• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Imaginative Critique: an Antidote to “Brutal Honesty”

They think of themselves as belonging to that breed termed “Tough But Fair.” This isn’t working for me, they tell the writer whose work they have just read. I got bored halfway through the opening, and you never brought me back. The language is flat, and the ideas are muddy. As they see it, writing critique is not about preserving anyone’s feelings. It’s about brutal honesty. If you can’t take the heat, they say with a shrug, get out of the kitchen.


I do see their point, I guess. The writing process can be rough—rejection, revision, resubmission, repeat. Writing takes fortitude. When a student writer is learning that process, or even when a more experienced writer is seeking feedback for a work in progress, we don’t do them any favors by delivering empty flattery. If you’ve been asked for critique and all you give is a vague string of oohs and aahs, the writing process has stagnated with you.

I am, however, growing ever more skeptical of the “brutal honesty” approach to writing critique. For one thing, if the goal of critique actually is to help bring a piece of writing into its best possible form, then we ought to tune it to the primary writing vector: the writer. Writers are—trust me on this—people. They have emotions and insecurities and egos and cherished hopes and sore spots and darlings and demons, and if we ignore these parts of the writer, this too can stagnate the writing process.

Cat hiding under a blanket.
It is hard to write when all you want to do is hide.

The conventional wisdom proffered to educators and workplace supervisors alike is to give critical feedback in a “compliment sandwich”—i.e., say something nice about the work, then say the bad things, then wrap it up with another compliment. But this technique is ill-named. Most sandwiches are called by their contents, not their bread. Except for bagel sandwiches, for some reason. So unless your compliments are as robust as a New York bagel, you stand in danger of delivering a shit sandwich that just happens to be on nice bread. Heck, even bagels can’t make that appetizing.

But compassion—though a totally valid reason for doing a thing—is not the only reason that I recommend imaginative critique. Rather than valorizing brutality in the form of self-sure correctives, imaginative critique contributes to the inherent momentum of the writing. It acknowledges that the writing is already on its way towards something important. As opposed to the compliment sandwich, which foregrounds flattery as a means of handling the emotions of the writer, imaginative critique begins with an authentic question: What is already working in this piece? What is powering its movement? The answers to this question are best answered with specifics:

  • This story is drawn forward by a tone of exquisite longing.

  • This essay makes an important turn from what has been done about wealth inequality to what hasn’t been done.

Imaginative critics get inside the writing, striving to understand what it is trying to be and what it already is. We trust in the writer’s vision for the piece—because unless we can catch that vision, we won’t be of much use to them.

Since we only provide critique when a piece is still unfinished, imagination is necessary to complete our understanding of the writer’s vision. When giving feedback, look both for what is and what could be. Grow curious about the language mechanisms that might connect these two positions. Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World outlines a framework for applying this kind of curiosity-driven critique in the fiction workshop, but an imaginative feedback model is just as useful in academic writing or opinion writing or any other kind of writing as it is for fiction.

Imaginative critique doesn’t preclude matter-of-fact commentary on things like redundancy or plot holes (especially if the writer has requested that kind of feedback), but it does direct the critic to ask whether a seeming error might not be an attempt at something quite meaningful. If corrections are needed, that process too is imaginative, exploring how the attempted path might be cleared for ease of travel—or, in some cases, trying out alternate routes. Unneeded language or logical detours may need to be eliminated because they are impeding momentum. But however dramatic or mundane the suggestions for revision, if they are designed to help the writer reach their own goal and not the critic’s, they will be much easier to hear and to implement.

Imaginative critique doesn’t eliminate difficult conversations between writer and reader. I might confess to a writer that my attempts to imagine myself into the piece leave me a little dazed because I am being pulled in three different directions, none of which lead back to one another. But I say this as someone who has taken a stance alongside the writer, looking through their eyes, pulling with them towards the final version. Of course, my imagination might lead me astray; my questions and suggestions might do very little to help the writer move towards their ultimate goal. If my feedback proves useless to the writer, it isn’t because they are stubborn or unbending. The writer is not obligated to reimagine their work according to my ideas.

The “brutal honesty” critic will often present their feedback with a take it or leave it nonchalance, but there is a clear implication that taking their advice will spring you from the trap of self-delusion and put you on the right path—and leaving it is folly. If they didn’t think they were soothsayers, they wouldn’t call it honesty. The imaginative critic, on the other hand, doesn’t try to wrest control of the piece away from the author—even if they, themselves, would write it very differently. The imaginative critic is a single oarsman in the longship, not the pilot. They pull in support of a trajectory already set.

I do not suggest imaginative critique as a rigid structure—I see it more as an attitude than a checklist—but in an effort to take this idea out of the abstract and into practical application, I will provide a few guiding questions below to help facilitate the kind of reading and critique that I have been talking about.

When you approach a piece of writing with the purpose of critique, ask yourself:

  • What is already working in this piece? (What captures the imagination, the intellect, the ear?)

  • Where does this story/essay/speech begin? (Perhaps literally, perhaps not. Essentially, what is the first clear idea, emotion, assertion, etc. of the piece?)

  • Where does this piece of writing pick up energy? (Name specific choices in the writing that contribute to forward momentum.)

  • Where is the writing competing with itself? (Doing the same work twice, pulling in different logical directions, or moving too fast for the reader to catch all the content.) Does this division contribute nuance to the writing or would the writing be clearer without it?

  • Where are the empty places? (Leaps in logic, unspoken motivations, spare detail.) Are those silences poignant or disorienting?

  • Where does this piece of writing leave us? (As above, this may not literally be about the final paragraph or sentence. Try to identify where forward movement has stopped and there is no additional development.) Does this endpoint have a satisfying relationship to the beginning? (Either returning to the point of origin or situated within the consequences of the initial assertions/actions.)

  • What might be added, removed, or changed at any of these points that might amplify and support the goals of this writing?

In answering these questions, you will enter the piece imaginatively and engage with its extant power. Whether or not you are able to have live back-and-forth conversational with the writer about their work, this approach is dialogic rather than didactic. The imaginative critic listens to the writing carefully and responds not just to their own first impressions and preferences but to the internal logic and apparent intentions of the piece itself. There will always be critics (teachers and editors and workshoppers and beta readers) who see it as their job to cough up a laundry list of faults with “brutal honesty.” Without an understanding of the trajectory of the writing, however, their comments will be merely brutal, and their feedback may do more harm than good.

As any writer knows, the most brutal critic can be the one that resides in our own thoughts. Rather than silencing your internal critic, consider retraining it. You can apply imaginative critique to your own work. Trust yourself to have set the course towards something worth reaching. Learn to recognize what is already working and speculate (with interest rather than censure) about how to add momentum to that good work.

There are innumerable ways to get a piece of writing from draft to finished product. Maybe you have received (or delivered) some “brutal honest” that was part of that process. Maybe you have had to stop the writing process and recover from the same sort of feedback. I believe that imaginative critique saves everyone time and energy in the writing process—no wasted breath, no licking of wounds. Imagine everything we could accomplish with all that extra time.

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