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Writing is NOT a Safe Space

Essay 5 | Writing & Self-Empowerment Series

By Mackenzie DavisPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 9 min read
Top Story - February 2024
Writing is NOT a Safe Space
Photo by Jackson Hendry on Unsplash

"Wouldn’t it be great if every reader was transparent about their thoughts on my story?" said no one ever.

Me, whispering: "I want that."

I fundamentally believe that life is easiest when people are transparent. No lies, no half-truths, no masking of inner thoughts. Just pure, simple, truth. It would require a huge shift in conversational expectations, though, and I’m not sure society will ever get to that point. Plus, we’d have to stop being lazy and I don’t think humanity would survive such a call to action. We like our private thoughts protected by any means possible, after all.

I’m not saying that transparency requires all thoughts to be accessible by everybody. When someone asks a question, the answer would always be honest, is all. No hiding.

Who would agree with me that Vocal ought to be like this?

I hope there are a few of you, but the likelihood is that no one really wants that. See, Vocal expects positive engagement. Its creators thrive on the support, the praise, the kudos. Unsolicited constructive feedback is frowned upon and largely viewed as damaging to the author.

Why is Honest Feedback Such a No-No?

It’s simple, really. Writers want validation.

Not honesty.

Even if we used the sandwich method (compliment, feedback, compliment), writers would still prefer the purely positive comments. It’s the same for readers; we want to show support, give praise, and compliment what’s working. While I don’t believe that most readers on Vocal are disingenuous, they also aren’t transparent. We read too many stories and not all of them are flawless.

Is a lack of transparency on Vocal a problem? I guess not. Not a big one, anyway. People here don’t seem to lie but at some point, writers leave the platform. I wonder if that might in part be related to a lack of the kind of connection that would eventually lead to a good feedback relationship. After all, Vocal is a good starting place for new writers. Of course, there are other reasons for leaving and I'm not trying to make it seem as though this is a reality. Just a curiosity of mine.

Part of this is due to humanity’s tendency towards deception. In the face of possibly hurting someone’s feelings, we will deceive. It’s the same impulse behind covering up a mistake or justifying hurting someone. Suddenly, truth isn’t the most important thing; feeling good is. It takes maturity to develop a conscience that will step in and prevent these self-preserving tendencies. So asking us to accept a transparent society, relationship or, say, digital platform, is like asking us to go against every reflex and not flinch when the gun goes off.

I think the majority of us want to improve, though. We want people to be honest…just not too honest! We want our feelings to remain untouched. The more insecure we are, the less we crave transparency and in its place is validation. This isn’t loving when it’s dishonest. It feels good, but ultimately, it makes the truth painful when it never had to be.

Isn’t that a shame? The truth gets sacrificed and we’re stuck in a world that has to balance strangers’ feelings with our own integrity. No wonder social media is toxic; there’s no boundary on either side of the spectrum. People will lie just to have fun or be brutally honest to perfect strangers. And on the next level, you see people prioritizing “kindness” to a specific group to such a degree that everyone else is labeled a villain and suddenly we’re in a black and white, fundamentalist cult.

Vocal shines by comparison.

As a pseudo-social media site, Vocal is definitely all about positive community. There isn’t a strong dark side…though it has started brewing. My point here, though, is that deception doesn’t always look dark. Honesty and positivity are not mutually exclusive, unfortunately.

When we always write positive feedback, we expect to always get positive feedback; an even exchange. I think that’s damaging in the same way some people view getting unsolicited constructive feedback to be. No one is always positive. No one likes everything. And nothing is perfect. So…if we’re always offering positive feedback, it’s statistically guaranteed that we’re being deceptive.

Deceptive positivity. Not a solid foundation for improving one’s work, is it?

It makes it worse that Vocalites publish their work to an audience of peers. The readers are writers. Yet, we don’t view each others’ work as being open for feedback. That’s a huge missed opportunity. We all have valuable advice to offer. Shouldn’t we utilize it?


I want to write on Vocal knowing that I have peers who will give me feedback on the craft we share. If we have one thing in common, even if we’ve never interacted before, it’s that we value high quality, innovative writing. I want to know whether I’m meeting that standard.

Here, I think, is where the problem comes in. We don’t all share the same standards, do we? I don’t expect that everyone agrees with my statement above: “We value high quality, innovative writing.” Some people value entertainment more than these. This isn’t bad, just different.

So how can we expect anyone to give us feedback if we all value different things? I don't think we can. If I were to write a very philosophical piece, I’m more likely to be offended, rather than helped, by feedback from someone who says it’s too deep, confusing, and boring. If they don’t value pieces that make them think, I don’t value their insights. And ain’t that just the perfect recipe for wrong assumptions and a potential argument?

Instead of going about it chaotically, like the above example, why not make our standards known? If we did, we might attract the kind of reader who will gladly give us feedback without the fear that it’ll come off as mean. In other words, try to match our writing with the right kind of feedback.

Let’s try something. Imagine a peer giving you feedback, someone you want to hear from. What would they say?

Here's an example, using myself.

When I imagine a peer giving me feedback, I see them reading my piece more than once in order to understand my overall intention. Then they’ll tell me whether I’ve achieved it or if there’s still work to do. They’ll be specific, quoting areas that are good and areas that need work. They will hold me to account if I lose the thread of a theme or a character’s arc, for example. They'll tell me to stop if I go too far in explaining something or being too obvious where a metaphor might work better. I want my peers to value my work enough to tear it apart because they know that’s the only way I can improve; they share that value with me.

Evidently, I have high standards for feedback. My intended audience isn’t just reading for fun; I want to get them thinking, re-reading, filling in the blanks, asking questions, and above all, telling me if my work sucks. I can’t improve if I’m not humbled. Knock me down a few pegs if my fiction is pretentious. Hold me to a higher standard if it spoon-feeds the audience. Humility requires both of these: expecting better of myself and drawing a line in the sand.

Your answer to this exercise will be different than mine, of course. That’s the point. My aim is that doing so will give you a solid filter for reading feedback and a sturdy foundation when asking for it.


Now consider what your first principles are as a writer. What do you value?

First principles: the fundamental concepts of assumptions on which a theory, system, or method is based.

Some of mine are as follows. In no particular order:

  • Write truth, even if you’re writing fiction.
  • Look for the other side of the argument.
  • All emotions are good inspiration, but always question your conclusions.
  • To write is to be vulnerable. It is risky, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Don’t become complacent by forgetting this.
  • Write to a specific audience. This will attract your ideal readers.
  • Always assume the best in your audience.
  • Ready to publish? Sleep on it.
  • Read everything like you’d want others to read your work.

These are very specific to me. Yours will be different, of course. That’s the point. My hope with this exercise is that it will give you a meta awareness of what kind of writer you are so that you can look back at the list and track your success. This is also useful because as you grow, your values might shift and it would be good to see how and why. These are "first principles,” but if your theory changes, then so do the principles.

Transparency is hugely beneficial. It starts with ourselves, and flows out to touch and change others. More than that, it's critical for self-empowerment. Like I mentioned before, deception leads to harm, even if it’s positive on the surface. Whenever a lie is discovered, people lose trust in others and in themselves. After all, if you can’t trust yourself to spot a liar, who can you trust?

I want every writer, fledgling or professional, literary or otherwise, to foster the most honest feedback and support as possible. It might have to start with solicitations and that’s okay. I’m hoping that by putting out declarations of our standards and values, we can start attracting active audience members who want to invest in our writing, make it better, and see it grow. Having writer friends should involve this kind of engagement, don’t you think?

Perhaps if we all challenge ourselves to do the above exercises, we can attract the right kind of peer feedback. Maybe that will have a ripple effect. Water after all, is transparent. That might just be our end goal.


I challenge you to write down your standards and values as a writer. Really sit and meditate on this. Imagine your ideal peer reader giving you feedback. What do you want this person to focus on? What do they bring to the table that you know you need to hear in order to improve? Write it all down. Then, go back to the first principles of writing. What do you value?

When you’ve done this, compile it all into an article and post it to Vocal, pinning it to your profile. This will act as your declaration. Make it known in the title! Anybody who chooses to invest in you will have read this. If they share your values, they'll stick around.

I will be posting my own declaration in the next few days. I hope you choose to take up my challenge and do the same!

Let’s make Vocal more like water. The ripple starts with us.



A/N: Thank you for reading.

This is part of my ongoing series with fellow creator, Cendrine Marrouat. To read our other articles, please see below:

  • Essay 1 — The Imposter Writer—Stop Doubting Yourself
  • Essay 2 — Imposter Syndrome, Be Gone!
  • Essay 3 — Workshops are Treasure Troves
  • Essay 4 — No, Reviews are not Just for Readers


About the Creator

Mackenzie Davis

“When you are describing a shape, or sound, or tint, don’t state the matter plainly, but put it in a hint. And learn to look at all things with a sort of mental squint.” Lewis Carroll

Find me elsewhere.

Copyright Mackenzie Davis.

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Comments (27)

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  • Randy Baker2 months ago

    Outstanding work!

  • Catherine Dorian2 months ago

    Mackenzie, I am both thrilled and encouraged to see that you -- especially you, one of the several talented writers that I've seen on here (and that's honest) -- are writing this series. I joined Vocal because, as I amass dozens of rejections from literary magazines of all styles and regions, I wanted to be a part of a community that would give me truthful, consistent, constructive feedback. I wanted to engage with a platform that would push me to be a better writer. Vocal has in some ways; I know that if a piece doesn't get as many likes or comments or isn't named a Top Story, that it's not as good as my other ones, and usually, after a week of letting the piece breathe, I can pinpoint the issues and revise accordingly. But that our Vocal readers aren't always honest has only made me wonder about the successes I have experienced on here. I am forever grateful for the awards and accolades. But I'm still struggling to get published. Were people being honest with me when they said that I had talent? Your Challenge, if taken on by fellow writers on here and considered as a Challenge for Vocal itself, could serve to improve this entire platform and even elevate it in the literary/publishing spaces. I want Vocal to be a place which those in the literary community respect as competitive. That will be better for our writers and for the platform itself. Challenge accepted. I'll post something soon.

  • Hope Martin2 months ago

    https://vocal.media/writers/my-expectations-as-a-writer-of-my-readers-and-myself Boom! Call answered. :)

  • Cendrine Marrouat2 months ago

    Mackenzie, this is phenomenal! The best essay I have ever read on the topic, bar none! You force us to question our own truth as writers. Your call for transparency and self-honesty is much needed! Thank you for writing this!

  • Anna 2 months ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • ROCK 2 months ago

    A well deserved Top Story!

  • Alexander McEvoy2 months ago

    Ah the feedback dilemma. It is a really strange beast, isn't it? We, as creatives, simultaneously crave and fear nothing more than open, honest, applicable feedback. I love your metaphor "not to shy when the gun goes off." It's quite like that, I think. The tension of waiting for something that we ultimately know will be good for us, yet when that boom stick goes 'bang!' we can't help but jump. I've gotten some amazingly positive feedback on Vocal :) and met some of the nicest and most friendly writers ever! I've also gotten a few pieces of constructive criticism that are invaluable. The one that jumps to mind was from a piece called 'A life I might have lead' where Rob Angeli said that the pacing lagged. I was shocked at that, but after rereading it, I could definitely see where he was coming from! There have also been times when readers, your own good self included :), asked me about certain sentences or paragraphs. Then, on closer examination, I discovered they were right and those pieces of prose were confusing. Through honest and well intentioned feedback, I was able to improve my craft and it's something I want to be able to share, if I can. Most people are shocked to learn that I have a mean streak a mile wide, and when I overstimulate or otherwise reach an emotional breaking point I tend to 'turn evil.' So I'm always very careful when I start giving critiques, because sometimes I don't know when Rednaxela (my evil alter ego) is in control of what I say. You've given me a lot to think about, Mackenzie! I'll definitely ponder your questions and I'll do my best to write a response asking for my own critiques :) we can, none of us, improve if people don't tell us where our weaknesses are.

  • M. Lee2 months ago

    Congratulations on top story!! And thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight-- it gives me a lot to think about with my own work. I mean I admit, I like hearing positive feedback (who doesn't?) But hearing helpful suggestions on how to improve is just as valuable as praise, and realistically, both should be welcomed equally if we want to be better. I also like your idea/challenge, and will be thinking long and hard when writing mine. Great article, love it!

  • Carminum2 months ago

    This was the best essay I’ve ever read! A masterpiece for the ages! :P Just today I read about what Louise Glück, a Nobel laureate, was like as a teacher of creative writing: highly demanding, ruthlessly honest –– but also very generous with her time and attention; and she treated young students as if they were her equals. She would discuss a small detail at great length. What I’ve never understood on Vocal is how perfunctory praise could even feel good, when one knows superlatives are lavished indiscriminately, by default –– with the sole exception of the rare instances where commonly accepted political norms are violated. My stupid, stroke-starved ego likes approbation as much as anyone’s, but a rote “I love this!!11” is not even validation: it’s the mere simulation thereof. Strokes by a ghost limb. Yet my main problem with “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” is that because it’s more or less out of obligation, the feedback tends to be minimal: useless. Writing with any marked ambition necessarily requires extensive investment from the reader; otherwise the text is too simplistic & one-dimensional –– in a word: disposable –– to be any good. Your idea of stating one’s writerly values to get appropriate feedback makes a lot of sense. For me personally, the main reason why Vocal feels like a sinking ship is that it's really a boat: at the end of the day, and regardless of anything else, it’s simply too small. Not enough users, or enough activity, for the formation of thriving communities. There may be no other writerly site big enough either; but if so, that reality is no consolation. I can say honestly and transparently, without a shred of compulsory positivity, that you’re one of the very best writers I’ve seen here. But it’s not just because there are nuances and expressive freshness to your words; it’s also because you’re highly analytic about your writing (and others'), which is indispensable for true development and innovation. No more dispensable are what you also have: an openness to experimentation and a search for new angles. ––– Typos etc. I noticed: “I hope there are few of you,” –– should this be “a few”? “(Positivity and honesty are not mutually exclusive, unfortunately.)” –– should that be “dishonesty”? “the answer would always honest, is all.” –– missing a “be.”

  • Hope Martin2 months ago

    Congrats on top story. To be honest, I never realized constructive criticism is considered a no no... If I see something, I always stick to the "compliment, feedback, compliment, encouragement to keep writing" I'll even go so faras to start a discussion on why I disagree with someone's viewpoint, if I do in a polite way, or take the time to tell someone if they have made me see a new perspective on something. I always figured that the point of engagement is true engagement, discussion and feedback - not just happy 'good jobs'. I like engagement and honesty. It lets me know readers REALLY read my article, and if I messed up, I'd want someone to tell me so I could go back and make my writing better.

  • Donna Renee2 months ago

    I think what you are wanting from Vocal is what I want from Beta readers. And for that, I want two or three targeted and trusted writer friends who I know will be interested in the subject matter, and honest… but kind and definitely not cruel. I don’t like opening up to any and all feedback from the entire vocal community (which we know includes some secret AI users and plagiarists) 😬🫣

  • sleepy drafts2 months ago

    Yess! Thank you for writing this, and congratulations on Top Story!! Any time I've received feedback, it been massively beneficial. Catherine Dorian and the writer, "M" specifically have left me feedback this year that ended up being invaluable. 💗 10/10 would recommend this experience, lol. On the flip side, I know I've also left feedback on stories in the "Critique" community only for them not to quite land, despite as you say, the compliment sandwich. I think you put it perfectly here, "No wonder social media is toxic; there’s no boundary on either side of the spectrum." It's hard to know what someone wants from the platform, since everyone has different values when it comes to how they want to spend their time here. I love this initiative and I hope it catches on. It's been amazing to see the writers who have stuck around improve their craft over the three years I've been on the platform. Even looking at where my own work started 3 years ago when I joined, I feel happy with the growth that's happened (growth that wouldn't have happened if I never put that work out there in the first place.) Thank you for writing and sharing this! I love the idea of writing down your values as a writer and will be doing the same. 💗 I will also keep in mind that you are a writer who is open to thoughtful feedback!! Here's to improving our craft and having a blast while doing it, lol. 💗💪🏻💕

  • Josephis K. Wade2 months ago

    Nice to read something of substance. Keep Up The Good Writing!

  • Leslie Writes2 months ago

    Honest criticism is difficult to give and receive. These casual relationships we have on this sight make it difficult to dig in like you are suggesting, but it would certainly improve our craft. I have a beta reader friend (outside vocal) who will give helpful suggestions. It really does help to get another perspective. We are in a bit of an echo chamber here as it stands now. I will try your exercise if I can muster the courage and energy it will take to dig deep. Lately I have felt depleted by my day job, family and life in general.

  • Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Thavien Yliaster2 months ago

    My thoughts on this are, "Careful, just because other people's writings are made publicly available with the ability to comment doesn't mean that they want any and all kind of comments, and I'm not talking about spam messages. Even constructive criticism can often be viewed as just criticism, or just harsh (commentary), leading to warrant further unwanted behavior from the party that's been commented on. Just because we can honestly comment, and even if honesty is the best policy, there are people that will view that policy as a system of abuse, and then abuse other systems in an attempt to suppress Your honesty." If any of that makes sense. TL:DR tons of people just want to be given praise and when provided advice will react in an overly defensive manner, and will even go on the offensive.

  • Shelby Hagood 2 months ago

    Sometimes a criticism is just what that particular person would want to see or their own style preference.

  • Xine Segalas2 months ago

    Constructive criticism can be incredibly helpful for writers, artists, and people in general to learn from. No one likes to be critiqued because we automatically take offense or take it as a failure. Some people are hesitant to critique because they think, for some reason, they are being hypocritical because they fail to do the same thing in their own work. Vocal is its own little world - where if someone is to comment it will be positive. Vocal writers might benefit more if Vocal added more options for critique in the Reader's Insight Section if writer's truly desire some constructive feedback. I enjoyed reading your article - perhaps a tad long - but that's just me, :-)well done!

  • Your examination of the difficulties in getting frank feedback in a society that frequently values approval over openness struck a deep chord with me. It emphasizes how critical it is to create an environment in which constructive criticism is accepted and respected as a tool for authors of all skill levels to advance.

  • I usually don't give feedback when it's unsolicited. Even when it's solicited, I cannot bring myself to give constructive criticism. I feel too much of a hypocrite if I were to do that because my writing ain't perfect either. So like who I am to tell someone else how to improve when I'm no better? It's like the pot calling the kettle black. But I do point out typos and simple stuff like that. I just feel it's not too heavy. Lol, I hope what I'm saying makes sense 😅 As for receiving feedback from other Vocalites who read my stuff, I'm always open to it. But I wouldn't want my readers to feel obligated to give me constructive feedback. I mean they're already taking the time to read and leave a comment. I don't wanna pressure them into rereading my piece and analysing it to give me feedback. So all I'm saying is, if anyone wants feedback, I'm the last person to go to, lol. Because I can never bring myself to do that. Also, I'm always open to receiving feedback if someone wants to.

  • Natalie Wilkinson2 months ago

    My background is in design so school was full of sleepless nights and brutal critiques that made you want to give up or cry. You got to be a better, more thoughtful designer that way. But, I’ve gone off social media completely at times due to the weight of negativity, name calling and shaming that exists on it. I have also taught art and I am aware of how easy it is to squash a fledgling artist (or writer). I have basic expectations when I read a piece, and higher expectations. Basics- spelling mistakes, grammar errors, and sloppily organized work guarantee I will never read the person’s work again. Have some respect for me as a reader. Higher expectations include: Is it interesting? Did my interest drop off at some point and why? Did I learn something? Is the flow good?Since I am a beginning writer myself, I am careful if I make comments, to choose something that particularly caught my mind and comment on that. When people comment on my work (or highlight and comment on Medium), I do read each one to help me glean insights for the next one. If something in my writing is less worthy, I’ve found I have an instinct for recognizing it, but I need to train myself to listen better when I hear that little voice. I have four writer/teacher librarian/reader family members who I occasionally ask for advice, and I read each piece aloud and record it over and over while editing. You can’t get better at a skill without active practicing. Then as you suggest, sleep on it before publishing. In the end though, to paraphrase John Barr- writing is only complete when someone reads it. Thanks for the article. I’d be interested in joining a critique group- a safe place have writing criticized.

  • Joe O’Connor2 months ago

    This is bang-on, and your point about validation rings so true. Perhaps as something Vocal could do, they could add to the Insights boxes with a bunch of constructive points you could click on? It wouldn’t fix the issue, but would help. I guess there is the Critique community, and if they boosted that to become a more prominent part of Vocal, it would give people the confidence to post knowing they’ll get the feedback they are looking for. I have found that I try to be very careful with what I say when commenting, and aim to be truthful when highlighting positives, without saying “great job!” or “well written” if I don’t think it was. I definitely do omit constructive comments for fear of hurting people’s feelings, as almost every comment does tend to be either overwhelmingly positive or abrupt and vague. But would love to see this change, and I absolutely love the idea of a pinned post detailing each writer’s aims, hopes, and expectations. Great idea Mackenzie 👏

  • I'm about as insecure as you can find in a person & I still want people to be honest & transparent with me. I think this is a great idea, Mackenzie. I'm not sure what I might have to add to your list or otherwise personalize it, but I do intend to give it some thought.

  • Excellent, thought provoking article! The first principles list is great… I’m hopeless at coming up with stuff like that but can agree with it. Also, I wimpishly dislike pointing out people’s mistakes (except family)… but I do appreciate when people let me know about typos etc. Dharrsheena once, helpfully queried a random name I’d wrongly typed which was so helpful!😊 If I don’t agree with or like a story I typically won’t comment, as I value the truth but don’t feel qualified to comment negatively. My daughter is my long suffering, chief editor and advisor but I lay no blame at her feet for the quality of my writing… she recognises that I’m streets behind her skills level. Lots of food for thought. Thanks.

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