I almost quit grad school my first week in.
I’d applied to the low-residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program and was excited to learn more of the craft of creative writing, and to take my skills to the next level. I was a storyteller. Writing was like breathing for me. Of all the potential master’s degree programs out there, this was the one that best fit my goals. I entered the first day of my in-person residency geared up, ready to go, laden with laptop and notebooks and nerves. Two days later I was ready to quit.
The first workshop session did not go well for me. I’d submitted a piece that I thought showcased my abilities well, full of emotion and family drama. And then I sat there in silence while the workshop participants went around and said what was wrong with it. I walked out without crying, but had some sniffles later on. I wondered if I was cut out for grad school after all. I wondered if I should give up writing. Someone suggested I thicken up my skin. It was well-intentioned, but not helpful.
But two years later I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing – Fiction and a completed novel as my thesis.
The biggest change was that, in my second semester, we read Joni B. Coleall’s Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, a book about how to give and receive feedback in a model that didn’t involve being solely critical, with advice that didn’t amount to ‘grow a thicker skin’. If anything, it had stern words about why that was terrible advice, and how so many writers felt stifled by bad experiences with feedback in the past. It was absolutely eye-opening for me and changed my views on writing and working with other writers. This book became my go-to as part of my teaching practice, and is my rule book for my engagement with other writers.
Many of us have had bad experiences with feedback, where it’s branded as constructive criticism. The ‘constructive’ is meant to make us feel like it has our best interests at heart, but it comes across more often as a condiment slathered over something unpalatable that we’re trying to stomach. Many of us have come from the school of thought that praise doesn’t help a writer improve, and that writers need to hear what’s wrong with their work if they ever hope to improve.
Some writers thrive under that model. “Be brutally honest!” they’ll say, and they mean it, and that’s fine! But a lot of writers, especially those starting out, may need a lighter approach, one that can help with growth while also sharing what they’re doing right to help build their confidence. Heck, I’ve been writing for a very long time and I still like to know what’s going well!
When it comes to giving feedback, I often advise my writing classes to:
- Remember there’s a person on the other side of the screen (or across the table, or behind the paper they’re reading from)
- Don’t try to focus on everything you think needs to be improved or changed
- Try to focus on just one or two very specific issues, and then give specific suggestions for improvement
- Point out what’s going well! Let the writer know what’s working, so they can keep doing it
The flip side is receiving feedback. Even the best, most well-intentioned feedback may hit wrong, so I encourage them to:
- Understand that feedback is subjective; what they receive is just what’s come through one person’s view
- Try not to be defensive because…
- In the end they are the boss of their own work. That’s right! Writers are not obligated to accept, let alone implement, the feedback they receive.
That last bit tends to be very freeing. I know it was for me; I think we’re conditioned to believe that feedback is a gift and we should be grateful and implement everything we receive. It is a gift, but in the end we’re the ones who know our work and our vision the best. We don’t have to implement what others suggest. Sometimes those suggestions are coming from a place of kind suggestion about what could improve the work, and other times those suggestions are what the other person would have done differently. As the writer, we can consider those things, and ultimately make our own decisions.
While it can be tempting to shy away from feedback, in the end it helps us grow as writers and can help us improve our writing. When approached in a manner that builds relationships and acknowledges the good along with the areas for improvement, it’s a wonderful tool. No thickening of the skin required.