Writing (Teaching) Tip–Acknowledging that Criticism Hurts

English playwright John Osborne once said, “Asking a writer what he thinks about criticism is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

That makes you, in the eyes of most students, a dog.  They write; you criticize.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about genuine praise, or “appreciative inquiry,” as a feedback tool.  That’s one way to avoid feeling like a dog: avoid criticism.

Yet most writing feedback contains some kind of critique.  Students lock onto it like heat-seeking missiles.  They read it, they hide it, they quote it, and sometimes they even trade it in a kind of perverse one-upmanship.  But do they heed it?

Maybe one reason that students ignore good advice is that it hurts too much to acknowledge it fully.  It means fessing up to poor work habits and scraping half-baked ideas into the trash.  How can we help students get beyond the pain to productive revision?

One tack might be to distance your criticism from a student’s self-esteem.  Descriptive language–this paper summarizes instead of compares–can deliver a precise message without the collateral damage that evaluative language–this paper fails to compare–sometimes inflicts.  Rather than address the writer, make the paper the target for your arrows of insight.  The assignment [not the instructor!] challenges students to compare theory X and theory Y, but this paper [not the student!] summarizes X… In a one-on-one conference, you can physically position the paper so that you and the student are sitting side by side, a team, looking together at this text and what it is trying to communicate.

Another tack is to acknowledge that criticism can be bruising, but productive writers deal with it and move on.  Quoting Osborne and other literary greats in her online article “Painful Prose: The Difficulty of Writing,” University of Oregon law professor Suzanne Rowe reminds legal writers that pain is an inevitable part of the process.  Anyone who writes confronts critics, internal as well as external, so you might share a story or two with students about how you manage to soldier on. No matter what you think of Bill Clinton, I feel your pain was one of his most effective debate lines.

Finally, you might invite (assign) students to respond to your feedback in writing.  This response not only checks that students have 1) read and 2) understood your comments, but it also gets them thinking about revision immediately.  One guide is “Handling Criticism,” a handout from Utah State University’s academic resource center that has nothing to do with writing but offers sensible advice for acknowledging, disarming, and probing criticism.  After you comment on a draft, you might ask students to send you an e-mail along these lines:

  1. Which of my comments struck you as the most valid?  Where do you see room for improvement in your paper?
  2. Did I miss something in your paper?  Tell me where I misread your work or overlooked an important point.
  3. Ask me two questions that will help you shape your next draft.

You will be helping students develop a writerly mindset as they consider audience response and edit their own work.


R U Feeling Alot of Frustrations with Student Writing?

Check out this funny, visual blog then.  You will see a lot/alot in a new way.