With all types of writing, constructive criticism works best when it balances praise and recommendations for change while guiding a writer towards his or her own solutions. At some point, though, even the best writer is sure to receive the type of feedback that results in one of two responses: crying in despair or downright offense.
When I attended the residencies for my MFA program, peer reviews were the standard. Before each residency, my peers and I received group assignments and the pages from those who were included in our groups. We were required to complete a fully-written response for each peer’s pages. Then, throughout the week of residency, we’d meet with seasoned faculty and discuss each other’s work, all while learning key elements of craft and the various modes of storytelling.
In this process, my peers and I discovered the way to critique writers without criticizing them. In most instances, we left our peer sessions feeling encouraged and ready to put all the advice we’d been given into practice. Even so, the faculty who led our peer sessions cautioned us not to look at any written comments until at least a few weeks had gone by, we were home, and we had already let the first impressions of the verbal feedback we had received during residency sink in.
Their advice was well-advised. While my peers and I felt that residency (aptly called “the bubble”) was a safe place to share even our most personal writings, we also all knew how difficult it is to swallow tough criticism.
All writers face this difficulty, even those who are published and have a healthy readership. When writing is as personal as it is, we writers are consistently putting our most vulnerable part out there…our creativity.
Yet, as Lauren Mead explains in her recent post, writers can accept even the harshest criticism. Mead first advises that taking a break from your current work-in-progress may be in order, that is, as long as you don’t stop writing completely. “Write something new that you can get excited about or return to another piece of work,” she advises. “Taking a step back from your work-in-progress can help you to better consider whether some of that feedback might actually be useful.” As I often discovered myself, the feedback I received, while initially hard to swallow, was always just what I needed to move my novel forward. Chances are, the same will apply to you and your work.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should take every bit of feedback at its word. Mead suggests separating the feedback that you find helpful from the comments that just aren’t. Many times, when I reviewed my peers’ comments, I realized that they had missed a key detail, most often because that detail wasn’t included in the pages I had submitted for review (we were only allowed to submit a portion of a chapter at a time). I could shrug off that feedback because I knew that it didn’t apply.
Another approach is tackling feedback with a healthy mindset. As Mead reminds us, we are often our own worst critics so even the smallest amount of negative criticism can send us into a tailspin. It shouldn’t. “Even if you don’t end up using any of the feedback that you were given,” Mead states, “take the time to read through your manuscript and consider how it can be made better.”
Receiving feedback is never easy, but if we writers accept it with grace, we can usually find something worth taking to heart. The more we recognize both the value of our work and the value of someone else’s feedback, the more we will improve as writers and the more our stories will produce the impressions we want.