Who Should You Show Your Writing To? Jacqueline Woodson Has Advice!

This post was written by Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

On January 9 at the Library of Congress, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson was inaugurated as the 2018-19 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. As part of this exciting event, Ms. Woodson participated in a dialogue with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden; delivered remarks to D.C. middle school students, Library of Congress staff, and other guests; and answered thought-provoking questions from the audience about her new role as ambassador, her own writing, and the creative process.

National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson speaks with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, January 9, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Ms. Woodson offered many thoughtful responses during the Q&A session, but her advice about feedback and whether student writers should submit their work to friends for critique intrigued us.

“It’s a good question, ‘Who do you show your writing to?’” she began. “I think you show it to people you trust.” She then defined constructive criticism as feedback that “makes you go running back to your work and want to make it better,” while destructive criticism “makes you just want to throw it away.”

So, what was her suggestion on how to get constructive feedback on your work? Politely request of a trusted reviewer (perhaps a friend, a teacher, or a family member): “Tell me something positive, and ask me three questions.”

Feedback can be critical in the creative and editorial processes – and not just for writers, but for painters, musicians, politicians, scientists, and creators and thinkers in many other spheres. The Library’s online collections offer primary sources that reveal fascinating feedback exchanges between some well-known figures. We selected a few examples – there are plenty more to explore.

Invite your students to explore these letters, including a 1908 letter from inventor Alexander Graham Bell to his close friend Helen Keller, in response to her book The World I Live In; an 1855 letter (transcription) from American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson to younger American author Walt Whitman, in reference to Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass; and a 1943 letter from American choreographer Martha Graham requesting feedback from her collaborator, American composer Aaron Copland.

Letter, Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, 1855 (transcription available)

Letter, Alexander Graham Bell to Helen Keller, 1908

Letter from Martha Graham to Aaron Copland, May 16, 1943

Stimulate thought or discussion by asking:

  • How might you describe the relationship between the writer and the addressee? Identify specific words, phrases, in the body, greeting, or closing that convey the tone.
  • What kind of feedback is being requested?
  • Do Bell and Emerson provide constructive or destructive criticism? What makes you say that?
  • What questions do the writers pose to the addressees, if any?
  • What kind of feedback is Martha Graham requesting? What questions does she ask?

For future writing exercises, you may pair students and ask them to exchange short writing assignments (or any other creations), and critique each other’s work, either verbally or in writing. This could offer a good opportunity for them to sharpen editorial techniques and habits, and it’ll also help them practice giving and receiving constructive criticism.

Help students reflect on their own creative process by asking:

  • What can you do or say to make sure any feedback you give is constructive?
  • When you need feedback on your work, who do you consult? Why?

Let us know how this works in your classroom, and feel free to share any other suggestions or insights that surface.

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