In writing classes, workshops, critique groups, and similar gatherings of writers, the giving and receiving of feedback is one of the most valuable things that happens. It is also one of the most dangerous. When writers start giving one another advice, it can end up being the blind leading the blind—especially when a) the advice-giver is simply parroting rules that he has heard somewhere and b) the advice-receiver doesn’t have enough of herself to judge whether the advice is helpful or not.

In a day-long workshop I once taught, there was a woman who had removed every “that” from a book-length manuscript because a critique partner had told her that “thats” were bad. But another critique partner had told her that “thats” were ok, so she was in the process of putting them all back in.

Here’s a truth that I hope will give you some freedom both as a feedback-giver and a feedback-receiver: FEEDBACK ISN’T THE SAME THING AS ADVICE.

When you are giving feedback to another writer, the most helpful thing you can say is, “This is what I experienced when I read your piece.” It can be extremely hard for a writer to predict what effect her writing will have on another person. It’s hard for her to know where it is confusing, because she already knows what she is trying to say. In fiction, it’s hard for the writer to know whether her world is believable, because she has been living in that world for a long time. So it is exceedingly helpful when a feedback-giver says “Here is where this piece works for me,” and “Here’s where it isn’t working (yet).” 

As a feedback-receiver, you are obligated to receive that kind of feedback…if a reader says a sentence is confusing, it’s no good arguing that the reader shouldn’t be confused. You now know that you’ve got a sentence that is confusing to at least some subset of readers. If you’re ok with that confusion, leave it. If you’re not ok with that confusion, start revising.

Over the years I have put together some guidelines for critique and discussion that I give to my creative writing students, workshop participants, Habit members, etc. I think they help safeguard the remarkable hospitality and generosity of The Habit Membership. I thought they might do you some good as well, especially if you’re in a writers’ group or a writing class.

Guidelines for Critique/Discussion

It’s not your job as a critique partner to offer expertise…or, rather, you shouldn’t think of that as your primary job, even if you are a better writer than your critique partner.

Your primary job is to describe your experience of the other person’s writing…largely by telling them where their vision is coming through and where it isn’t coming through. Your job is to help your critique partner communicate their vision, NOT TO CHANGE THEIR VISION. When you think in those terms, it might help you decide which criticism to offer and which to withhold.

You might have ideas re: how that person might better convey their vision. It’s fine for you to communicate those ideas. But that’s not your main job.

Here are some questions that will help you get started providing feedback to a colleague:

  • What works about this piece?
  • How does the writer make you believe this world?
  • Where are you confused?
  • Where do you not believe?
  • Where does the dialogue sound written rather than sounding like something people would say in the real world?
  • Where do you have to work too hard to make sense of a sentence?
  • (In a fictional story) where do you understand the writer’s motives better than you understand the characters’ motives? (This is one of the most important things I pay attention to when critiquing a piece of fiction.)

When you approach a piece of writing from a critique partner, forget about whatever rules you have learned about writing (even if you learned them from me!). The only question you really care about is this:

DOES THIS PIECE OF WRITING WORK?

Where it doesn’t work, all those rules you’ve learned can be helpful in diagnosing WHY it doesn’t work and HOW it could work better. But it is a mistake to go into the critique with your checklist of rules and categories and compare your partner’s writing against that checklist.

I am forever telling students to use less passive voice. But I don’t go looking for passive voice when I sit down with a story. If a story or essay works, I don’t care whether it has passive voice or not. But if I hit a sentence that isn’t working, THEN I run down my checklist to see what the problem might be. Passive voice? Faulty pronoun-antecedent relationship? Too many words between the subject and the verb?

As I said, I TRY to approach things that way, but we all have our hobby-horses and sometimes I catch myself noticing grammatical issues whether or not they’re actually causing problems.

And, again, your first job isn’t even to say “You’ve got Grammar Problem X here,” but rather, “This sentence isn’t working for me. I had to work a little too hard to get what you were saying.”

Your favorite writers break most of the rules that are taught by writing instructors like me. The question is never, “Is this person following the rules?” but “Is this working?”

Remember what Flannery O’Connor said about breaking rules in your writing: “Do whatever you can get away with…but nobody ever got away with much.”

Finally, too many critics criticize because it makes them feel good and superior to criticize. Don’t be that kind of critic. BE AN ALLY TO YOUR CRITIQUE PARTNERS.