Writers On Writing / The Importance of Constructive Criticism with Sisonke Msimang

“Constructive criticism invites the person whose work you are reading to consider a few other ways of approaching their work, or a sentence or a character.”

How has receiving feedback on your work developed your writing practice?

Feedback has been crucial in developing my writing craft. I’ve realised that I often seek feedback in informal ways, talking through big ideas, and things that are on my mind, and this happens long before I start to write. We don’t often talk about the formative stage of idea-making and shaping, but I realise how important it is for me to get feedback and responses to ideas, and to collaborate on the thinking part of writing.

What’s the best way to give someone constructive criticism?

The best way is to be direct and kind. Constructive criticism offers a way of thinking about writing. It doesn’t say – “do this.” Constructive criticism invites the person whose work you are reading to consider a few other ways of approaching their work, or a sentence or a character. It’s about helping people to arrive at their own conclusions. It’s not always easy but its crucial because constructive critiques make our work stronger.

What creative non-fiction books are on your to-read pile at the moment?

I’ve got a ton of to-read (again) books because I’m in judging mode for the Stella Prize at the moment. So maybe I’ll list the non-Australian ones so I don’t get in any kind of trouble.

I picked up the Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson at the Sydney Writer’s Festival this year after listing to her in conversation with Santi Chingaipe and I haven’t read it yet but am looking forward to it. I’ve also read most of Howard French’s remarkable book Born in Blackness and its incredible. There have been some excellent non-fiction books coming out of South Africa, and the one I’m most excited about reading is The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past by Imran Coovadia, which is a history of toxins and accusations of poisonings.

So much to read, so little time!


Sisonke Msimang is the author of Always Another Country: A memoir of exile and home and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela: A biography of survival. She is a South African writer whose work is focused on race, gender and democracy. She has written for a range of international publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Newsweek and Al Jazeera. Sisonke is the curator of the Ideas Program at the Perth Festival.

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