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

Ann Pancake

As part of evaluating feedback, you also need to evaluate its source. Sizing up an unknown reader in a new workshop or writers group is tricky business, which is why it's so critical to develop and nurture a network of readers you trust. In your workshops and writing groups, seek out thorough readers who understand your vision and aren't set on altering it, and then try to work with them outside that structured context. Offer to trade work with them—always reciprocate—and remember that a thoughtful, caring response to their work is likely to elicit a comparable effort.

Although it might take years to evolve, such a network of readers is invaluable, not just for the purpose of getting criticism of your work, but also as a support system as you suffer the inevitable trials and tribulations of being a writer. Don't despair if you don't have the opportunity to know a variety of people in this way. Even one or two smart, dependable, generous people can provide you with almost everything you need.

When you are confronted with a new reader, weigh a number of factors—including the amount of workshop experience the person has had, the quality and quantity of literature she has read, and what she likes to read and why—to determine how relevant her comments will be to your work. A particular reader might be an excellent critic of a certain type of writing but not a good critic of yours. At the same time, don't discount the perspective of a smart reader who doesn't share your aesthetic. This kind of critic can be extremely valuable in unexpected ways. For example, my short stories are very language-driven, but precisely because I understand style a lot better than I understand plot, I can learn a lot from good readers who grasp plot better than the intricacies of language.

Pay attention to how the workshop participant responds to the work of others in the class, especially work that shares similarities with yours. Take with a grain of salt not only destructive critics, but also those who praise enthusiastically everything they lay eyes on. And do consider any personal biases a reader might have for or against a particular piece. Such prejudices might concern you as a writer (and have nothing to do with your work), the critic's insecurities about her own work, or the subject matter of the poem, story, or essay being critiqued. I've had readers who identified so closely with a protagonist that they couldn't judge the piece with any degree of objectivity.

My most reliable indication that I need to incorporate a particular piece of feedback occurs when I reread the passage in question and feel a twinge in my stomach. Then I hear that old voice in my head: "Yep, deep down I thought that was a problem all along. But I was just too attached to the beauty or cleverness of my words—or simply too lazy—to fix it. I sure was hoping I'd get away with it, but I guess I didn't."

Above all, as you respond to criticism of your writing, remember that you can't please everyone. If you try to suit all the people, or even all the "important" people who have commented on your work, you could find yourself busily sanding away idiosyncrasies, "normalizing" unconventional portions, and lopping off risky passages—all of which will serve only to homogenize your writing and turn it into (at best) craft instead of art.

The biggest argument against workshops and writing groups is that they can take a diamond in the rough and reduce it to a trinket. Keep in mind that art is not created by consensus.

After you absorb all those outside voices about your story, poem, or novel, try to seed the criticism into your subconscious. Then wait a few days, weeks, or even months. When you reread your work, look carefully for any signs that the criticism you've digested is the criticism for which the piece is asking. The work itself must play the final judge. It will always speak truthfully if you learn how to listen closely enough.

Ann Pancake is the author of the novel Strange as This Weather Has Been, forthcoming from Shoemaker & Hoard. She is currently on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.