Fearsome Feedback — Critiquing Fellow Writers

If you’ve been a member of a writing group or taken a writing course, one of the most nerve-wracking components is providing feedback for your fellow writers. First off: Do I have to? Secondly: How? And thirdly: Why? I’ll just hear unflattering things about my work.

            Being critiqued, unfortunately, has been an unpleasant or even hurtful experience for many writers. It’s been described as being “torn apart” (their work, themselves). This includes me and many authors of my acquaintance. Perhaps there is some confusion between the words “critic” and “critique”. To critique is NOT to criticize but to read closely, to discover what is being said, how, and for what effect. This feedback needs to be supported by a credible “why”.

            “Being critiqued, unfortunately, has been an unpleasant or even hurtful experience for many writers.”

            Some writers shy away from writing groups and workshops for those reasons. But, as usual, I am not for critiquing that only edifies the narrow percentage of writers who will fit into canon. While canon is important, and evolving, I am not of the “murder your babies” school. Really, just dress them in suitable clothing and brush their hair. If they have a tantrum or sulk, well, we all do when we’re growing. Put them down for a nap. Everything is doable after a nap.

            The main reason to seek feedback is thrill of an extreme sport! (Actually, it’s growth.) Critiquing is, in a sense, like spelunking. Why? Because you really have to dig. You have scrape along words and context, squeeze your thinking into someone else’s headspace and modes of expression. You question your perception as much as you question the text. What do I like in writing, why, and does that bias my critique? Real feedback is well-considered, objective, and constructive. Like anything in the writing world, this is also a skill and develops with time. But so do you. Especially when you can admit, I don’t like this style but it is artfully executed—except in the middle where I have no idea what’s happening. Except, when you’re offering feedback you would say, I appreciate the artful execution of your style, but in the middle of your work, the thread becomes lost and the reader can no longer follow your narrative. Depending on your writing group, you may or may not want to offer fix-it suggestions.

            What I find most grating is the “thick skin” concept. You will need that when you publish and receive reviews (if you are published and reviewed, you know what I mean). Still, I believe our responsibility is not to scar a fellow writer into that thick skin, but to help them build their confidence. If a fellow writer understands they are being heard, seen and respected on and off the page, we co-create a secure space where everyone’s bottom line is the same: We believe in you, we are helping you to grow. Trustworthy feedback can encourage us to leave our comfort zone and take risks, and risks (eventually) create great writing. With constructive critiquing, we develop our writing into something greater than we thought it could be.

            And if you need a quick, to-the-point critiquing style, the ol’ tried and true Shit Sandwich will never let you down. You can try this:

  1. Highlight something technical that needs improvement
  2. Share what you liked, admired, or felt was strong in the piece
  3. Highlight something style related that needs improvement

Critiquing is a dialogue. As the expert of your piece, ask your critiquer questions in return. So, if you didn’t understand my intent, do you think if I adjusted my diction that it would be clear? They should be able to answer you concretely with something like, Yes, I think your intent would be very clear if your word choice was more precise.

Follow your instincts. I often found that half the room knew exactly what I was doing and the other half didn’t. When talking with other writers, this seems to be true for them as well. However, I learned not to dismiss that other half. One or two in that group usually offered concrete mechanical suggestions, and I tried them because they achieved things I admired technically.

However, we do have to make space in our work for honesty. Literary devices can fail us, structure can be flawed, or sometimes enthusiasm leads us down the path of too many ideas. As much as I strive to encourage others in their unique expression, there are some core basics I can’t scoot around. Do you have a relevant argument or intent? Is you’re your information organized, and it is clear? Every craft has non-negotiables. Bakers need rising agents and precise temperatures. Architects and contractors need blueprints that adhere to safety codes. Writers need to read other living writers and to execute the basics of fine writing. Master those rules so you can break them superbly.

I do my best to see a piece from all angles—from bones to guts to skin. Before that, I try to get as much information about the writer as possible. Who are they, how long have they been writing, what is their field, their goal? I do my best to edit fairly to their level and genre, as I never enjoy returning feedback that is largely mechanical. I blame it on that one year of cheerleading in high school—OMG you can SO do this! For most, this is OK. They know it takes time to build strong writing. Still, I feel like I’m telling them their dog didn’t make it. Considering someone may feel vulnerable when receiving my critique keeps me sharp and certain, which means I admit when I’m wrong. My long-time clients find that amusing.

Every single writer, no matter how much they may have achieved, fumbles. It is a worthy thing, to fumble. Don’t be afraid to look disorganized, to try something new, to pursue those topics which are important to you. It’s like The Price is Right. Some are more than happy to go home with a bedroom set or a moped and not the new car.

And when you know your critiquer is right and you really don’t want to lose something you love in a piece, have that good sulk. Indulge yourself. This awareness means you’ve become the seeker in your own work. Grumble, but don’t forget to take that nap after you revise your piece. When you wake up with a fresh perspective, hopefully, that fearsome feedback has pushed you outside your comfort zone and you have created something noteworthy—writing that is really you.

 -- Website

KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.

1 thought on “Fearsome Feedback — Critiquing Fellow Writers”

  1. Seeing a piece from all angles, in its strengths and needs, is important.

    I appreciated the advice on managing a critique received.

Comments are closed.