A Former Pollyanna Learns the Value of Critical Feedback

Ashley Memory
From the March/April 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I really appreciate your positivity,” said my friend Bonnie, after a few meetings of my very first writers group more than twenty-five years ago. “But I hope you’re not holding back. Sandra and I welcome constructive criticism.” 

To be invited to join such an exclusive group—just three members, who gathered in Bonnie’s sitting room in her charming Victorian home every other week—was an honor. I met both women at a writers conference, and we bonded over a love of Southern writers such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. However, both Bonnie and Sandra taught college-level English, and frankly these grammar doyennes intimidated me. When they shared their work I tended to overflow with praise, insecure about voicing more critical observations. Although our little group eventually drifted apart, I still cringe when I think of those meetings and the opportunities for deeper engagement we lost. I couldn’t be honest with Bonnie and Sandra, and I’m sure they hesitated about being truthful with me, afraid of hurting my feelings. Now I realize that no one gets better that way.

In subsequent years I read and absorbed more work by celebrated authors, took many classes, and started submitting and publishing my writing, actions that gave me new insights into craft that succeeded. This boosted my confidence, and I felt more comfortable offering candid assessments in later writers groups. To my great relief no writer fumed or appeared to take my feedback personally. In fact, they actually thanked me for it. What surprised me the most, however, was how much critiquing others improved my own work.

When I first started evaluating the work of my peers, I focused on narrative elements I grasped more easily, such as characterization, description, and conflict. Identifying weaker spots in other writers’ work and suggesting ways to improve them helped me spot and repair my own deficiencies more quickly. For example, if I encouraged another writer to try to use all five senses in her descriptions, I redoubled my own efforts to do the same. And if I advised one writer to increase the tension in a scene, I made sure that my work teemed with conflict in all the right places. Providing honest feedback based on my interests in turn brought helpful recommendations from writers with expertise in different areas, such as grammar, continuity, and conclusions.

My two current groups include a mix of fiction and nonfiction writers as well as poets. Reviewing work from such a diverse talent pool offers endless learning opportunities. For example, while counseling one writer on how to tighten the theme of her essay, I can’t help but admire her vivid verbs. As I suggest ways to improve the flow in a paragraph of another writer’s novel in progress, I commend an unusually creative metaphor she uses to describe her protagonist’s state of mind. And as I recommend that a poet delete a confusing line, I find myself inspired by her dogged persistence to continue to revise the same poem so many times. 

Offering constructive criticism isn’t easy, but this former Pollyanna now knows that honest and heartfelt advice is the ultimate compliment. It shows that we read our fellow writers’ work carefully and feel vested in their success. Here are some pointers that might help you give the kind of feedback members of your writers group most need from you.

Ask questions about what your fellow writers need from your critique. What is your goal with this piece? What are you seeking—big-picture advice, line edits, or simple proofreading? Finding out what sort of comments a writer wants is fundamental to delivering the most helpful advice. Writers presenting a first draft may want to know if their story is compelling and keeps the reader’s attention. They may not be interested in pickier things often found during later drafts, when a piece is more polished and ready for submission.

Start on a positive note. There is a reason so many nonwriters stand in awe of those of us with the pen: It takes courage to put your most intimate thoughts on paper and share them with the world. This is why it’s crucial to let your peers know early on that you’re on their side. Commending a writer for tackling a difficult subject or trying a new technique, for example, builds a bridge to more critical feedback.

Focus on the writing, not the writer. Comments such as “My attention wandered in the middle of the essay” work much better than “You bored me by the third page.” Or “I was surprised that the father didn’t react to his son’s outburst” versus “You left something out of this scene.” Avoid absolute truths such as “You should” or “You shouldn’t.” When making suggestions to the writer, preface them with words such as “I recommend” or “consider.”

Remember the Golden Rule. Give the kind of guidance you’d most like to receive. As my writing buddy Ruth Moose, an award-winning novelist, short story writer, and poet, says, “One should never leave a meeting feeling shredded or depressed, but with an attitude of ‘back to the drawing board.’ Be honest but be kind.” Rather than making sweeping comments, refer to specific passages with actionable advice that inspires, such as “These characters are fascinating; in fact, I’d love to see an additional scene between the protagonist and her sister” or “Your reflections are my favorite part of this essay. Consider sharing more of your vulnerability.”

Offer to read a revision. Not every writer feels comfortable submitting revisions of the same piece, as they may worry about taking up too much of the group’s time. But I welcome additional rounds, whether or not my suggestions are incorporated. Reading revisions exposes writers to the delicate art of coalescing suggestions from different points of view, yet another learning opportunity. And later, when a member’s story, essay, or poem is published, everyone celebrates because they remember the piece in its most formative stage and feel like part of the writer’s journey.

Reciprocity fuels the fires of an effective writers group, and it continues to open new doors for me. Last year I wrote a creative nonfiction essay about a thrift store lamp that I’ve revised at least six times, and input from my writing partners improved it substantially. This piece is currently in circulation, and although it hasn’t been accepted for publication yet, a recent rejection note stood out. It wasn’t the usual form letter. This note included the supreme consolation prize: a single line of constructive criticism. Aha, I thought. I’m getting closer.


Ashley Memory teaches creative writing for Charlotte Lit, a nonprofit arts center, and she has written for the Independent, Wired, and Healthline. Her essay “The Perfect Lamp” was a finalist for the 2021 Barry Lopez Nonfiction Prize sponsored by Cutthroat.