Kind critiques consider writers' feelings
Balance negative comments with positive feedback to help improve a first draft
Published: May 2, 2011
|“Don’t like the story.” “This is crap.” “Stupid idea.” The judgments came fast and furious from a well-known writers group. I felt my shoulders slump and my mind go blank. In reviewing first-draft work, the rules in this group were: 1) the writer whose work was under review could say nothing, and 2) others could say whatever they wanted to say however they wanted to say it. |
When I pitched the same fiction manuscript to two agents, one wanted a rewrite and the other to read the piece in full. I had heard stories of abusive writing groups and MFA programs whose leaders and teachers believe negative critiques build a writer’s skills and determination. I disagree with that approach. After all, first drafts aren’t meant to be perfect, and the opinions offered by the group are just that—opinions.
So what does work? Giving writers presenting first drafts comments on what is successful, and then talking about where we get confused or where characters motivations are unclear. If we do this respectfully, we honor the writers and their hard work.In Writing Alone and With Others, workshop leader and author Pat Schneider advocates the essential practices of a healthy workshop. “Absolutely no criticism, suggestion, or question is directed toward the writer in response to first-draft, just-written work,” she writes. “A thorough critique is offered only when the writer asks for it and distributes work in manuscript form. Critique is balanced; there is as much affirmation as suggestion for change.”
Hearing positive feedback helps balance constructive criticism. “The only way my creative muse was able to appear was in a warm and safe environment,” says Antoinette Saunders, a freelance writer and workshop participant. “When surrounded by criticism and shame the muse disappeared.”My philosophy as a teacher of creative writing is to first build my students’ confidence and skills and to stress what works in their manuscripts. Later they will strive for excellence through their manuscripts’ many revisions.
Sue Roupp is a freelance writer in the Chicago area.