On non-evaluative feedback

I use non-evaluative feedback in creative writing workshops for several reasons. For one, it helps to quiet the writer’s ego, the desire for praise, the fear of dispraise; that ego is no friend to an artist. Instead the author gets a more enduring affirmation: we’ve heard and listened to you, what you’ve made has held our whole attention. We don’t need our work to be loved. We need to be loved.

Also, the practice emphasizes observing over advising, which helps to minimize suggestions that are well meant but unhelpful, and will lead the student being critiqued astray. Some of my colleagues have let go of workshopping altogether because of how easily bad advice proliferates.

I’ve had an unusually hard time introducing non-evaluative feedback to one of my workshops this quarter. There are dynamics in the class I’m still puzzling out and may not ever see clear. But here’s the handout I put together this morning, after mulling a perilous hour in the endodontist’s chair.


On non-evaluative feedback

Non-evaluative feedback is an integral part of this course. While it may feel unfamiliar at first, I have sound pedagogical reasons for using it, and I ask you to follow the critique guidelines I’ve set out.

Benefits to the author

Hearing what we like about their piece is of very little use to the author. It makes them feel good, and that’s about it. Once the good feeling has passed, they know nothing new about how to revise the piece, what direction to take it, or how they might approach another piece in a different way.

In fact, hearing what the class likes can be positively unhelpful to an author. Sometimes the most realized and polished part of a piece is the part that needs to go, and the roughest, most clumsily written part is closest to its beating heart. It may be clumsy because it’s genuinely new. But if half the class likes the accomplished part, the author, unless they’re unusually strong-willed, is likely to keep that part, develop it, focus on it, even if their own creative instinct, that small still voice inside, says the truth of the piece lies elsewhere. They end up revising to please a committee – us – and an opportunity to learn and grow is lost.

Saying what we like seems benign, it seems helpful, but we’re actually asking the author to make their piece conform to a group consensus. The author deserves more freedom than that, and non-evaluative feedback helps to protect that freedom.

Benefits to the reader

Saying what you like is easy. It hardly stretches you at all. Saying what you notice is hard. It asks you to think the way a working writer thinks: how is language functioning here? what is this effect, and how is it achieved? In other words, when you do non-evaluative critique, you are actively learning how to write. And you should be learning as a writer every moment you’re in workshop, no matter whose work is up for discussion.

This noticing practice will be more doable if you start it before class. Don’t write evaluative comments on your peer’s piece, then try to translate them to non-evaluative comments during workshop. Write non-evaluative observations ahead of time that you can share with the class when we meet.


Courses past, a few spoken guidelines have been enough, and then modelling. This is a new intervention. But I think it’ll become my new normal – maybe elaborated, with, say, a few examples of how to turn an “I like” into an “I notice.”

It was important to strike the right tone. It’s an admonishment, no question, and there needed to be a bit of sharpness to it. But more than a bit and it would all go to shit; my authority with this group feels tenuous, for reasons I have only a little sussed out, and I need to proceed tenderly. Leftover Hallowe’en candy helped. The feel in the room was good today, better than in a while; I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner.

Lastly, I do see suddenly, this practice is in the spirit of Sōsan’s “The great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing” (see my old teacher’s talk here). That is, preferences. Non-evaluative feedback is great mind in action. So why am I surprised it draws me to it but is hard for my students? I’ve had 20 years training in these ways. They’ve had 18+ years training in liking this, disliking that, on the GD interwebs.

Teaching phil (expandated)

Go figure. Work on another teaching statement for another job app snagged my active engaged interest. Results here. Wary be, some loftiness ahead. And still enamoured of the pilcrow.


The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teacher, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways and work with them as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to work with differences of background and temperament they may have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a para­graph. One is to make sure the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes against the sort of difference another person is. The values I’ve set out here, self-aware­ness, self-inquiry, empathy across differences, have meaning beyond the creative writing classroom. They are, to my mind, crucial to any humanistic education, and have something real to offer the business major, the nurse in training, the nascent physicist. And creative writing has ways of eliciting these values maybe not to be found elsewhere.  But far fewer of a given school’s students will take a creative writing workshop than take a general education course. So it’s important to me, in my general university courses, which at Western are capped at 60 or 75 students, to carry over all I can from my practice as a creative writing teacher. I rarely lecture for more than two or three minutes at a time. My mini-lectures are usually impromptu—offered as our conversation seems to warrant. I make a point of learning everyone’s names, and make getting a student’s name wrong a point of fun at my expense, to model that I’m learning, too. Really a pretty small expense. I use small group work so everyone can collaborate in their own education. And I give assignments that draw on both creative and analytical faculties—per­form­ance projects, formal debates, journal assignments that ask students to write a soliloquy in blank verse or a scene in the post-apocalyptic creole in which the novel we’re reading is narrated. My hope is that, through activities like these, students will draw their creative, intuitive, emotional, and analytic faculties closer together, and they will be more available to them in their other coursework, their careers, and their social and spiritual lives.

Teaching phil

(Spillover from a job app. Why am I putting it here? Someone might be curious? And, I was having fun with the pilcrow.)


Teaching Statement

The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teach­er, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways, and work with them in conference as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find that peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find that faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to negotiate differences of background and temperament they might have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a prose para­graph. One is to make sure that the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes on the sort of difference another person is.


POSTSCRIPT. Reading about the pilcrow in Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Good fun and some neat finds. But dreadful editing. Dangling modifiers so thick methinks I need a machete. Come on, Norton, you’re better than this.