Giving and Receiving Compassionate Criticism for Writing

I have taught multiple Creative Writing classes. There are two components of these courses that are consistently difficult for students. The first is revision. Inexperienced writers often do not believe in revision. That issue eventually resolves itself. Either the writer will find their work ill-received and begin their reform, or they will eventually stop writing. If you are suffering from stasis in your creative growth, a quick fix is reading more, better, varied, published writing. Good luck!


The second struggle is two-sided: the giving and receiving of constructive criticism.

In order to respect the writer whose work you have been trusted with, your goal should be to stay out of their way.

Everyone believes they know how to critique. Unfortunately, they bring judgment to the table. It is important to separate personal morals and expectations from what is presented on the page. The goal of criticism is to help the writer improve the work shared. In other words, the criticism should be constructive. To do this, begin by pointing out the successes of a piece. Offer open-ended questions about what you saw that wasn’t working. Above all, avoid prescription. It can be difficult not to look at someone’s work and think of what you would do to make it better, but in order to respect the writer whose work you have been trusted with, your goal should be to stay out of their way. In fact, your criticism should help them get out of their own way.

In receiving constructive criticism, it can be most difficult to remember that we are not our work. Even in the case of nonfiction, what is on the page is not us, it is a representation of a moment. We retain agency over how that moment is presented and framed, as well as what we do with any criticism we are offered. For a more in-depth look at the art of constructive criticism–how to give and receive–read this article by Renee Decoskey.

We are not our work.

There are times when you will be asked to give compassionate criticism. This is appropriate in cases where you are working with nonfiction, especially that is trauma-based. While you will still be pointing to both successes and areas to improve in a piece, you need to employ caution. The greatest compassionate criticism I have witnessed is offered by:

1. Summarizing the piece.

2. Pointing to the written moments of greatest resonance.

3. Offering curiosity about passages lacking clarity.

4. Acknowledging the difficulty of the recorded experience without drawing attention to the reader’s difficult life experiences.

5. Acknowledging the risk the writer has taken.

6. Thanking the writer for their trust.

7. If it feels right, offering continued compassion off the page.

Here is an example of a well-executed criticism like I what I would expect in some of my classes:

Dear Writer,

Your essay titled, “[title]” on your experience with domestic abuse showed a little-known side of violence in partnership. What you wrote was an exploration of how confusing it can be to love a person who is hurting you, or to even define that hurting is happening.

I was moved by your lyrical, loving descriptions of touch throughout this piece, even when touch was painful. One example is “[quote from text],” Those moments highlight the element of uncertainty that wound through your essay: the narrator is confused about whether this abuse is real, as she thinks, or imagined, as her lover tells her it is.”

While the emotional charge of the moment came through, I found myself a bit lost in the action taking place in the market scene. The market itself was busy. I feel like you had two goals: 1) to demonstrate isolation while surrounded by people, and 2) to look at the various forms of touch that happen in a place where many bodies are bumping into each other. I wonder if narrowing the narrator’s POV as you did in the beautifully executed bathtub scene could serve to focus this passage. There, the narrative is achieved in the body.

While I am sorry you had reason to write this piece, I believe your voice is important. Thank you for trusting me with your words and your experience. I will be happy to provide feedback on future drafts of this essay.


Your Reader

Please notice, in the above, the actual criticism of the piece created a boundary between the reader and the writer by referring to the writer as the narrator. This is common workshop procedure, whether during written or verbal critique.

For more information on compassionate communication, see the following resources:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenburg, PhD

Living Nonviolent Communication: Practical Tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situation by Marshall Rosenburg, PhD

Connecting Across Differences: A Guide to Compassionate Nonviolent Communication by Jane Marantz Connor and Dian Killian

“Nonviolent” refers to the intention to communicate without hurting the recipient or yourself. This practice is invaluable for relationship growth, leadership, readership and critical thinking.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

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