How to give and receive writing feedback with compassion
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie discusses the challenges of providing substantive and supportive feedback in a writing group, and what to remember if you want to overcome them.
I have taught lots of creative writing classes, and there are two components of these courses that are consistently difficult for students. The first is revision. Inexperienced writers often do not believe in revision. That issue eventually resolves itself. Either the writer will find their work ill-received and begin their reform, or they will eventually, unfortunately, stop writing. (If you are suffering from stasis in your creative growth, the fix is reading more, better, varied, published writing. Good luck!)
The second struggle is two-sided: the giving and receiving of constructive, nonviolent, compassionate feedback.
Advice for the giver
In order to respect the writer whose work you have been trusted with, your goal should be to stay out of their way.
Everyone believes they know how to “critique.” Often, however, the reader offering comments on a piece of writing brings judgment to the table. It is important to separate personal morals and expectations from what is on the page. The goal of feedback should be to help the writer improve the shared work.
In other words, comments and even criticism should be constructive and compassionate. You might begin by pointing out the successes of a piece. Offer open-ended questions about what you saw that wasn’t working. Above all, avoid prescription. It can be difficult not to look at someone’s work and think of what you would do to make it better; but in order to respect the writer who has trusted you with their work, your should make every effort to honor their intentions (not yours) and stay out of their way. In fact, your criticism should help them get out of their own way!
The greatest compassionate criticism I have witnessed in writing classes came through:
- Summarizations of the piece.
- Call-outs of the written moments of greatest resonance.
- Curiosity about passages lacking clarity.
- Acknowledgment of the difficulty of the recorded experience without drawing attention to the reader’s difficult life experiences.
- Acknowledgment of the risk the writer has taken.
- Gratitude for the trust the writer placed in the group through sharing their work.
Advice for the receiving writer
We are not our work.
In receiving feedback, it can be most difficult to remember that we are not our work. Even in the case of nonfiction, what is on the page is not us, but a representation of a moment. We retain agency over how to present and frame that moment, as well as what we do with any feedback we receive.
Still, we are close to our writing. It is our art, lovingly and diligently rendered during time away from our families and friends and born of a place in us that seeks to communicate and connect with others. When our communication efforts are not received well or in the way we intended, it stings.
However difficult, it is helpful to hold compassionate space for the person or people commenting on our writing. Not everyone is skilled in nonviolent communication, which is the effort to communicate without hurting the recipient or yourself. Not everyone is practiced in evaluating the writing of others. Not everyone is going to “get” what you write, or the place from which you are writing it. Not everyone will be having a good day when they read your words. If we expect compassion, we should practice compassion. The value of so much writing is how it can foster empathy for life stories and experiences different from our own, but we are not in control of whether or not that happens in our readers, or how much it happens. All we can control is what we put on the page and how we let the opinions of others impact us.
Expressing gratitude for feedback, even if our feelings might be hurt, is a way to acknowledge the time and energy the giver invested. Gratitude and compassion for the person giving feedback gives us an opportunity to ask: What can I learn from this? The answer(s) to that question can shape you as well as your writing.
Do you have experience giving and/or receiving feedback on your writing? How do you handle it? Will any of the advice above help you in future writing groups or classes? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: 5 tips for sharing your writing for the first time
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