Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness

All writers and artists who share their work will face criticism. It’s not only inevitable, but essential for helping us learn our craft. But there’s a world of difference between constructive criticism that builds on the foundations of the early draft, and destructive criticism that tears the thing apart.

As a published author, you have no control over spiteful or negative reviews (though you can choose not to read them). When you’re a new writer or in the first stages of a new book, you get to decide who sees your draft. So unless you’re exceptionally thick-skinned, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to find someone supportive and truthful to help you, and avoid those who leave you feeling dejected and hopeless.

In my experience, some writing groups have a macho approach to critiquing, and members may pride themselves on their ‘brutal’ honesty. Well, I’ll be honest with them: it doesn’t impress me at all that they’re able to say what they think without regard for people’s feelings. What takes real skill, in my opinion, is to tell a writer their work needs improvement while leaving them feeling supported and hopeful they can make it better.

Kindness and honesty don’t have to be polar opposites. Kindness without honesty is not true kindness to an artist, because it denies them the opportunity for growth.  And while honesty without kindness may contain some useful truths, it can also cost the artist their confidence and motivation to carry on.

It may sound obvious that a critique should include positive comments, but it’s amazing how many people forget this. They assume if an aspect of the writing is already working, it doesn’t need to be pointed out.  But positive feedback isn’t just about ego. It’s extremely useful to know when your words are having their desired impact, and what your overall writing strengths are.

The difference between a constructive and a destructive critique is as much about word choice as content. When I receive a page of criticism, initially I skim through it, and certain words and phrases leap out at me. These are the words that contain a strongly positive or negative emotional charge.

Imagine if a critique of your first ever story contained the following:

Plot clichéd and predictable, pacing slow and boring, couldn’t care less what happens next, characters whiny and unlikeable, descriptions generic, bland and repetitive, spelling and grammar is very poor.

You’d need a hide like a rhinoceros not to feel a bit crushed by that. But what if the critiquer had chosen to turn those phrases into positive suggestions for improvement?

Needs new plot twist or angle, faster pace, more emotional intensity to hook the reader, use more concise and specific description, increase our empathy for the characters, sentences need a thorough edit.

You still might not like it. It probably wasn’t what you were hoping to hear. But there’s a different energy about it. It makes you feel like those changes are possible and within your power to achieve.

As writers, we do have to learn to deal with criticism, but we don’t have to subject ourselves unnecessarily to cruelty or insensitivity that is hurtful and damaging to us and our art. Because ultimately we’re responsible for the influences we allow into our lives.

Author: Catherine North

Catherine is an author living in Manchester, UK. Her debut novel about love and mental health, The Beauty of Broken Things, is available on Amazon.

9 thoughts on “Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness”

  1. I totally agree with this post! I’ve been part of writer’s groups where some reviewers would tear others down. Of course, if they were buddy-buddy with another writer, they would give them all great reviews. You really have to pick and choose who you trust.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes I’ve been in those groups too. There’s a real attitude that you have to be tough and take whatever’s thrown at you, but I think it’s actually a sign of strength to recognise that it’s not helping you as a writer and leave. I hope you’ve managed to find good people to read your writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! I agree with you. Ever since I moved to, I found an awesome writer who is helping me improve my writing.

        I’m happy I moved on from that old writing group – they were about favoritism.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How very very true. I am a fledgling poet, writing mainly for my own pleasure, but do crave recognition. My mentor is excellent, and usually her ‘edits’ work. She is a published poet, and is very supportive. Her critiques have allowed me to critique my own work to a better level.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A good mentor is so valuable. I have one too and she’s changed the way I feel about my writing. I have so much more confidence and ability to self-edit thanks to her feedback. Thank you and best of luck with your poetry.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. She is going to help me and another person to get a small pamphlet printed. Will let you know about our progress. Some of my poems are on WordPress..’.yvonneathome’ or yvonne rosemarie..can never remember which to quote. Is your work on that site as well?


  3. Your post makes some good points. I think artists need to stick together and support each other. I am a photographer rather than a writer, but the same points apply.

    I think the competitive element sometimes comes through in some circles and doesn’t really help. I have one or two photography friends who have encouraged me and offered gentle and carefully thought through advice and feedback. I do the same for them and it fosters friendship and confidence.

    I think it is best to keep these people close and this takes some of the sting out of less helpfully- worded feedback.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Jim – I agree it’s so much better when we support each other to improve, and it’s good to hear you have some friends who can offer that encouragement. I’ve recently got interested in photography, and have had some pretty negative feedback from one of our camera club judges, but then nice comments from another judge on the same image. It really helps to see how subjective it can be.


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