On Writing Critique: Know Your Writer

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I made a big mistake a few weeks ago in my approach to a piece of writing critique. I am always honored when asked to read something and offer my thoughts. My goal is not only to help the writer say what they want in the best way, but to leave them feeling encouraged. In this instance, the result was opposite of what I intended and it’s because I didn’t consider closely enough the situation of the person asking for my input.

I’ve been involved in creative writing groups for a couple of decades, both giving and receiving critique. The groups I’m in now consist of members who really do root for each other and offer great support. But that support is underpinned by certain mutual understandings, including the fact that we all realize your creative baby is your baby. When I return a piece of writing with a bevy of comments, I’m in no way saying I believe the author should adopt every one of them. It’s much more in the spirit of, “Here are some things to consider. Based on your own intention and creative vision, I’m sure you’ll know which of my suggestions will work for you and which to ignore.”

Here’s a common request from my creative writing buddies: “I’m way over the word count limit I need to meet. Please help me find places I can trim.” I’ve sent this plea out myself. When given this focus, I look for every possible opportunity to discard words and offer up my list as a sort of restaurant menu. Here are options I can offer. Choose what you want.

When a friend who doesn’t do a lot of creative writing, much less participate in critique groups, asked me to look over a speech she needed to give because it was longer than allowed, I took my usual approach, giving her as many options as possible so she could figure out which ones worked best for her. It turns out I needed someone to critique my critique method. I should have thought more about her lack of experience with receiving this kind of feedback. I hurt her feelings because she took the large number of comments as an indication that I thought her writing was truly terrible. In fact, I thought it was a great speech and wished she could give the whole thing. I was only trying to help her fit it into the allotted time.

I missed the most important element of constructive criticism, which is a close look at the person on the receiving end. In hindsight, I see I could have taken the time to explain beforehand what I’ve said here, that my suggestion were for changes I thought she could make, not necessarily changes she should make. Saying it right up front would have given her a lens with which to view my comments the way I intended them. Trying to deliver this information later wasn’t the same. It sounded like backpedaling. She couldn’t unsee what had already imprinted itself on her mind.

Hurting feelings is my least favorite thing in the world to do. I will fret over this longer than she will, I’m sure. But I learned an important lesson that I hope will help the next person who asks for my feedback on their writing.