Critiquing Creative Writers for Those Who Are Not
Katelyn Wilkinson, Consultant
While we advertise help for any kind of writing, be it an essay, resume or co-op report, students often overlook the Writing Center as a place that offers creative feedback as well. Recently, I have noticed a surge of fiction and poetry, both assigned and not, in consultations. As a creative writer myself, these pieces have been both a joy and a challenge to provide feedback for. For some of my fellow consultants these sessions may offer more challenge than joy, however, as I have often overheard them recommending students make appointments with other consultants more creatively-inclined. I realize creative writing isn’t for everyone; still, it is not impossible for those who don’t consider themselves creative writers to offer feedback on such pieces.
As academic writers themselves, all consultants are familiar with reading and critiquing academic essays. However, not every consultant is a creative writer or familiar with giving feedback to one. Given how many different genres and styles of creative writer there are, it can be difficult for even those who term themselves “creative writers” to give feedback to pieces outside of their chosen genre. I have found this to be true as a poet trying to advise students who are writing longer works of fiction. I will be the first to admit that not every session has gone perfectly – some feel more like trial-by-error – but after working consecutively with several different students, I have identified two different things that should be kept in mind in order to get the most out of creative sessions. Since many of these works must be digested in a short period of time, I think these suggestions are helpful for not only consultants who are unfamiliar with reading creative work, but students who might find themselves in peer-response situations as well.
Establish the goals of the writer.
There are many different ways you can approach a creative piece; you might dive straight in to the text, or pause to talk to the author before the reading even begins. Since most of the consultations I’ve had have dealt with works in progress, I find myself doing the latter more often than not. I find this helpful because it allows me to ask the student what I consider the most important question about the piece – What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve with this work? This is especially important to establish with pieces that do not come with an assignment or prompt from a teacher. As a consultant or a peer-reviewer, I have found it just as helpful to go into a creative piece knowing what the author wants to achieve as it is to know the prompt for an academic paper. From there, it’s easier to discuss the nitty-gritty things such as character development, point of view, dialogue, and other sentence-level issues, as well as keep the session on track so the student can get the most out of their time.
Be conscious of how you’re critiquing.
Creative writing is an extremely personal endeavor, and for many students it’s hard to share such work let alone subject it to criticism. With creative pieces especially, the line between author and narrator is often blurred, so it’s important to not conflate the two; the thoughts and experiences of one don’t necessarily belong to the other. Keeping that in mind, anyone reading creative work should also be careful to balance negative and positive feedback while remaining honest as a reader. It helps to be specific about what works and what doesn’t in a piece, as well as what could be done to strengthen the work. For example, rather than saying “you need to work on your dialogue,” pull out a specific moment in the piece that seems weak and talk about different ways the student might strengthen that moment.
Finally, it is important to remember that your opinion as the reader is subjective, and critiquing creative writing isn’t as black and white as identifying a comma splice in an academic paper and showing a student how to fix it. In my creative writing sessions, I repeatedly remind students that everything I say is simply my opinion; I find this takes the pressure and frustration off of them to feel like they must make every change I suggest. Students should remember that they, as the author, always have the final word on their piece.