If you’re serious about becoming a published writer, eventually you will find yourself at a writers’ conference. (If you haven’t realized this yet, reread that first sentence. Then go here and peruse the offerings.)
Many writers’ conferences (similar to MFA programs) offer the opportunity to have your work critiqued. No, “offer the opportunity to have your work critiqued” is not a synonym for “force you to stand in front of a firing squad of wanna-be editors with loaded pens.”
Nevertheless, having your work critiqued in a workshop format for the first time can be intimidating, especially if for those doing the critiquing it’s the first time, also. But first, what am I talking about?
“Workshopping” your writing refers to bringing a sample of your writing (typically five to 10 pages, or one to three poems) to a group of other writers. Sometimes these folks will write in your genre; sometimes they will represent all sorts of genres: fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, perhaps. It is not critical that they write what you write. Some of my best critiques have come from people who do not write what I do. Some of my best critiques have come from non-writers! (But I’ll address that in a bit.)
Depending on the rules of the group, you will either be expected to just read your work while people listen and take notes, or you will also be asked to bring copies for each person to read along with you. In some writers’ groups, people share manuscripts this way and then just e-mail their comments back and forth. (I’m not a fan of this, but it’s off topic in any case.)
After you share your work, one way or another, then you receive the feedback. Sometimes people just volunteer to go in whatever order that strikes their fancy; sometimes the group follows a certain order, as if in a card game.
Some groups deliver the good comments and the negative feedback from one critic at the same time. Last year while working at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (which I highly recommend, by the way), I heard author Donald Ray Pollock lead a group in their workshop session. He had them go around the room once and “share the love” with all the positive comments first. Then they went around the group again for all the negative comments after the writer was feeling good and ready to hear any criticism (in the more common use of the word).
Whichever way you choose to do it, both the “critiquers” and the “critiquees” should bear some things in mind.
- Do remember that you are not trying to fix the author’s work. Your job is to describe how the work affected you or what impressions you got from the work.
- Do phrase things in terms of how you read it or how you understood it. For example, “I might be misunderstanding this, but to me this passage sounds as if the dog is driving the car” instead of “Your antecedent is unclear” or “You need to change who ‘he’ refers to in the third paragraph.”
- Do remember that this is ultimately not your work. You can voice an opinion, but the person reading his or her work does not have to accept it.
- Do not be afraid to voice that opinion of yours, even if you think you are not as educated as others at the table. You might be right smack in the intended audience for that person’s work.
- Do handle other people’s feelings and their works with care and respect. You would ask the same. It will be your turn in a few minutes and we all know what paybacks are.
- Do try to sit and listen to the critiques. Do not argue or explain what you were thinking when you wrote it, but do ask for clarification if you don’t understand what the critiquer is saying.
- Do look at each person as she or he is talking to you. After all, didn’t your mommy or daddy teach you that, anyway?
- Do take notes.
- Don’t feel that you have to take everything seriously. Honestly, some comments that you will get are going to be completely off base. Remember, this is your work. Whereas some suggestions might make the work more saleable, they also might make it completely different from what you wanted it to be. The choice is yours.
If you’re interested in a very gentle “Writing Workshop Workshop,” I am holding monthly meetings in Cincinnati on Sunday afternoons. Check back often for the date and time.