Why critique won’t make you a better writer

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In The Writers Lounge, my membership program for Muslim writers, every other month we have a live feedback session. Our members submit their work to me, and on the call we have a conversation about their writing and how they can make their stories stronger. I try to make sure it’s a collaborative process and that my feedback is attuned to what the writer is trying to do, rather than simply imposing my own ideas or preferences on their work.

What happens sometimes, more often than I would like, is that when writers submit their stories, they’ll add some version of, “You can be harsh. I can handle it.” It saddens me because it shows that we’ve accepted and internalized the idea that unless someone is harsh or brutal with our writing, we’re not going to improve. That unless someone is ruthless in pointing out all the things we’re doing wrong, our writing will never be ‘good enough.’ 

But when has being brutal served anyone? Would I be a better driver if my driving instructor had teared me down every time I hit the curb when I tried to parallel park? Would I be a better cook if my mom always pointed out how far off the flavour profile of my dishes were compared to her cooking? Would I have had fun in my art classes if every time my instructor walked over to look at my painting, she pointed out where the colours were clashing and how I wasn’t correctly doing the technique that she just had taught?

When has anyone ever taught us anything with harshness and it actually helped us improve rather than feel defeated and question why we even bothered with the thing in the first place? I imagine the answer is never. 

It saddens me too because as Muslims, we know the value of gentleness. I love the hadith, “Allah is Gentle and He loves gentleness in all affairs.” But why are we so resistant to applying this to our writing? Because here’s the thing that’s implied when writers tell me to be harsh in my critique: it’s that if I’m being gentle, it’s not really critique. If I’m being gentle, I’m coddling them. Maybe I’m even being dishonest because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

We need to break this association of gentleness and uselessness. When I’m being gentle, what I’m actually doing is meeting the story where it’s at. I’m trying to determine what it is that’s holding this piece of writing from becoming the best version of itself. I’m trying to assess which specific writing strategies or exercises might help them in order for them to realize their story’s potential.

You can let someone know why you experienced their writing in a certain way without being harsh about it, without telling them “dump this idea because it’s no good” or “your character is really flat and doesn’t feel like a real person to me.”

Telling a writer “I feel like you can further develop this story so that the idea behind it is more clear” is gentle and is critique. Telling a writer “I want to know more about your character’s struggles so I can better appreciate why she wants to run away” is gentle and is critique. Critique doesn’t have to be harsh to count as critique.

Here’s the bigger message: I’m not just saying that critique must be given in a gentle way. I’m also critiquing the idea that critique makes us better writers.

More than ten years ago, when I finally decided I was going to take myself seriously as a writer, I signed up for a writing course that was built around critique. I distinctly remember coming out of the final class and feeling like I hadn’t actually learned anything. Sure, I got lots of feedback on what to work on when it came to the stories that I had submitted. But did I feel like I had become a better writer? A stronger writer? No. So I stopped taking writing classes for a while and focused on writing on my own. I just wanted to enjoy the feeling of putting pen to paper and bringing my stories to life.

When I finally found a writing course that didn’t focus on critique, that’s when I really learned to write better. The writer who created the program, Sarah Selecky, said something that has stayed with me — when your focus on critique, you’re not teaching yourself how to be a strong writer, you’re only teaching yourself how to be a critic. 

And I’ve seen this so many times in writers who critique a lot. You might expect that because they can articulate so clearly what’s not working in someone else’s writing, they would be able to recognize those same elements in their own writing as well. You might imagine that their writing would never have those problems. But the reality is that their focus on critique doesn’t give them any kind of advantage over other writers. They still need to practice and develop their writing skills, just like everyone else.

In fact, I would argue that writers who don’t have much experience critiquing, who focus on reading what they love and enjoying their writing, are able to write better because they knew what they loved to read and focused on bringing those elements into their writing.

This is why I only hold feedback calls in The Writers Lounge on a bi-monthly basis. There are so many ways that can actually help us become better writers but the one that we’ve been taught to focus on is critique — the harsher it is the better, and if you can’t handle it, then you’re too weak to be a real writer.

Reject that messaging. Don’t let anyone make you think that your writing isn’t worthy of respect. And above all, remember that Allah is Gentle and loves gentleness.

The Writers Lounge, my monthly membership for Muslim writers is now open for registration. It’s a thriving writing community for Muslim women to connect, grow, and learn from each other. You’ll find the structure and support that you need to strengthen your writing skills and make a stronger commitment to your writing. Come join us and write your best stories yet!

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