Once in a golden hour
I cast to earth a seed.
Up there came a flower,
The people said, a weed.
― Alfred Lord Tennyson
It pains me to log onto my social media sites, Twitter and Facebook, in particular, and read a steady stream of angry back and forth exchanges between users I know and those I do not know. Even when these missives are fueled by real and important societal issues warranting passion and disagreement, it seems, to me, that this type of fighting far too often devolves into personal attacks and cruel disparagements that further the divide, bruise and abuse feelings, and curtail constructive debate.
It’s extreme behavior I seldom, if ever, witness firsthand outside the web. That’s not to say I live in a bubble and I think it’s all peaches and cream in our world right now. Far from it. But I believe most people do their best to find commonality with others when out and about in public, are polite and respectful to each other, and do their best to be positive, peaceful and accepting. Perhaps I’m naive, too sheltered, or wildly optimistic, but that is my opinion.
But not online. Not on social media. There, I believe, we can do better. And like all meaningful and lasting change, I think it best starts with the individual.
I’m reminded in this regard of a powerful lesson taught to me by my first writing instructor. She was a brilliant, dedicated, warm and encouraging woman, and before she spoke a word about how best to create a compelling story or craft a meaningful poem, she taught us how to critique our peers in a way that benefitted them as writers, and not belittled them as people.
Her lesson not only gave us set guidelines on how to interact with our classmates in regard to their writing, but also set a tone that the class would be respectful, empowering, and energizing. It made such an impact on me, and an impression, that I give out the same handout she gave me on the first day of class to all classes I teach.
And so I will share these guidelines here. While it’s focus is on writing, I believe it translates well to many interactions online – the foundational principle that we should strive to be positive and helpful, not hurtful and harmful.
Critiquing the work of others requires balance. Being too nice will not help your fellow writers develop their work; being too harsh can crush a writer’s ego. How can you achieve the right balance? Here are some tips:
Take care to point out both what works, and what doesn’t. If you’re new to critiquing, a good hint would be to point out one thing you like (a phrase, a description, an idea) for each thing that bothered you.
Whenever possible, be specific when pointing out things that you didn’t like (don’t just say “I didn’t like this part” say “I didn’t like this part because…”
Try to offer suggestions when you think a change is needed. Suggestions, even to the point of an offered rewording, can be very helpful; even if the suggestion isn’t exactly right for the author to use, he or she may get a good idea from it.
Be honest and direct, but in a polite and caring way. Holding back your feelings about a piece because you’re afraid to share your thoughts isn’t going to help anyone. Just be mindful of how you share your opinions!
How you handle critiques you receive is just as important as how you give them to others. It’s perfectly natural to want to defend your work, but it isn’t a healthy thing to do in a writers’ group. When receiving a critique, here are a few things to bear in mind:
Don’t argue with someone’s critique of your work. If you don’t like the changes he or she has suggested, just say “Thank you,” and move on. After all, a critique is an opinion, and we’re all entitled to our own opinions.
Feel free to ask questions. Sometimes, asking a person to clarify what he or she has said in a critique will help you to see why that suggestion was made.
You’re the author, and you have the final say.
So, remember as you receive critiques that it is your prerogative to accept or reject any suggestions made. This is a useful tip to keep in mind when the group is pretty evenly divided on a particular point (which will likely be most of the time). Don’t feel like you have to change something just because someone in the group didn’t like it; but also don’t make any overly hasty judgments about critiques you receive (sometimes they make more sense when you go back and look at them later).