Not too long ago, I met with a writer who—like so many in our community—is working hard to develop her craft. She’s showing up for her writing, doing the tough work to hone her voice and understand what she’s here to say.
Our meeting was to discuss a fairly new piece of her creative nonfiction. As I read her piece to prepare for our meeting, something felt off. It didn’t feel like the voice she had honed was coming through. The work felt stilted and crammed into a very specific form that didn’t feel like it fit her writing.
Before we started talking about her piece, as I always do, I asked questions about its origin. Why had she picked the form she had? Was she wrestling with any specific sections or ideas?
It turned out the big thing she was wrestling with was very specific, prescriptive advice from another writing instructor about how to tell and shape the story. By prescriptive I mean, advice that pointed out problems in the work AND very specific solutions to those problems.
I hear from many writers in my courses who have grappled with this kind of feedback. Often the advice doesn’t sit well with them, but they doubt their own discernment. Maybe I’m being too defensive? (One writer I work with told me she was advised to make up an event in her memoir. In that case, at least, it was obviously something to ignore!)
I want to be clear that I believe feedback on our writing is crucial to our writerly growth and development. Feedback can let you know how your work will be read. It can show you where your writing is confusing, places where what was in your mind didn’t make it to the page. It can challenge you to see your words differently. It can help you get a big-picture overview of your work.
Of the many other benefits of getting feedback on your writing, some are:
- To be read by a compassionate reader.
- To build your resilience for future critiques.
- To prepare to detach yourself from the work. (You are not your work.)
- To learn from other writers and hone your skills.
For workshops and peer critiques, this is also a chance for you to support other writers while getting their support.
Feedback is necessary for writing, but it’s critical to learn to discern helpful and unhelpful feedback. Here is a checklist with four questions that I use to help writers evaluate feedback:
✅ Is the feedback coming from the cheap seats?
This super-useful metaphor from Brené Brown leads us to an essential truth about creative work: Most people are not in the practice of vulnerably sharing their deepest thoughts and ideas. Most people feel deep discomfort with what it means to show up and be seen like you do. Their discomfort will impact their reading of your writing. Often these readers are loved ones who cherish you and may even want to protect you, so if you receive feedback from these cheap seats, remember where it’s coming from as you make your discernment. (And try to get most of your future feedback from other brave creators down in the muck with you in the vulnerability arena.)
✅ Does the feedback support my vision and goals of my writing?
It’s not hard to recognize feedback that doesn’t support your intention, vision, or goals for your writing. It is entirely prescriptive. This kind of feedback assumes that your intentions are wrong and the person giving the feedback has a clearer vision than yours. It’s the kind of feedback that tells you what to change characters or scenes, excise ideas. But the goal of any feedback is to help a writer improve the work they have created, not to tell them what they should write about and how they should look at the world.
✅ Does the feedback focus on the text?
Sometimes when we write about a difficult experience—even in fiction and poetry, but especially in creative nonfiction—the person giving feedback will feel compelled to express something about the experience and not the artistic merits of your writing. This could be compassionate—“that must have been so hard” or “you’re so brave to write about this”—or, invalidating—“did that really happen to you?” or “no mother would ever behave that way.” Quality feedback can certainly include compassionate notes about how the work resonates with this one reader, but the primary focus of any feedback should be the text as written on the page.
✅ Does the feedback pass my gut-check?
Even the most helpful feedback will feel uncomfortable at first, depending on how attached you are to the writing. I suggest sitting with any feedback that feels challenging. (Even give it a week, if you can.) When you’ve sat with it, truly consider what is being said and if it applies to your writing and your intention with the work. If you remain uncomfortable, get curious about why. Does the feedback impose someone else’s vision or intention? Does it discount your experience?
What do you do if you have feedback that doesn’t make it past the above checklist?
It is 100% okay to decide some feedback—even feedback you sought out—doesn’t serve your writing. If you want to continue seeking their feedback, next time you might explicitly say, “I’m looking for feedback that focuses on the text and directly supports my intention, which is…”
Most problematic feedback is unlikely to be malicious, so it is generally best not to respond to the person critiquing your work by denigrating their approach or their point of view. By the way, because as writers we’re often giving feedback, I recommend using the above questions to make sure your own feedback will be helpful for another writer.
In closing, lovely writer, I hope that you already know that you have something important to say in your writing. You know your unique vision and your own writing best. Always trust this.