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

National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson talks us through her writing and editing process, and gives useful steps for how to handle criticism.

Jacqueline Woodson: In terms of a criticism here's how I deal with it, and this is having written 32 books. The first time I ask people to read my work I say tell me only what you love about it. And they say I love a Jeremiah; I love that you've centered this book in Bushwick, whatever it is. And then I get all excited. I go back and write more. And then the next time I say ask me three questions. And then the three questions are why does he get killed? Why do they fall in love? Why does he end up in the witness protection program, whatever the questions they have that makes me go back and realize I haven't explained stuff enough and write more. It really is fragile when you first put your words out into the world and for someone to jump on them and start critiquing or criticizing them right off the bat can be devastating.

So even for me at this stage it has to be incremental and always starting with praise, lots and lots of praise and then getting to the nitty-gritty. And so I think it's important to show your work to people you trust and love. And I think it's important to read your work out loud, to hear it and hear where it feels safe and unsafe. Even with my editor when I get my manuscript back from her I go through the whole manuscript and I read all the places where she's like wow I love this; brilliant; awesome. And all of those praises kind of get me ready for her to ask the bigger questions. And it's important that the criticism be constructive because otherwise it's destructive. You want to just throw the book away and so the criticism should be kind of critiquing that asked questions, ask bigger questions, why does this happen; I'm curious about where this is going; at the end of this piece of dialogue what were you intending for the reader to get it, so that kind of thing so it doesn't make you feel so vulnerable. 

Writing is such a process and I think that sometimes aspiring writers don't realize what a process it is from the moment you have a brilliant idea to when you get to the point and that book completely falls apart and every single book you write you have a brilliant idea, it falls apart every single book. And then you have to start scaffolding and building the story again and starting to ask yourself the big questions about what this book is trying to say and how is it trying to say it and what do these characters want and how are they going to get what they want. So that's the process and then the next process is going out into the world with the story and getting that feedback and deciding who you're going to ask and what you're looking for in the feedback and what your end goal is for the story. Do you want to publish it or do you want something that your parents will love so you can give it to them as an anniversary present or what is it you want this book to be and how does it fit into the world of literature? How does it fit into the stuff that's already out there? So you have to be a reader. You can't be a writer without being a reader.

And I think that's another mistake young writers make. I've met so many poets who are like I don't read poetry I just write it or so many people who are trying to write realistic fiction that are only reading fantasy. It's just unrealistic to not know the genre your writing inside of. Then you have the people critiquing your work and you get to choose who they are; you get to choose how you want that feedback to come back to you. Some people will give their work to ten people or some people will trust a workshop. I for one have been in workshops and I haven't always trusted them because a lot of times I'm the only person of color in it so suddenly I'm having to explain to a lot of people who are not people of color my experience and having to justify my experience. And that's not helpful to me. So think about who the people are you're asking to read your work and what you want from them.

If I'm writing a book about someone who's transgendered, which I'm not going to do because I don't know enough about that story, but hypothetically I would want someone who's had that experience to be able to help me negotiate, and again, show me where do I get this right? Where do I get this wrong? Where does my own bias come into the story? But you do have to be able to be vulnerable with your work at some point, but for me I like to build a nice thick skin before I get to that point of feeling vulnerable.

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.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less