What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”
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!
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