| Don’t Write Alone
Toolkit How to Workshop Stories About Trauma
Not all feedback, even from a reader you hold in high esteem, will be appropriate for the story you’re trying to tell.
I’ve critiqued nonfiction writing for years now in my capacity as an MFA teacher, editor, workshop instructor, mentor, and writing partner. Much of the work I read includes firsthand accounts about a writer’s experience with trauma due to things like intimate-partner violence, sexual assault, bigotry, neglect, emotional or verbal abuse, sexual harassment, grief, or betrayal. In many instances, the writer’s manuscript is one of their earliest attempts to process their trauma, and I’m one of the first people to read about it.
For many people, writing about a difficult experience can be therapeutic or healing . But the decision to share and receive feedback on writing about trauma should be considered carefully. Writers need to prepare for and, to some degree, protect themselves from the kind of feedback they may receive. An essay I wrote about pregnancy loss was once pummeled by a member of a writing group who questioned how my grief could be so consuming. I felt so ashamed that two years passed before I was able to reopen the document to revise it. Though I’d wanted feedback on my writing, I had not expected the feedback to compound my trauma.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Writers can come to the exchanges with a clear sense of their needs and boundaries. Readers play a vital role in these relationships too. They need to approach narratives about trauma with great humility, empathy, awareness, and sensitivity to ensure healthy and fulfilling working relationships with the writers.
Here are some tips for writers and readers when it comes to engaging with work about trauma.
I. How to receive feedback on writing about trauma
Find a reader you can trust with your work
It may be tempting to turn over a draft to the first person willing to read and critique it. But not every reader is a good fit for every kind of writing, especially when the story is about a traumatic experience.
Not every reader is a good fit for every kind of writing, especially when the story is about a traumatic experience.
The psychological cost of showing someone your writing about trauma can be high. Consider sharing it with a reader you know whose style and feedback you have found useful in the past, or who shares your background. For example, I’ve written several essays over the years about racialized trauma. Feedback from white readers either denied my lived experiences or was so self-conscious that they were afraid to critique the work vigorously. I now send my essays about race only to other Black or brown folks who not only understand this kind of injury but are also invested in improving my prose. Make sure the people you share your writing with are committed to both your storytelling and your mental and emotional health.
Provide a content warning
Even if you have an established relationship, not every reader will have the mental capacity to engage with your material. Content warnings give the reader the opportunity to decline reading your work. I like this beginner’s guide to trigger warnings , which has some helpful examples. Another option is to set up a phone call prior to sharing your work, in which you bring up any content that might trigger the reader. I don’t require content warnings from any of the MFA students I teach, but I always appreciate them.
Similarly, you should prepare for the fact that the feedback may trigger you. Even the gentlest reader can unintentionally say or suggest something harmful. Schedule time to rest, meditate, or engage in a relaxing activity afterward. Have a few friends on standby to talk through the experience with you if you need it.
Remember that trauma doesn’t have to be written in scene
The trauma we write about should be emblematic of a lesson or message that will hold significance to the reader. We don’t need the trauma to be graphic, explicit, or sensationalistic. Consider referencing it in exposition, as background information, or in a brief flashback. Focus on the events leading up to the trauma and/or the journey after. Readers don’t need to know the details of the trauma itself. Ultimately, they want to know how it shaped who you are.
Choose how to incorporate the feedback
First, take some time to step away from your manuscript. You’ll need a critical lens to review whatever feedback you’ve been given, and you may not be able to do this from a tender place. When I write about trauma, I need frequent and long breaks. I’ve put some essays away for months before considering the comments and beginning revision.
Second, remember that this piece of writing will have your name on it. It’s your work, and you need to be able to stand by it. Not all feedback, even from a reader you hold in high esteem, will be appropriate for the story you’re trying to tell. Take into account what feedback supports the story and what detracts from it. Make sure you are preserving your authentic experiences and your unique voice.
Consider seeking treatment before sharing your work
If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, depression, PTSD, or any other mental health issues, consider getting help before sharing your writing about trauma. Writing can certainly assist with the healing process, but serious mental health issues oftentimes need professional attention. Treatment can help you work through and process your trauma. Once you’ve had the opportunity to do so, chances are you’ll be more easily able to identify the story you wish to tell about it and better equipped to shape it into a compelling narrative.
II. How to give feedback on writing about trauma
Create a safe space
This is especially essential if the feedback session is in person or over the phone. Have a conversation beforehand about the work’s subject matter, ensuring both you and the writer are emotionally prepared.
When giving the feedback, instead of charging right into a conversation about the piece, consider starting with an icebreaker. Make sure you’ve established a sense of safety and trust. When it’s time to discuss the writer’s trauma, go slowly and check in periodically. Discussing a piece about trauma can be emotionally draining for you both. The writer may need additional time to process your feedback and ask questions about it. Offer to do a follow-up conversation about the work or to answer any additional questions later, over email, if that would serve them.
Let the writer lead
This is their story, and they are in the driver’s seat. Empower them in the process by letting them take charge of their feedback, whether it’s provided in person, over the phone, or in written comments.
Asking open-ended questions about craft and process will make clear that they are driving the session. “Tell me how you decided to approach this story” is one way to open up the conversation. Or, “How did you find writing this chapter?” Or, “What was the hardest part about writing this?” You can also ask what kind of feedback the writer would like to receive. Your feedback will be more helpful if it is targeted to the issues they want you to address.
If you’ll be giving written feedback on work, ask the reader ahead of time what they’d like you to focus on in the manuscript and make sure to prioritize those areas in your critique.
Make sure your feedback sticks to craft
In her article “How to Critique Writing About Trauma in a Safer Way,” Yolande House suggests a reader should “avoid discussing the events in the narrative, which in much of creative nonfiction are the experiences of the writer.”
A writer submits their work for feedback because they want to improve their writing, not because they want the reader to help them process their trauma. So keep your comments focused on elements like character development, the narrative arc, the use of flashbacks, or pacing. Writers don’t need you to be their therapist, so don’t overstep or be presumptuous about their mental health or their mental state.
In the same vein, don’t assume that a writer writing about a traumatic experience needs to be coddled. You can be sensitive about what they’re sharing without treating them as if they’re too fragile to receive rigorous feedback. Ultimately, whether you’re a creative writing instructor, an editor, or a writing partner, writers are seeking your services to help improve their manuscript.
Once, in a workshop, one of my former students wrote so vaguely about their childhood abuse that I couldn’t get a clear sense of what eventually led them on the journey of healing at the heart of their narrative. In this case, I did ask for more information about the incident that caused the trauma. But be aware that it may still be too raw for a writer to write about in full. If so, you can suggest the writer use placeholders until they’re able to fully develop the prose that explains the source of their trauma.
Don’t tell writers what they should or shouldn’t write
The number one complaint I hear from writers is that readers have discouraged them from telling a particular story. One of my former students was told she shouldn’t write an essay about her childhood abuse because it was just too hard to read. Another former student was told their story about trauma seemed too unbelievable.
Telling writers they can’t or shouldn’t pen particular narratives deprives them of agency over their own lived experiences––much in the same way the initial traumatic experiences they’re writing about did.
Sharing one’s writing about trauma is a vulnerable and intimate experience. It is an act of bravery.
Don’t dismiss the trauma
This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it’s common. Do not judge or dismiss a writer’s trauma, and do not ask them why they reacted or responded to it the way they did. Questioning a writer’s feelings or actions can be incredibly damaging. A writer of nonfiction is writing their truth. Do not assume otherwise or interrogate the validity of their experiences.
Sharing one’s writing about trauma is a vulnerable and intimate experience. It is an act of bravery. Remind the writer that you appreciate being trusted with their work.
Giving and receiving feedback on writing about trauma is a delicate dance. It is, in some sense, an art in and of itself. We writers are fallible humans, and there is always a chance we may say or do something uncomfortable or distressing in the course of this process.
But if we are conscientious and respectful of one another, center our emotional health, and are intentional in our communication, we pave the way for important and compelling writing to make its way into the world and, perhaps, help heal others.