I arrived an hour early for my monthly critique group and passed the time chatting with another writer. He gave me his handwritten notes on my work after the meeting, frowning. “I want to apologize for my comments,” he said. “I didn’t realize you were such a nice person. I hope my feedback is still helpful.”
After he left, I read his ink-red rant on how to write a story with literary merit. His tone made me want to stop writing altogether. Later he confessed he’d been triggered while reading the chapter of my memoir about childhood abuse. That unprocessed pain had spilled out in his comments.
I’ve received harsh feedback like this in other groups, from people reacting to the content of my piece rather than responding to the craft. Now I specify that I write memoir, not fiction. I tell people I realize the topic is heavy and if they need to pass on giving feedback for any reason, I understand.
Another time, a reader spent half a page admonishing me for a typo. Later I discovered he meant to hurt me. I’ve since learned to walk away from an exchange—and a friendship—if I can’t trust the person’s intentions.
The deepest harm from these situations came when I took confusing feedback at face value. Even as I struggled to understand the logic behind their harsh comments, I revised my writing while ignoring my gut. This resulted in many ill-formed drafts that simply didn’t work.
Learning from these and other experiences, I’ve developed some guidelines to help you revise and share drafts of deeply personal writing with others in a safer way.
1. Have trusted readers in your life who know what you’re trying to do. When I was working on my essay about rape that was published earlier this year, a writing instructor advised me to only share it with people I trusted 100%. I shared it with a few people I’d met in writing courses that I already knew well. Some raw pieces need more protection to fully develop.
2. Don’t share your most vulnerable work right away. To establish trust, give a new critique partner or group an essay that is more emotionally digested and see how you feel about their feedback. Next, try sharing something a little more personal and see how that goes. If you receive harsh feedback at any point, decide if you want to continue exchanging less personal pieces or if you’d prefer to stop altogether.
3. It’s okay not to share! Some writers don’t share their most sensitive writing with anyone until it’s fully formed. Or they only request feedback from one close writing buddy before submitting it for publication. If you’re going through a challenging time, think twice about whether you want to reveal sensitive material to anyone right now. You can always solicit critiques later when you’re feeling stronger.
4. Be sure critique partners have a similar level of writing experience. As my writing has developed, I’ve outgrown many writing groups. This was a painful process until I realized I’d learned everything I could from them, and it was time to move on. This will be natural as your practice grows. I find it most useful to be in groups where there are at least a couple of members who are more experienced than I am. That way, I have people to learn from and I’m challenged to keep improving.
5. Assess their comfort with vulnerability. Is your writing group also willing to be emotionally vulnerable with their writing? I have a friend who only shares fiction stories with her fiction group and keeps her creative nonfiction for those accustomed to reading more sensitive work. Assess whether the group leader is willing to hold space for challenging material or allows a free-for-all in discussions. What kind of boundaries are in place, and what are the ground rules? Does the group have a Code of Conduct or a confidentiality agreement?
6. Be familiar with your genre. If you share sensitive writing with readers unfamiliar with your genre, make sure you already know its conventions well so you can filter their feedback. A fiction group once pushed me for specifics that I, as a memoir writer, simply didn’t remember. I made up elaborate details to fill in a scene before I realized I needed to give it a thorough accuracy edit. Don’t feel obligated to incorporate feedback you know won’t work for your piece or genre.
7. Make sure readers are familiar with your subgenre and enjoy it. If you write hermit crab essays and your readers are new to this type of creative nonfiction, their feedback may focus on critiquing the form rather than the content. For example, I’ve received complaints about essays jumping from scene to scene, which is the hallmark of a lyric essay. Now I try to share these pieces with writers who understand those forms.
8. Note where you are in the writing process. You can help to protect yourself by telling your reader what kind of feedback would be most useful. In a raw first draft, a writer usually needs encouragement and some gentle questions to open up the story, and feedback such as line edits can be disheartening. When a writer starts to play with bigger aspects like structure and organization, further developing character and voice, this is a great time to receive feedback on how these are working. Once a piece is fairly polished, however, structural feedback may be discouraging. If your piece is a first draft and you simply want gentle feedback about what’s working and what could be improved, say that. If you’re happy with the structure of the piece and mainly want line edits, let them know that too.
9. Ask questions. My general stand-bys are: What’s working well? What could be strengthened? Is anything confusing? Do you have any questions? Do the beginning and ending work?
10. Give it time. If you’re not sure whether the feedback you’ve received is useful, you can always try out their suggestions. For bigger changes, save your original draft in multiple places and then experiment. Give the new writing a week to sit, then read it again to see if it works. I’m usually easy going about accepting revisions, but if a change feels wrong after some time has passed, I’ll revert back to the original version.
11. Trust yourself. You know what’s best for each piece of your writing. If you’ve reflected on constructive feedback but feel it doesn’t work, trust that. Read your work aloud to check for hiccups. You can also make a recording and play it back to see if anything sounds “off.”
Ask yourself these four important questions if you receive confusing feedback on a piece of writing about a traumatic incident or other vulnerable topics:
- Could this person be triggered by my story or might they have another agenda?
- Do I trust this person’s judgment?
- Are they also making themselves vulnerable in their writing?
- Is this person familiar with my genre and are they on my writing level?
Take measures to protect yourself when you share drafts of vulnerable writing for feedback. Stay open—but evaluate whether the suggestions are useful or not. Ultimately, only make the changes that resonate with you.
Writing about trauma is a powerful healing exercise as well as a challenging experience that can leave you feeling exposed. Your safety is paramount. I hope these guidelines can help you tell the story you want to tell and share it with peers in a way that is both safe and supportive.
Yolande House’s creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines such as The Rumpus, Grain, Joyland, and The Nasiona. Her Entropy essay was selected as one of the magazine’s “Best of 2018,” and she was a finalist for an issue of Creative Nonfiction. She offers healing resources on her website and can be found on Twitter: @herstorian and Instagram: @healthruwriting. Currently, she’s revising a completed childhood memoir.