
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Some Unfashionable Notions About Critical Feedback
“ ‘Uncritical support’ is a contradiction in terms. ” –Joanna Russ
Some definitions when usage relates to literary or artistic work [Webster’s & Oxford]:
Involving or exercising careful judgment* or observation; nice, exact, punctual. Judicious.
Nicely, accurately, exactly.
The art of estimating the qualities and character of a literary or artistic work. The critical science which deals with the text, character, composition and origin of literary documents. The art of judging with knowledge and propriety the beauties and faults of art or literature.
One skilled in judging the merits [value, truth, technique, beauty, etc.] of literary or artistic works.
A critical estimate of a work of art or literature. A critical discussion of the execution of a problem or exercise.
- ‘Positive feedback’ alone does not encourage improvement or growth. An artist may ask for it if what they are looking for is a short-lived self-esteem boost by an audience rather than a thoughtful discussion geared toward improvement of their craft. Lasting self-esteem comes from courage, risk, hard work, improvement, and accomplishment—not avoidance of the need for development.
- Uncritically praising poorly crafted works of art or literature patronizes and disempowers the artist by (1) assuming they are incapable of doing any better and (2) by encouraging them to remain weak in craft. This kind of uncritical praise supports stagnancy, creative blockage and failure. It’s not supportive.
- ‘Support’ has several definitions. One of them is ‘to endure without opposition or resistance, to bear with, put up with, tolerate’. However, another is ‘to strengthen the position of a person or community with one’s assistance, to preserve from failure, to contribute to the success of.’ It seems clear the latter is more valuable to the one being supported.
- Intelligent criticism is not ‘mean;’ it is, in fact, the most loving, supportive, and committed response to a creative work.
- Supportive critical feedback means engaging with a work of art or literature in a thoughtful, active and specific way that supports improvement and growth in craft.
- That said: many thoughtful and experienced writers and teachers of writing suggest we never show a piece of work that is in progress for criticism, but instead finish our first draft, do our initial polish, then share the work for outside feedback. This allows us to get everything we want on the page without confusion or people-pleasing in our writing process, before we incorporate feedback in our revision process.
- Find skilled people to give you critical feedback! The writing is yours, not theirs: you and your writing are best served by developing mutually useful critical relationships with other writers, not by wading through unhelpful (or damaging) feedback that is more about the critic than what you have on the page.
* Judgment. The mental act of judging; the operation of the mind, involving comparison and discrimination**, by which knowledge of values and relations is mentally formulated. The power of arriving at a wise decision; discretion, discernment.
** Discrimination. To distinguish accurately.
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Opinions abound about the ‘correct’ way to give and receive critical feedback. I don’t believe in an inflexible approach, whether that’s: ‘the writer must sit up straight with ankles crossed, not speak during the critique, and never respond to what is said; she must just nod and say thank you,’ or ‘the critic must ignore issues of content in favor of a stylistic dissection and pretend the writer is not in the room when they critique.’ However, I do think there are some helpful guidelines, and not all of them are necessarily intuitive. Here are some general ideas about feedback I like, largely borrowed from U.K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, though adapted and added to from my own experience:
In a group, each critique/response should be:
- Brief, and focused on the work.
- One person at a time, in turn, without cross-talk and interruption. If you have something to add, make a note of it and do it when everyone else has finished.
- Centered on an important aspect of the writing. (Write nitpicks down on the MSS, or keep them short and sweet: don’t use critique time to point out typos).
- Impersonal. (Your knowledge of – or guesses or opinions about – the author’s personal life or intentions are irrelevant. It’s the writing that’s under discussion, not the writer. Even if the piece is autobiographical, say ‘the narrator,’ not ‘you.’) All feedback should be based in what is actually on the page, not what you think the author meant.
- Make your useful comments to the author. To be useful, criticism needs to lead to the possibility of revision. Sweeping judgments, whether negative (‘I hate this character and I don’t care about his story’) or positive (‘oh, it’s just so…good…you’re really a good writer’) are really not useful.
- Tell the author what parts you liked, were surprised, confused, or delighted by, what worked for you, and what didn’t. Suggestions on how to fix problematic areas should be offered respectfully—ie: remember that this is the author’s story, not yours.
- Respect the text as itself rather than relying on comparison, even if the comparison you’re tempted to make is positive. It is not ever helpful to say: ‘This story’s been done, I saw it on HBO last night.’ Who cares? There’s a theory out there that there are only three stories in the world (or seven, or one, depending who you ask). Sure, there’s nothing new under the sun. The joy of writing, and reading, is in finding out how the story will be told, and subverted, and played with—one absolutely unique voice at a time: no one will ever tell the same story the same way. Consider the story. What is it about? What is it trying to do? How does it fulfill itself, and how might it achieve its ends better?
- Save time by not repeating other critiques. Say: I agree with so and so about such and such, and move on. Or, say: I disagree with so and so about such and such, and move on to your response. Do try not to be longwinded; it’s nice to do critiques without a kitchen-timer running, which becomes necessary if people are not sharing time fairly.
- Lots of people out there believe in an ironclad rule of silence for the author being critiqued. Why? Because it is sometimes impossible not to defend, explain, and move entirely away from the text—from what is and is not actually on the page—if the writer responds to criticisms and questions posed by the group. This is an absolutely valid point. Take notes. Write down the questions people ask you and think about them as you revise, rather than answering them in the group (unless you are specifically asked by the group to answer something simple and short).
- Keep in mind that this critique is a gift to you. You want your piece to be as strong as it can possibly be, right? Feedback will help you make it stronger.
- If you have a question about something someone has said, you can ask it, but keep it brief, and without long explanations about what you meant to get on the page. For example: ‘Was it clear to you that Medea is motivated by more than jealousy of the princess?’ Rather than: ‘You see, if Medea is exiled, under Athenian law she has no rights as a citizen and her children don’t either. So she will lose not only her basic security, but would probably have to become a prostitute whose life, and whose children’s lives, were dependent on the whim of the king who owned her. If she displeased him, or if her children did, she could be killed, or exiled again, since she has no human rights at all as a foreigner, and the kids would end up slaves, too…’ And so on. Essentially, what you want to find out is whether or not you got what you meant on the page. If you didn’t, telling the group about it is beside the point: revise it, and bring it back to the group once you’ve done better. Then you get to hear ‘Ah! This is so clear now! You’ve really gotten me inside Medea’s circumstances—it totally changed my reaction to the murder scene…’ And you get to feel good, because you got it on the page.
Responding to content:
- Content is important. It is relevant. It is what makes the story for the reader, and what motivates it for the author. It is possible to go too much in one direction or the other, though, in our responses to content—to lose sight of the fact that critical feedback is about improving craft.
- If something someone writes really ticks you off because you don’t agree with it, or have differing values, think about what the author is trying to do. Have they gotten a perspective on the page so successfully that it makes you, the reader, deeply uncomfortable? That’s good writing. Praise it, even as you are honest about how it made you feel. Have they written something you think is unexamined? Point it out as a place you feel they need to look deeper into the character, a place for more complexity. Not sure? Pose a question, and let them think it over as they revise.
- If a piece of writing makes you empathize deeply with the author, and you feel the need to respond from that place, go ahead and do so, but outside of the writing group. In the group, show your respect for their honesty, courage, and basic human strength by respecting their writing, and focus your comments there.
It’s a great thing when writing stirs people up. If the content of a piece requires discussion, causes identification and bonding, leads to argument, therapeutic discussion, personal support, verbal brawls in the hallway later—fine. Great, in fact! As long as it’s in the hallway, or at a coffee shop after the critique ends. During the critique, it is about the author’s writing, not your feelings about their content. Group discussion about content should not hijack the focus away from the author’s work.