The Writing: What's the best feedback you've ever received in a writing workshop? How do you give and receive it?

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your patience as I missed my own deadline at noon today whilst sweatily unloading a moving trailer. I can proudly inform all of you that I own exactly 14 “small” boxes of books of equally heavy weight and they are all towering behind me in my new office.

Today’s question continues the MFA series (#1, #2). Moving onto workshops, here’s a common question about writing workshop: What's the best feedback you've received in a writing workshop? How do you give and receive it?

Answer below. As usual, I’ll be here for the next 45 minutes.

The best feedback I've ever received was from someone who write to me, over the course of several poems, about the emotional backdrops of my poems. As in, they were able to articulate what I was trying to get at in the poems themselves. It was incredibly affirming about the project I was working on at the time, which I felt tentative about.

In contrast, the worst feedback I've ever received in a workshop was when a prominent writer called my work "difficult" and...had not much more to say about it.

For giving and receiving feedback, here's verbatim what I offer on my syllabus (please credit if you use it!)—


by Yanyi

+ When you’re being critiqued:

Your work is not aesthetically “good” or “bad.” The point of creative writing is to skate on the margin of what one can say (within bounds of ethics, of course). Writing is a kind of thinking out loud. Sometimes, when we are lucky, we finish our thoughts. At the end of the day, your writing is yours. It exists to give value and pleasure to you first.

Listen openly to critique. By taking this course, you’ve signed up to openly give and receive critique of your work. When you publish work, you never get to watch a reader react in real-time to what you’re offering. Often, our comments on each other’s works are reflections of what kind of writing we each like to write and understand. That diversity of perspective is invaluable to prevent harm and confusion. Invite the opportunity to listen in.

Take what resonates. Leave the rest. An aged but useful rule. A comment on your writing is not a definition of your writing. A revision is about making your writing more like itself. Invite critique, be open to change, and improve your technique, but don’t dilute the heart of your work for anyone else.

+ When you’re critiquing:

Describe the work first. It’s easy to tell a writer how to change something from our own feeling or opinion of what is “good” or “bad.” However, it’s not helpful to tell a screwdriver how to be a hammer. Read a work as though you are not meant to understand it. Start by noticing what it is.

Understand the work. Sometimes, noticing will lead to an understanding of the work. Be mindful that what you think something is about is not always what the piece is actually about. However, read as though you are the author: what is a line or a whole piece trying to do? What is a suggestion that would make it more clear for you?

Speak constructively. If you have an understanding of the text, how can you help it be more like itself?. For example: if you completely rework someone else’s poem, all you’ve done is made their work in your own image. If you say something is good, the author needs to know what in particular is good, and why.

The author is not the speaker. Say the “speaker” instead. I actually hate rules like this but consider this one about deprogramming our assumption that the “I” of a piece is your classmate. As a bonus, it gives some verbal cushioning so the author doesn’t take critique too personally.

+ General recommendations:

Take space, make space. If you’re shyer, try and speak more. If you tend to speak more, pause for others.

Speak in the I. A useful reminder that your viewpoint is not universal and should not be.

Content warnings. If you are writing about difficult topics, it’s best to put a content warning before submitting.