Working with Other Writers
Criticism Stings -- Like Alcohol on a Cut
"Writing workshops," or structured peer-group critiques, began in 1936 at the graduate Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, the first program to grant a degree in creative writing. A writing workshop is a purposeful and disciplined group discussion among people who have agreed to share their writing. It is designed to help all of its participants improve their work, with an eye to excellence.
In the simplest terms, a workshop group functions as a test audience. It will give each writer some idea about how his or her work might be received by total strangers such as editors, agents, and readers. So it is ideal if a workshop group has at least five members, all writers but of diverse backgrounds, who do not live with or love each other but are willing to respect and learn from each other.
Each group member takes turns presenting work. Often an instructor serves as a monitor, ensuring that comments are constructive and specific. The focus of the discussion should be on the writing, not its writer. Comments should be about improving the work by increasing its clarity, coherence, vividness, detail, or marketability.
Writing workshops are popular because well-run workshops greatly accelerate the members’ development as writers. One year in a writing workshop equals five years of writing and developing skills on one’s own. This is because each workshop participant can use the ideas, tips, and lessons culled from every workshop discussion, not just the discussions about his own work.
Everyone in the group should carefully read the manuscript that is "up for workshop" and develop helpful and honest feedback.
- Readers, instead of your "reaction" to a work, we want your "response." "Reaction" is instant and emotional. "Response" is rational, thoughtful.
An important plus in a live writing workshop is that while the work is being workshopped, the author is NOT allowed to explain, excuse or defend his manuscript, or argue or interrupt anyone, or answer any questions, until all the group members have had their say. The author should listen and take notes on the discussion and remind himself that he asked for a critique ("workshop" and "critique" are the same) so that someday the work will stand on its own without him. A piece of writing is like a child. You do your best with the child to equip her to become independent and live a life beyond you. So you give the child some tryouts in small sympathetic groups before she goes out in to the big wide world.
Workshop members must pinpoint what they like in each work, and what puzzles them. Criticism must always come with a suggestion for improvement. Vague or scanty opinions such as “I like it” or "This moved me," or “This didn’t hold my interest,” should be backed with specific reasons. Rude or personal remarks break the circle of trust. The offender should be rebuked and, if it happens again, ejected from the group.
Yes, criticism can sting a little -- like alcohol on a cut. I've even cried, secretly, about criticism of my work. But I went back with new and revised work to show them I wasn't intimidated and that I could do better than they thought. If you think you are already great, don't bother other writers by asking for their opinions. Go publish and get famous!
Your Group is Your Network
Only after all group members have had their say does the writer get to say what he wants. If he wants responses to a matter the group didn’t address, such as, “Do you think ‘Beyond the Dunes’ is a good title for this?” he asks.
The writer later decides privately which of the group's critique points are valuable to him, and how to revise the manuscript so it communicates to others what he envisions. Most bad writing is simply a failure in communication. Fortunately, writing communication skills can be learned and enhanced. Professional writers are expert communicators.
Your group is your support network. All writers need writer friends. Fellow writers can suggest great plot points or fabulous titles you would never have thought up on your own. They can buoy you up when you're discouraged, or tell you a Microsoft Word trick you didn't know. Reading other writers' work gives you the ability to read more deeply, becoming able to ask yourself while reading a passage or article you admire, "How did the writer do this, so I can do this too?" Your mom can't tell you this. Your pastor can't give you the key to this. A writing workshop can.
- Writers should not present incomplete, embryonic or slapdash manuscripts to the group.
- If no one has been in a workshop before, the group should have a moderator for at least the first few critiques.
- The workshop participants must read the work carefully and formulate intelligent and reasoned responses. Praise where praise is due; suggestions for improvement, too.
- The writer who just HAS to interrupt discussions to defend his work and argue with every criticism is not ready to belong to a workshop. Tell this person, "You are far too advanced a writer for our workshop. Please find another workshop."
- Dishonest praise or reluctance to criticize is not politeness. It HURTS the writer -- maybe not today, but down the line when the writer who's been told he's all that comes face to face with a professional who will tell him the sad truth -- maybe in front of a whole conference of writers and editors.
Writers should not present writings they have no intention of revising, or writings for which they will accept only praise. We would all like pure praise for our work, but that comes only from your mom. Accept that every piece of writing can be improved.
Talent plays a part, and talent is inborn, but even the most talented writer has to start at the bottom with the rest of us and hone raw talent into professional skill. I know you hope you are the exception, but no one is born a great writer or becomes one overnight, just as no one is born running a four-minute mile or becomes a great athlete overnight, or becomes a Supreme Court Justice in his teens or early 20s, or becomes a brain surgeon without study and practice and a support network. A well-run critique group is your support network. It is how writers help writers.
Sylvia Sky has taught creative-writing workshops at universities since 1989. Copyright 2013 by Sylvia Sky.
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