When it comes to being a critic of other writers’ works-in-progress, I’ve hit all the points on the continuum from tactful expert to boorish junk show. I’ve been on the receiving end of the gamut of criticism too, and have concluded that criticism of the constructive persuasion emerges only from a shared understanding between artist and critic.

Ideally, critic and creator agree on the kind of feedback that’s called for. For example, some teachers and editors are in the business of achieving a certain quality of performance by a deadline. Their prime directive (a la Jean Luc Picard) does not include pussyfooting around your delicate feelings. The best editors (in my opinion) know how to be honest without causing unnecessary harm (see nonviolent communication), but the assumption is that you, the creator, are so committed to excellence, you’ll set aside your ego and thank them for the chance to make your work better.

Other times, the work’s sole purpose is to express the author’s ideas and feelings. No particular reader in mind. No ad rates to justify. No public to sway. Just one soul out loud. The cancer survivor’s workshop is designed for just this kind of work: using writing to connect with oneself and with other survivors.

But how do you give feedback in this context? Do you just nod and smile? If the creator actually wants suggestions—wants to make sure the work carries its message to an intended audience—then isn’t it a disservice to softball the feedback?

Because participants in the cancer survivor’s workshop have expressed different needs regarding feedback, and ours is a student-centered class to the nth degree, one of my main tasks is to find ways to offer differentiated approaches to feedback. The method I’m using for this group is to ask each creator which she or he prefers after they’ve read their work aloud: No feedback or Two Questions. If the former option is picked, we just say thank you and move on to the next author. If the latter is chosen, we discuss (1) What stood out? And (2) Is there anything one would like more of?

So far, folks seem to be happy with this approach, based on the informal feedback I’ve received. But I’ll be collecting formal feedback on the course this Saturday, and perhaps will learn that adjustments should be made before running a workshop like this again. Well, if that’s the case, I am committed to excellence…

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