Katlyn Stechschulte

Katlyn Stechschulte


If I had $10 for every time I heard this word during my first MFA residency, my full tuition for the residency would be back in my bank account.

Beautiful. This word, which I reserve for something unique or rare, something that makes me take pause from life, was assigned to just about every reading, poem, essay and excerpt.

It astonished me that a group of writers—who have such a deep reverence for words—could throw this particular one around so carelessly.

Don’t get me wrong: There were some beautiful pieces. But there were also some mediocre ones, some confusing ones, and some that flat out needed tender, loving care. Yet, somehow, just about every single piece was deemed “beautiful.”

I know writers are among those who can find beauty in atypical places, and arguments can be made that beauty is everywhere, or beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And yes, like beauty, taste in writing is subjective, so a piece that I find dull someone else could find beautiful. But by the end of the second week of residency I had grown numb to the word. Why was I reacting so strongly to the situation?

Words carry value. And when I heard that everything we studied was beautiful, it not only diminished the value of the word, but of the work that was being described by it, as well.

As writers, shouldn’t we be able to assign the most accurate adjective to what we read? Shouldn’t we take the effort to dive a little deeper into our vocabulary troves and find something that is suited for exactly that piece? Or, instead of simply stating “It’s beautiful,” explain why it is beautiful.

I cannot help but think that “beautiful” is becoming a cop-out assessment in the literary world. A pretty crutch. Passive and lazy. If beauty can be found in everything—or is in the eye of the beholder—then there is no need to back a “beautiful” claim with substantiated reasons.

By leaning further into this crutch, inching away from potentially uncomfortable and direct workshop discussions, we are disservicing ourselves and the writing community as a whole. How can we expect an honest and thoughtful evaluation of our own work if we cannot offer one to others? How can we better our writing if we do not know where it shines and where it is lackluster?

Accurately summarizing a piece is a great place to start, but the real benefit in critiquing lies in analyzing writing at a structural level and articulating our analysis into actionable feedback for the author. In order to do this, it is imperative to put aside our personal preferences and stop hiding behind subjective summary terms, and instead read pieces with open minds, uninfluenced by our individual tastes, and be brave enough to provide objective feedback.

Some considerations to make when critiquing a piece:

  • What do you interpret the author is trying to accomplish and how successfully does the author realize his or her intentions?
  • How accurately does the author structure the work for the intended form? If it is a literary journalism piece, are there enough facts woven in? If it is a braided memoir, does the writer successfully balance and weave the various strands?
  • Make note of pacing and rhythm. Were there places you stumbled? Places you couldn’t peel your eyes from the page? Call those out.
  • Signal spots where you appreciate detail and mark places where you would like to see more. A character or scene is usually more developed in an author’s mind than on the page.
  • Make note of tone and fluidity. What is the overall feeling the piece leaves you with?

When reviewing literature take pause, consider, and form your assessment carefully. You are doing more than commenting: You are setting the bar for the development and creation of quality writing of others, as well as your own.


Katlyn Stechschulte is a marketing and communications professional and MFA student. Her work has been featured in the Springfield State Journal-Register, Aberdeen American News, and The Columbus Dispatch.