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.