“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”
Just the other day a friend of mine asked me to help her fine-tune some comments she was planning to give a fellow writer during a critique session. We tinkered a bit and came up with a way she could offer her feedback on several writing pieces that was both constructive and compassionate. Our chat and the end result reminded me how easy it can be to either support or deflate another writer through the critique process.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of criticism that was harsh or inconsiderately expressed — and it’s no picnic. Writing is tough enough: Putting our work before others’ eyes with the goal of improving it should be a positive, encouraging experience, not a discouraging one. Discouraging is the perfect word here because it means to lose heart. When feedback has a tactless or even worse, a mean-spirited, tone to it, it can make us lose heart and deflate us rather than inspirit and motivate us, which to my mind, is the whole purpose of giving and receiving a critique.
My good friend and mentor Coach Mike Tully says that “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Why? Mainly because at its best, it’s an invaluable tool in our writing arsenal — one that points the way to improvement and provides a springboard for pushing our work to the next level.
Taking all this to heart, let’s all keep in mind a few easy-to-use critique concepts:
• Accentuate the positive: No matter how much work you think a piece needs, there’s always some strength that you can point to — even if it’s just a powerful theme it’s addressing. If you lead off your critique suggestions with some positives, it can make your insights into a piece’s weaknesses a lot easier to handle. As Mary Poppins put it, “A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
• Watch your wording: We’re writers, after all, and we know what a difference the right words can make. There’s a big difference, for instance, between describing a character as “flat” or “lifeless,” and saying that he or she could be “fleshed out more fully” or “more dimensional.”
• Talk about what works for you and what doesn’t: This is a helpful way of giving feedback that several of my writing buddies passed on from their MFA critique sessions. This approach has a neutral tone to it that makes it easy for people on the receiving end to consider.
In short, let’s all keep in mind what the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz once told me. When I asked him what advice I could pass on from him to my KWD readers, he simply said, “Be kind to yourself. Writing is hard work.” How true — so let’s be kind to ourselves and to any other writers we meet — and critique. Write on!