Lessons from the Writing Workshop #9: Critique

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #9: Critique

We’ve all been in those workshops. You present a piece of writing and everybody jumps in to tell you what to do to fix it. Some of the suggestions seem like they might be useful, but some are contradictory (one person says, “My favorite part was the first paragraph,” while another insists, “I think you could lose that first paragraph.”) Someone urges you to radically re-direct the work, make it something else entirely than what you had imagined, something more like what they would enjoy reading.

The expectation is that you will go home and revise according to what everyone has said and bring back a product that has been improved by the group’s input. Instead you get home and feel a little discouraged. You’re not sure how to recapture the energy you felt about the work. Maybe you set about to try to incorporate the feedback, but the piece starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster. Or maybe you decide to just put it away for a while until you can get back in touch with your own vision for the work.

For many years, I followed this kind of format as a workshop leader, because it was what I had often experienced as a writing student. But I saw too many writers revising work according to feedback they received and sometimes losing touch with their own vision. I saw workshop participants merely reinforcing their own tastes in their feedback, rather than learning to appreciate strengths in work very different from what they would choose to read. I also sometimes saw writers become risk-averse, writing (or at least bringing in) works they knew would go over well in the workshop, instead of taking big chances and trying stuff out even though it might not succeed. To me, creating a climate in which writers feel safe to take big risks is perhaps the most important value a workshop can offer, so it was distressing to see the process yielding the opposite result.

I began to re-think the purpose of a writing workshop and to consider what writers actually need in terms of feedback. The writer’s dilemma is that, because we are so immersed in the material we are writing, it’s hard to step back and see the results separate from our intentions. One thing important workshop readers can provide is a sense of what they are receiving from the work. Not whether they like it or not, not how they would have created it, but what are they getting out of it? This allows the writer to assess how close they’ve come to fulfilling their intentions.

I also believe it is essential for the writer to retain agency over the work. A piece of writing has its own integrity when it is first imagined—content, form, style. I see my job as instructor to be assisting the writer to best fulfill their intentions for the work. Sometimes they need skill-building, sometimes they need permission to risk more, sometimes they need to overcome internal obstacles (fear, self-doubt). Sometimes it’s useful to them to brainstorm ideas. I can provide those things. But it is not my job as instructor, nor the job of other participants, to “fix” the writing of another writer. I have seen it become proprietary (“why didn’t you take my suggestion; it was really good”), and that can actually be harmful to the writer.

So in the majority of the workshops I instruct these days, we use this process:
• The writer reads the work aloud; participants have copies and follow along;
• The group members take a bit of time to re-read on their own and formulate their thoughts;
• Participants first talk about the meanings they found in the work. That might be an overall meaning or a partial meaning. [Here’s an example: “The meaning I found in your story is that the mother is looking to the daughter to rescue her, and it puts a burden on the daughter who thinks she has to be Super-Woman.”)
• Next, the group talked about what they noticed in the work. Notices are not evaluative; they’re observational. [“I notice that a really big event has already happened to the protagonist when we first meet her.” “I notice several words that I didn’t know the meaning of.” “I notice the humor in the piece.”]
• Then the group is encouraged to pose questions to the writer. These might be questions about form or content or what-if questions. [“What if the piece were told chronologically?” “Why does the protagonist lie about where she comes from?” “What are the rules of this alternative reality you’ve created?”]

You’ll notice there is no moment for participants to say what they liked or didn’t like, to say what’s working or not working. These subjective assessments are just not that useful to writers, nor do the other participants learn much from it. If a reader has found something pleasing, they will learn more from identifying what the writer has done to create that pleasure [“I notice the imagery; I really get to experience the scene you’re writing.”] Similarly, if something is disrupting that pleasure, participants learn from being able to zero in on what that is.

You’ll also notice we don’t give advice. The questions are as close as we come. It’s very different to be asked, “What if you started out right in the middle of the action” than to be told, “Cut out that whole first page and start on page 2.” In the first example, the writer gets to consider, “What if?” I might decide that I could let go of most of the first page, but the detail about the protagonist’s secret is really important to understanding the action, and maybe I need to emphasize that more. I retain the vision and the decision-making power over my work.

Following this conversation, the writer is asked to talk about what they discovered in the process of writing the piece (I find that if the writer hasn’t discovered anything, if the writer is only writing what they already know, then the reader doesn’t discover much either). Finally, the writer may ask any questions they have of the group. Sometimes a writer will want to clarify something a reader has said, or the writer may be wondering about an issue nobody brought up in the discussion. They might ask the group to brainstorm solutions to a problem they’re having. A writer could, at this point, ask “What works and what doesn’t,” but for the most part, they don’t.

I’ve found that a lot of the “advice” or proposed solutions that are given in a workshop are not right. It may be right for the person who gave the advice, but it’s often not right for the work of this particular writer and their vision for the work. Most advice is more about the person who is giving it than an appropriate solution to the writer’s perceived problem with the work.

So if you’re a writer, should you even be in a workshop?

YES, but not to find a committee who will “fix” your writing. Writer can be a lonely activity and writers benefit from the supportive community a workshop can provide, a place to share your process and a group to cheer you on. Writers, as mentioned before, benefit from being able to perceive their work outside their own minds; the reflections of other group members help you to see what you have actually created, rather than what you meant to create. The process of receiving questions helps the writer to re-see their work, understand better the choices they made, and engage with expanded possibilities.

Here are a few guidelines that help you to benefit most from workshop critique:

  • Make clear to the readers what stage the work is in (there’s no reason to focus on line edits if the work is in an early, conceptual stage, for example. Or if this is an almost final draft and you’re ready to send it out, it won’t be helpful if someone asks you to go back to the beginning and start over in a new direction.)
  • Don’t take it personally. I know, this is can be hard. Our writing is important to us and we want it to be brilliant. It’s not fun to find out that the work is not yet brilliant. But that’s the beauty of writing; it can always be revised.
  • Write down every comment you receive, even if it seems dumb in the moment. You can’t know what might seem useful later.
  • If you get some feedback you don’t understand, ask the person to clarify.
  • Give yourself a minimum of 24 hours to absorb the feedback you’ve received before taking any action about it. If you still feel emotional about the feedback, give yourself longer.
  • When you are ready to think about the feedback, consider everything with an open mind. Often the proposed solution isn’t right, but it can still point you in the direction of something in the writing you could pay more attention to.
  • Keep in mind your own vision for the work and your intentions. Don’t let the group become the authority on your piece. Take what is useful to you and let the rest go.
  • If there’s an idea that intrigues you, let yourself explore it and see where it goes. It doesn’t mean it will necessarily end up in your final draft, but often there is further discovery to be gained in pursuing new directions.

In the best workshops, you will learn as much from reading the work of others and giving feedback as you do from receiving critique on your own work. And the reflections you do receive should help spur you to dig deeper, to be more clear, to take more risks, and to find more satisfaction in the work.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.