Reading How You’re Read: The Art of Evaluating Criticism

Ann Pancake
From the May/June 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

You’re heading home from that writers conference, exhausted and exhilarated, toting a bag loaded with feedback on your short story from fifteen people you didn't even know two weeks ago. Or you're finishing the second workshop of your first year in that MFA program, overwhelmed by the torrent of advice you received on the poem you've been revising for six months. Perhaps you're hunkered over your coffee table in the few minutes you have between your nine-to-five job and this month’s writers group meeting, trying to digest the comments on your memoir from the last time you met. No matter what circumstances have led to the blizzard of input—this often contradictory, sometimes intimidating, and occasionally infuriating criticism—the question remains: How do you begin to make sense of it all?

After years of digesting criticism of my own fiction as well as reading and listening to countless commentaries from my students on their peers’ work, I've found there are three basic principles that will help you master the art of evaluating feedback on your writing.

With your poem, short story, essay, or book manuscript back in your hands, the first thing you'll probably do is scan the feedback as quickly as possible with the secret hope that your critics have deemed the piece perfect. But once you see this is not the case—and before you can productively sort through the comments—you have to perform a balancing act that may be the most difficult step of the evaluation process. You must suspend enough of your ego to become somewhat objective while holding on to enough of it so that you don't sacrifice your vision.

The easiest way to reach that semiobjective zone is simply to wait. For many of us, our immediate reaction to feedback can be defensiveness—and even anger, hurt, and ultimately defeat. Let those feelings pass before reading the criticism carefully. For me, this usually takes about a day, although when I was younger and less experienced, it took longer. If you can figure out your own schedule around this issue, you can save yourself a lot of the emotional agony and time wasted by wrestling with criticism too early. Let the critique cool. Only when you feel your mind and heart creaking back open should you give the commentary a careful read.

At the same time, remember that humility and openness to the ideas of others isn’t the final endpoint in this process. Some writers—especially beginning writers who receive feedback from authoritative critics—quickly abandon their vision of the piece, and it immediately ceases to be their own. When this happens, the work almost always fails. Achieving the balance between receptivity to others and faith in one's self takes practice and experience, and as your sense of yourself as a writer solidifies, it becomes easier to strike this equilibrium.