Choose Kindness When You Give Writing Feedback

a writing coach giving writing feedback

There’s vulnerability at the heart of a request for a writing critique. I choose to meet that with kindness.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Whenever I’m asked for my opinion on someone’s writing, I’m clear that what they’re likely asking for is affirmation. Nearly every time, beneath the request, “Would you mind taking a look at this?” is vulnerability; a strong need to hear that what one is writing is “good enough.”

As an intuitive book-writing coach and writing retreat leader, I work with hundreds of people. I’ve been on the receiving end of this request (i.e., vulnerability) many times. I never offer my opinions. What I offer is kindness.

I’ve learned a few things over the years about the true human opportunity that presents itself within this very delicate request. Even though people look up to me and value my opinions of their work, truly, my opinion means nothing. My self-indulgent declarations about others’ words are of no importance. I’m not the comma police. I don’t care about enforcing dangling participle rules. Because I think you should have used sun “rays” instead of sun “light” is totally inconsequential.

Kindness is important

What is of total importance, what builds a writer’s sense of themselves and encourages them to keep their creative fire burning, is kindness. It’s important for them to hear how awesome it is that they’re taking time to share their story, that the way they describe a complicated relationship with their mother is evocative, that, even though sharks don’t live on the moon, the way they imagine such a scenario is impressive. I have no business pouring a bucket of water on their creative fire. In fact, it’s totally unkind to do so.

Some of you may disagree with my approach, and that’s OK. You may think that critical opinion-sharing is helpful and can ultimately benefit someone. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I simply believe these moments place us in positions of power and have potential long-term positive or detrimental impact. We can either lift someone up to encourage their continued path of exploration and expression or completely shut it down to the point they fear ever expressing themselves again. I’ve seen the ripple effects from both.

Words are part of who we are

Words are self-expression. They are born from places within us that are part of who we are. Not every book, every essay, every thing we write represents our deepest core or essence. Sometimes a professional guide or technical handbook is not a gift from the soul, though, even these types of functional writing still have parts of our identities embedded in them. The writing I’m speaking of relates more to the creative efforts.

With this in mind, when someone puts themselves out there to share their writing with me, what they’re sharing is who they are. It makes no sense for me to have a gauge, scorecard, or measurement stick about what is “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong.” Who am I to be or think that my knowledge is greater or better about how someone “should” or “shouldn’t” go about expressing themselves?

Editing Guide bannerMost of the time, I observe how people behave when they’ve been asked to review or give feedback. This has happened when people have read my work, and I’ve seen it in various writing group scenarios. Sometimes people feel the need to puff their “editing” feathers; to show how much more they know, how much better they would have written the sentence, or how much better the paragraph would have sounded if only it had been written the way they said. I’ve seen people take major dumps on other people’s writing just for the sake of making themselves feel bigger, better, smarter, and elevated.

The need for approval

I can read body language extremely well, but it doesn’t take an intuitive to see how low someone can sink after they’ve been on the receiving end of some faux editorial tirade. During such moments, I witness the hopeful writer who braved the feedback request (really in search of affirmation) sink lower and lower into despair. Sometimes, this strange feedback loop can become a power struggle of ego between insecure elements of the writer and reviewer. Sometimes. Not every time.

I imagine a writer handing over the page as a hopeful child sharing their artwork with a parent. They reach up, mostly with pride, drawing in hand, in hopes of putting a smile on that grown-up’s face. In that moment, what they want is approval. They want to believe they’ve made that grown-up happy.

Is this the case with every piece of writing? No. Is this a universal truth for every writer seeking feedback? No. I’m just saying the need for approval exists. And more times than not, that is at the heart of a request for feedback.

What type of feedback are you looking for?

I can hear resistance and objections. So I will further clarify. I am not talking about when I, as a writer, have hired an editor. As someone who’s worked in the publishing business a while, I understand that there are different kinds of editors and roles they each fulfill. However, a lot of writers don’t have this knowledge or experience. Many aren’t even aware of the differences.

So, if I actively seek professional feedback, I know going into it exactly what type of feedback I’m looking for to help me sort out a creative snag, thematic hole, or some narrative conflict I’m not able to clearly see. In other words, I know the nature of the feedback I’m looking for and fully prepared to receive criticism or have the flaws in my writing exposed.

But even if I’m dealing with seasoned professionals, at the heart of writing usually dwells hope, vulnerability, creativity, courage, and expression. I’m still of the mindset to always lean on kindness as opposed to any other form of feedback.

What does it mean to be kind with writing feedback?

To me, kindness includes sharing what I did like: point out which words were powerful, what a single sentence did to stand out or make an impact, admire the courage someone showed by revealing such painful memories, or reflect on an idea embedded in the text. Kindness is anything that offers kudos, praise, admiration, and encouragement to the other to fearlessly forge ahead.

Kindness is free. It doesn’t hurt me or my ego in any way to provide it. Besides, I know that whatever opinions I might give ultimately make no major difference in what that other person is trying to express or alter the unique way they see the world. What matters is that I was there to support their tender process of sharing themselves and honor their writing vulnerability through kindness.


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