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How to Workshop Writing in Your Critique Group

Some people hate the term workshop. I don’t have a problem with the word, and we use the term in my writing group, so I’m going with it.

In this recent post, I talked about how to start a writing group (in honor of National Writing Group Month, which I made up). So let’s talk about how to workshop.

These thoughts are based on my six years of experience with The Nobscot Niblets, on my experience teaching a first-semester writing course at Mass School of Law, and on my experience in being part of MFA workshops.

  • Lead with something positive. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, we writers need to develop thick skins. Yes, we can’t improve unless we hear all feedback: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But it’s much easier to swallow the yucky stuff if you lead with something sweet. Trust me.
  • Be specific. Don’t say, “I liked it.” This is a running joke now with the Nibs since one of our long-term members often starts out his comments with this line — on purpose now — but then he follows up with something specific. Try not to use the word “like” at all since that word often leads to general sentences — “I like your dialogue” — instead of something specific: “Your use of dialogue in this scene was effective because it revealed how much was at stake for Character X.” The same goes for pointing out what’s not working. Don’t say, “I didn’t like this.” Again, be specific, “The exposition here didn’t work for me because it took me out of the story. I think I felt that way because it seemed like a lot of background info was being put into a small space.”
  • Remember, you’re one reader with one very subjective opinion. Almost everything in writing is debatable. Almost. Share your thoughts honestly and respectfully. And acknowledge that your recommendations are just that.
  • Conversation or one-by-one? I tend to like having conversations about a piece of writing, like people do in book groups. I feel it can lead to better critiques because it involves conversation that can naturally lead to debates. The problem? Comment hogs. A good facilitator can help reign in the hogs and give the floor over to those who might be a little quieter. If you go one-by-one around the room, you ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak, but it can get a little boring. If you choose this way, make sure you mix up who goes first and last. And a facilitator is still needed to cut off that person who decides to rattle off a laundry list of issues.
  • Mark up the drafts. Your “public” critiques should highlight the most pressing questions you have or bring to light the issues. Save line edits for the hard copy. And remember to provide positive comments in the marked-up copy as well since no one wants to see only a marked-up draft of everything he or she did “wrong.”
  • Red pen alert! I know some people who think using a red pen is psychologically damaging — and in some schools, it’s actually forbidden. You’ll need to decide among yourselves what to do. Lots of red ink can be overwhelming. Is it less so if you use green or blue? I dunno.
  • For memoirs and personal essays, sometimes it’s more comfortable to refer to “the narrator” instead of the author’s name. I actually like this approach, even though it might come across as odd to talk about “the narrator” in the third person when the first-person subject is sitting right next to you. It depends on the content, I think, and on the writer’s comfort with it. If it’s heavy content (like incest, for example), it might be more comfortable for everyone to approach the discussion in a more neutral way by discussing “the narrator’s” actions, dialogue etc.
  • Workshopping poetry follows the basics outlined above, but there are other things to consider. If you have a group of poets, you know what to do. But if your group is a mix of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, you should probably provide some guidelines on how to workshop poetry.
  • Writers should be seen and not heard. Some workshops require the writer whose piece is under discussion to keep quiet during the critique and simply listen. At the end, he or she can then ask questions, provide clarification, or take part in the discussion. Overall, I like this approach since the writer should listen, which can be extremely hard to do; often our natural inclination is to defend what we wrote. But, again, this rule should be flexible, I think.

I welcome other ideas, especially any “big ones” I’ve overlooked. Leave your thoughts in the comments

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