“I’m so angry at your mother.” My critique partner vibrated in her chair. Her jaw clenched and her face was red. “I’ve been angry ever since I read your piece a few days ago!”
My critique group of three people huddled around a table in a downtown cafe. I’d shared a piece from my childhood memoir that described how when I was fourteen my mother had tormented me for hours after I’d told her “No.” She tore up my favorite books and pummeled my stomach with her fists.
I knew it must have been an intense chapter to read, but my friend had a stronger reaction than I’d expected. She repeated variations on her original comment and spoke about how the depiction reminded her of her childhood. The third member of our group later told me my friend had likely been triggered.
She wasn’t the only one to react this way. For years after this, I had several more experiences in which the responses to my writing were extremely emotional and unhelpful, even hurtful. I began adding content notes to the top of my essays and memoir chapters and invited readers to please excuse themselves if they felt unable to provide helpful feedback.
Looking back, I sympathize with the position these writers were in: They’d committed to an exchange and felt the need to say something substantial even if they were at a loss for words. But I’d rather hear, “I need to pass on giving feedback this time,” than be exposed to someone else’s unprocessed trauma. Or worse, left to wonder what was wrong with my writing for it to provoke such a response.
To avoid unleashing more pain on someone trying to make art out of their own, here are some guidelines I’ve developed for writers giving feedback on work that discusses personal trauma:
Request a content description before exchanging work.
Beyond a content “warning” (a word that can itself be alarming), request that writers include a summary of the piece as well as the intentions behind it. Here’s an example of one of mine: “This prose poem contrasts the good and the bad when it comes to my childhood experience of my mother’s fingernails. This includes brief descriptions of physical violence in the second paragraph.”
Are there any genres or topics that would be challenging for you to read right now? It’s okay to say from the outset which subjects you’re not able to critique. Figuring these out is a matter of trial and error. If you find yourself participating in an exchange that threatens your mental health, make a note about what was challenging so you can set a clear boundary next time. Freewriting about past exchanges can help sketch out your limits.
Check in with yourself before reading.
Once you know what topics a piece will cover, assess whether you’re emotionally ready to engage with them in a sustained way. As a survivor of sexual assault, I appreciate having a heads up that an essay or poem will cover that topic. If I’ve had a challenging or busy day, I can wait until I’m in a better headspace and have time for self-care afterward if I need it.
After your first read, check in with your body.
Do your emotions feel activated? This can manifest as a racing heart, numbness, shallow breaths, or tight fists. If so, take some time to feel the sensations in your body and do what you can to soothe yourself. Go for a walk, play with a pet, color a picture, do some gentle stretches, or put your hand over your heart to comfort yourself. If you still feel agitated, freewrite about what’s coming up for you. Does this remind you of a challenging event in your past? Put the critique aside for a few days until you feel ready to tackle it again.
Permit yourself to change your mind.
If you’re unable to engage in a way that is fair to the writer, let them know you’re unable to continue. Do this as early as possible, ideally before they’ve read your piece. You can say you’re not able to give a fair critique on this topic at the moment. In groups, privately let the person know you have to pass on this submission and that you look forward to their next piece.
Focus on craft.
If you go forward with the exchange, avoid discussing the events in the narrative, which in much of creative nonfiction are the experiences of the writer. In one in-person critique group, a reader once shouted, “I can’t believe you did that!” I sputtered that I’d been a young child, but she continued her critical commentary. Though that encounter helped me mentally prepare for harsh reader responses, it caused me more turmoil than any feedback should. In an essay about sexual assault, for example, speak to the effectiveness of the pacing, dialogue, sensory description, and other craft elements of the writing. Try asking questions like, “I’m not sure I understand why the main character is making this choice. Is this something you want to clarify?” Don’t discuss whether you think, for example, the events described constituted sexual assault. This can be incredibly re-traumatizing for survivors of sexual violence. Critique the writing, not the person.
Even if you have an educational or professional background in creative writing, don’t assume something is “wrong” when it may reflect a cultural difference or a thoughtful choice of the author. You may not be a part of the intended audience for the piece. If the intended audience doesn’t need something explained, don’t tell the writer to explain it.
Talk about the narrator as a character. This creates distance and acknowledges that the narrator on the page can only ever be an imperfect representation of the writer. This is especially important when discussing writing about personal trauma. Try saying, “I don’t understand why the narrator does this here” rather than “Why did you do this?” The former is an objective way of alerting the writer to how an action may be coming across on the page. When critique partners have told me the latter, I felt hurt until I realized they were pointing out a craft problem: I needed to add more context so the reader could understand why the narrator made that choice.
Give a caveat.
Be honest—with yourself and the writer. If you think your personal experiences and tastes may be affecting your reading of a piece, let the writer know. Maybe you dislike the form or genre, or maybe you’re not part of the intended audience. Acknowledge this and let the writer know your comments may be of limited usefulness.
Share your emotional reaction to each scene in a neutral way.
Sometimes I find it useful to hear how a reader’s thoughts and emotions were engaged by my work, so if a reader reacts in a way I didn’t intend, I can clarify. When one reader thoughtfully described her anger and frustration at the narrator for making a certain choice, I realized I needed to either cut that detail or expand it. Importantly, the critiquer didn’t judge me but shared how she felt about the narrator as a character in a scene—a subtle but important difference.
Avoid line editing …
… unless the writer requests this and it’s a polished draft. There’s no point when whole sections may still be cut or reworked. For early drafts, offer gentle suggestions that can help to open up a piece. My rough drafts often lack descriptions of the setting and characters. It’s helpful when readers point this out, asking questions like, “What does this character/space look like?” or “What are they doing as they’re having this conversation?”
Be encouraging and gentle.
Start and end your feedback by commenting on what is working well, and balance positive and constructive feedback. If the piece lacks emotion in some scenes but portrays it well in others, I highlight what’s working and explain why it’s so effective, then I say I’d love to see more of this in the other sections as well. Also, pay attention to your intuition. In one essay I critiqued, I sensed there was a murkier backstory than what was stated in the text, and commented, “I’m getting a sense of something more going on here. But I could be way off base. If so, simply ignore this!” The writer later told me that my suspicions were correct, and they went deeper in the writing. If the subject involves potential trauma, take extra care with your words.
Try phrasing your feedback as a series of questions to empower the writer, since they know what they’re trying to do with the piece. Examples include, “I’m getting the sense that X is going on here. Is that right?” or “Is it possible to add more sensory description here? What does the narrator smell/hear/taste?” or “What does ‘happy’ look like in her body right now? Is she smiling, jumping up and down, letting out a deep breath?”
In groups, try Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP).
This was introduced to me by the writing instructor Rachel Thompson. Our virtual workshops start with brief reader responses to the piece before the writer asks questions of the group. As opposed to the traditional North American “gag-rule” style of workshop in which the writer isn’t allowed to speak, CRP empowers the writer to set the tone for the type of feedback they want. Importantly, the writer must consent to any suggestions beyond neutral feedback. This style of workshop would have helped when my old critique group—which used the gag rule—had a ten-minute debate about whether my essay about suicidal ideation was fiction or nonfiction.
When I was finally allowed to say it was a memoir essay, faces drooped in dismay. Later people approached me to apologize for the harsh comments they’d made thinking my piece was poorly conceived fiction rather than an intensely personal subject I needed gentle help excavating. Two authors who’ve adapted CRP are Felicia Rose Chavez in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop and Matthew Salesses in Craft in the Real World, two books I highly recommend.
Critiquing for others is an excellent way to improve our craft. When we see how others’ work can be strengthened, it’s easier to read our pieces again with a fresh eye. I’ve learned a great deal from my exchanges and critique groups, but some experiences have certainly hindered my development as a writer.
When you give feedback on creative nonfiction about the vulnerable real-life experiences of a writer, a level of additional care is necessary. Acknowledge your limited perspective and experience, empower the writer by staying curious and asking questions, take great care with your words, and, most importantly, excuse yourself from any exchange in which your feedback would not be useful.
In one group, someone who’d smeared red ink all over my pages apologized months later. He told me he’d been reminded of his own abusive parent and regretted taking out his strong feelings on my work. It was a relief to finally know why I’d received the painful feedback I’d been processing for months. With his humble gift of clarity, I was able to move forward with confidence that his reaction had nothing to do with my creative project.
These tips can hopefully help you avoid such situations or better understand awkward moments you may have had in the past. Sharing writing about personal trauma is an act of trust. Honour that trust and your critique partners by acting with care and integrity.
- Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process method for critique groups
- The Anti-Racist Writers’ Workshop: How to Decolonialize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez, Haymarket Books, 2021
- Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses, Catapult Books, 2021 (This book is also fantastic for creative nonfiction!)
- “Describe, Don’t Prescribe: How to Give (and Get) More Helpful Writing Feedback,” by Joanne M. Lozar Glenn in Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction, Books by Hippocampus, 2021