Giving and Receiving Criticism

As writers, we are part of a community and one of the roles of that community is to offer feedback on each others’ work. Not everyone wants feedback, but I would contend that if you are the only one reading your work then the chances are slim that your writing will improve. Further, you are unlikely to receive detailed feedback in any rejection letters.

There are a number of good critique communities online – Scribophile is one that I like – but finding a local writing group is also a good way forward. The thing about online communities, though, is that the commentary is likely to be written down which, for me at least, makes it a great deal easier easier to remember what was said.

Giving and receiving feedback has its own etiquette.

If you are offering your work up for reading, be clear about the kind of feedback you are looking for: the question here is whether you are looking for ways to improve your writing, or are you looking for reassurance that your work is already great? There is no shame in asking for positive reinforcement rather than detailed criticism, but it is really quite rude to ask for honest feedback and then to take offense when it is supplied.

It is also important to remember that your time is important, but so is the readers’ – be sure that the pages you post are as good as you can make them before you solicit feedback. A reviewer who starts in on a piece when detailed feedback is requested but where the writing is riddled with errors may react poorly.

When receiving feedback, there are a few things to remember.

Firstly, be glad that someone took the time to read your words. The reviewer spent time and energy on this; please acknowledge it.

Secondly, any comments made are on your work, not on you (or they should be – if they’re not, then the reviewer has acted inappropriately).

Finally, remember that the reviewer is offering their opinion. How much weight you assign to that opinion is up to you, but by posting your work you have asked for someone’s thoughts. Do not attack the reviewer – by all means ask questions about particular comments, or answer questions raised by the reviewer, but focus on what is on the page in front of you.

As reviewer, there are also a few basic things to bear in mind: be succinct, get to the point, and address the work not the author.

That last is the most critical element, I think, but these are all about respect, honesty, and valuing time – the author’s as well as yours as a reviewer.

I am as aware as anyone of how much we put into our writing, but as writers we have to learn to separate commentary on our work from criticism of our selves: when I comment “this word is wrong, use <something else>” I do not mean “you are an idiot for choosing this word,” I mean “this word does not convey the meaning implied by the context which suggests to me that a different word would have been more effective.” The first form is more succinct and to the point, and is more likely both to be written (because it is shorter) and to be understood.

For myself, I consciously omit filler about how the comments are my opinion – of course the remarks are my opinion or I would not be the one writing them, and you would not have asked me to read the piece if you did not want my opinion. But you are getting my opinion of the work, not your worth as a human being – play the ball, not the man, as they say in football*.

Anyway, that’s my approach to reviews and readings for others and to commentary on my own work. I have no intent to hurt anyone’s feelings and with something as personal as our writing that can be hard to manage, but at the same time if we are looking for improvements to our work then we need to be prepared to accept that what we write may not be perfect as first written.

[*] this being the kind of football where you use your feet

3 Replies to “Giving and Receiving Criticism”

  1. Excellent Post Duncan! Thanks for putting it out there.

  2. Steve Mann says:

    Well said.

    Nothing makes me sigh more than some twit responding to something of this sort that one has said with “that’s just your opinion” or the usually more sarcastic “in your opinion”.

    Of course, it is hard to watch someone bite your baby after you gave it to them to cuddle.

  3. Valerie says:

    Great post! I agree wholeheartedly–though I have trouble not stuffing commentary with filler as a reviewer. I try so hard not to offend that my response ends up jumbled, at least when I’m reviewing the work of someone I don’t know well. I’ll do my best to channel this post when I’m reviewing!

    My favorite point is respecting reviewers’ time: if someone starts off a piece by saying “I didn’t have time to look over this before sharing” I’m unlikely to do my best reviewing it.

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