Writing Workshops at Their Best
This was written by Bill Patrick for Southeast Writers’ Handbook (see our books page). Marian Blue was editor for this book that included not only a listing of writing resources for the Southeast, but also a number of outstanding writers giving advice about a wide range of subjects.
Bill Patrick says that his current workshop format doesn’t utilize quite the same techniques as it did in the early 1990s (see Bill’s Web page address below), but this advice is still wise today.
We all have to understand that criticism is an integral part of every writing workshop. Criticism does not necessarily mean finding faults in the work, though doing merely that would clearly help us all as writers when we revise. Criticism in this context means a highly-tuned and thoughtful response to the work that is being discussed, as if it were published poems or stories, or produced screenplays, or as if we were editors at good literary journals, or as if all our lives depended on it. Critical comments should identify the strengths of the work, so the writer feels encouraged and so that those strengths are not abandoned during revision. Criticism also points to the work’s weaknesses, so the writer can avoid those problems in the next piece, and so those weaknesses are turned into strengths during revision.
There is no substitute for this kind of criticism, and if we are going to improve our writing, we all need it. As writers in a workshop progress, they have to learn to give and receive intelligent and sensitive criticism. Someone unwilling to participate in this process, on the giving and on the receiving ends of it, should question their role in the workshop. Our goal is to help fellow writers improve.
- A positive attitude toward criticism is essential. Laughter and/or tears are often natural and appropriate as part of a response.
- Criticism always refers to the written piece and never to the writer.
- All comments should be intended to help the writer revise and improve the piece under discussion.
- Positive and negative statements should be honest and straightforward. Don’t pull your punches.
- Criticism should not rest upon subjectivity: “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” as responses, help little. As critic, you need to identify objective details and responses to help the writer understand why you like or don’t like the piece under discussion. You should also try to identify which comments are major and which are minor.
- The writer whose piece is under discussion listens attentively and silently to the criticism, and takes notes from each speaker.
- Critics should remember that tone of voice and word selection may lead the writer to infer more or less than what is intended. Try to remember Rule #2.
- When all the criticism is finished, the writer can ask questions, or respond. As a terrific author once said, though: never explain; never apologize.