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"Your writing sucks!"

Years ago, I belonged to a writer’s group. We had come together after a writing workshop based on the book “Writing Without Teachers,” by Peter Elbow. The book became my go-to inspiration for many years, with its process exercises, writer’s block solutions—and most of all, its respect for all writers.

Part of the workshop involved giving feedback to passages of original writing. The leader handed out a list of questions that we were to use for eliciting feedback. The writer would read a passage while the rest of us listened. Then another writer in the group, the moderator, would read a question from the list and direct it to one of the listeners.

The questions ranged from “What went on inside you as you heard the piece?” to “If this piece were a piece of clothing, what would it be.” Silly, right? But not one of the questions aimed at finding out what the listener thought about the piece. We were not asking if the writing was good or bad, clichéd or brilliant, derivative or original. And as long as we just answered the questions, no one ever got to say, “I think the character should be a woman.” Or, “Why did you set it in Arizona? No one cares about Arizona.” Or, “Hey, this really sucks.”

It was incredibly liberating, and incredibly helpful, too. The questions were brilliantly devised. Designed to be informative, never disparaging; idea-provoking, not soul-crushing, the questions assured that when your turn came, your writing would receive careful listening, honest impressions, and helpful suggestions or ideas.

The group met weekly for five years. After it disbanded, I kept the questions, using them whenever I was asked to give feedback—BTW, isn’t it just begging for trouble to call it “a critique?”—of another writer’s work. The questions, and the principles behind them, work for everyone—my teenaged nephew, a guy from my church who was self-publishing a novel, and even business colleagues.

A lot of people don’t really want the truth when they ask for your opinion. But everyone appreciates a truthful, helpful response—your honest impressions as a reader, listener, or viewer.

It doesn’t have to be “that’s nice, dear.” But it never has to be, “this sucks.”

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