How to Recognize and Invite (Constructive) Criticism, with Author Jacqueline Woodson

Novelist and Children's Author
Over a year ago

Writing is a long process. Most authors have their individual ways to make it work, their own carefully designed method to make sure they actually finish what they started. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a gaping plot hole that means rewriting several chapters to solve one problem, and sometimes it turns out okay. There are published writers who reread their work and still find flaws, and there are authors who can’t stand to read their own work ever again. With each type of writing, type of plot, type of character – from Sherlock Holmes to Juliet Capulet – there are many different types of revision.

Jacqueline Woodson, 2014 National Book Award winner and author of many books, including Miracle’s Boys and her most recent Another Brooklyn, has figured the writing process out – or what works for her, in any case, although it does feel quite universal. For Woodson, it’s important that each new manuscript starts with a lot of praise – it must be heaped upon her. Launching into criticism without that ego fortification, she would feel too conflicted and upset about her work to continue. There needs to be some level of hope and happiness in relation to the book, because if people just drive straight into the “this doesn’t make sense, this doesn’t work, I don’t like this bit,’ an aspiring author can feel that there is too much work to be done in order to save the novel in the first place. Once there is a level of confidence related to the work, constructive criticism can begin, which for Woodson takes the form of asking a trusted friend or mentor for their questions relating to the piece. This gives her a chance to address those issues and clear up any assumed knowledge issues, clunky character traits, or plot points. The third step is asking for more specific feedback and critique, where constructive comments are balanced with insight into what this person likes about your work. Vulnerability is inevitable, but it’s easier to experience when it’s cushioned with some self-confidence.

There is a difference between constructive criticism, and “destructive” criticism as Woodson warns. Constructive criticism has a very certain aim, which is to help an artist move forward and be better. Destructive commentary may not have an aim or provide solutions, only distress. It is important to know the difference, when giving and receiving advice, and only solicit advice from those you respect. Without it, no one can move up and onwards to better things.

Jacqueline Woodson's most recent book is Another Brooklyn.