How to Give and Take Constructive Memoir Writing Critique 10

Are you part of a writing critique group or plan to be part of one? Knowing how to critique another’s writing is always a bit tricky. You want to point out the writing’s weakness in order to help the writer improve at her craft. At the same time, you don’t want to hurt feelings. There’s a thin line, it seems, between constructive criticism and just plain criticism. This line becomes even thinner when the piece being discussed is memoir.

When it comes to memoir, we have a natural tendency to want to empathize (or judge) and are easily distracted by the life challenges described by the author; as a result, we can end up discussing her life, rather than her writing. A writing critique group should always be about the writing, not the writer, so if you find your discussions centering around emotional problems rather than how the writer portrays the problems on the page, you’ll know you’re off track.

How to Stay on Track When Offering Critique

  • Limit your comments to the actual craft of writing and how the narrator’s life is represented on the page — to the art of description, narrative arc, and language. You are not there to discuss how to heal from emotional or physical trauma. Nor are you there to judge how the author or his family members reacted to the situation.
  • Be honest. Don’t hold back for fear of hurting the author’s feelings.
  • It’s good to consider how your words will land before you say them — kindness never hurts, but don’t sympathize with the author about his experiences or (horror!) feel sorry for him because of what he has been through. And don’t share your own personal stories in response to the author’s. It’s not a therapy session.
  • Remove the personal from the person. When critiquing memoir, remember that the author’s character on the page is just that — a character. The narrator is a portrayal of the author, not the author herself. So talk about “the narrator,” not “you.” For example, “I’m confused by the statement the narrator makes at this point in the scene,” rather than “I’m confused by your statement here.” Or “I feel that the narrator’s response needs clarification,” vs. “Why did you respond that way?” Talk about pacing and sentence structure, and keep it impersonal. You would never confuse a fictional narrator with the author; avoid confusing the narrator of memoir with the author, as well.

How to Stay on Track When Receiving Critique

  • Focus on the writing itself, and model the impersonal nature of the discussion by talking about “the narrator,” instead of “I” (unless you’re discussing the way you approached the writing itself). Talk about characters and pace and action, description and metaphor — not the choices you made in real life.
  • Pay attention to positive comments about what’s working, and what keeps your readers interested in the story. Work on giving your readers more of the same.
  • Keep an open mind. You are there to learn, after all. If three or more people mention the same issue, pay attention. For example, if they question the pace during a particular section, experiment with changing it up. Will slowing the pace down add to the suspense of the moment? Will speeding it up keep your readers turning the page? Think about your memoir as an experiment in communication and allow yourself to approach the craft of writing playfully.
  • Consider all comments as advice and don’t feel compelled to make every change that is suggested. Make notes, take your piece home, and review all comments, paying careful attention to what resonates and what makes you feel defensive. (Hint: if you’re feeling defensive, take a closer look.)

The bottom line is that you want to give and take memoir critique the same way you give and take critique for fiction writing and poetry — thoughtfully, tactfully, and honestly. By focusing on the writing, not the writer, you’ll get the most out of your writing group.


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10 thoughts on “How to Give and Take Constructive Memoir Writing Critique

  • sara

    When I misbehaved as a small child, my mother would critique my behavior attempting to correct it. I was a sensitive child and afterwards would inevitably ask, “Momma, do you still love me?” “Yes, darling, I always love you, but I don’t always like what you do.” My mother quickly taught me that her love was not conditioned upon my behavior. She unknowingly taught me to accept criticism graciously and to learn from my mistakes.
    I give you this analogy, for I believe critiquing using my mother’s principle applies here. Critiquing how a person writes is like correcting behavior while still loving the person who’s writing. Knowing the difference between the product and the person makes a difference in the focus of the critique and in the words one chooses.

  • Ian Mathie

    There are two sides to writing any sort of literary critique: the objective and the subjective. The former is an unemotional process of analysis and comment, covering such things as structure, language use, writing fluency and all the technical bits those who write about writing so love to explore. The second is an emotional process, about your reaction to the work, and it hits at several different levels.
    Firstly, does the way the story is told make contact with your soul? Can you identify with the story teller and become involved in the tale? Do events resonate, and come across as things you can understand even though their rationale and detail may be outside your own experience? These are things that can be discussed. In a way that opens up the thinking of those who may read your review, revealing new perspectives.

    Secondly, how well does the way the story is written suite the story itself? Does it enhance or impede the reader’s interest? If told differently, would the same story have had more or less impact? And does the writing style match what you, as the reader, have come to know about the person who wrote it at the end? It is, after all, memoir that we are considering and that it a very personal and revelatory form of writing. So how much of their inner self has the writer revealed in the memoir?
    In the fifteen years since I started writing in this genre, asking myself questions like these has influenced not only the way I read, but my writing as well. I hope it has improved it. It has certainly meant that I get far more out of every book I read.

    When writing a book review, whether it be memoir, or anything else, I always read the book twice. Once quite fast, to get the flavour and the story; the second time I read slightly slower, but with a notepad to hand so I can record the things that provoke comments. After the second reading I let it digest in my mind fir a few days, until the pattern of what I want to say becomes apparent. Only then do I sit down and compose words to express my comments, and I always try to make these constructive, even if I don’t particularly like the work. Then again, if I really don’t like it, I probably wouldn’t bother reading the second time and wouldn’t write a review. I would simply accept that the book was not for me. Curiously, this seldom happens with memoirs.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Ian, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, one of the important aspects of feedback for any type of writing is how it does or does not move the reader emotionally. When we discuss the “technical bits” — the techniques used — it is usually in reference to how the the techniques do or do not support the story’s expression.

      And thank you for the reminder about asking the important question, How well has the writer revealed him or herself? Honest reflection resulting in growth and self-evaluation/discovery is one of the unique aspects of memoir that makes it so compelling.

  • patsy ann taylor

    Thank you for the reminder. I try to keep in mind that I am critiquing the writing, but sometimes the content is so interesting, I can get off track.

  • Barbara Toboni

    I’ve been in my critique group for a long time. We’ve all become friends. That’s what makes it hard to sometimes separate the writer from the writing. Thanks for the tips.