Writers need both support and criticism. Without support we wither, but without criticism, we run the risk of stagnating. While I’ve stated elsewhere (in Five Principles that Keep Me Writing) that I believe we only need to get out of our own way to achieve our best, I’ve also seen people who are unable to get out of their own way, staying on their own emotional surface and keeping their art there with them.
However, I’ve also sat through a lot of workshops, both paid for and free, that were simply terrible, having no systematic approach. This can be an a soul-damaging waste of time.
After twenty years of teaching writing, I believe I’ve hit upon a workshop method that provides writers with both support and useful critique so that you, too, can create an inspiring and productive SUAWP (Shut Up and Write, Please) group.
Size and Method
- 3-5 members (to keep workload small and allow time for people to get feedback at each meeting).
- Meet once a month for 2-3 hours.
- Submit up to 25 pages one week in advance (last one to submit buys the coffee)
- Submitters attach a note to the front of the submission that identifies what kind of text it is: notes, outline, rough draft, semi-final draft).
- Submitters include a request for specific kinds of feedback.
- Commentators write margin comments and a one to two paragraph end comment that connects to the margin comments.
- Commentators follow specific feedback guidelines agreed on by group.
- Assign a moderator who makes sure people stay on task and give people equal time.
- With groups of 3-4, people should do their best to submit something each month.
- With a group of 5, you may not be able to critique all 5 pieces each time, so a different person can take a break each month.
When you submit:
Avoid the tendency to just say, “Respond any way you like.”
Do you want a line-by-line edit, do you want them to focus on dialogue? Are you concerned about how to end it? This activity makes you a more active and focused participant in the workshop and lowers your team member’s workload. If you’re feeling fragile, it’s okay to ask for only positive feedback.
When you comment:
Avoid the temptation not to write your response. Writing your response forces you deeper into the work. Your group should decide on the principles and methods, but I recommend the following based on the corresponding principles.
Step 1: Identify what you are reading.
- What type of text is it: Short story, prose poem, formal poem, limerick, rough draft, polished final draft, letter, notes toward a story or poem, etc.
- What do you think it was trying to accomplish emotionally? To make people laugh, to heal, to make people think, to scare people, to entertain people, to provide an escape, to raise awareness?
- Was it intended to be certain genre, such as literary, magic realism, horror, romance?
- What question does it seem to be trying to answer? In the case of novels, once you know the big question, try to identify the smaller question it seems to be trying to answer on its way to answering the big question.
- How it is moving the character forward or back in his/her quest. How did the characters change?
- What theme is it working?
This was as tempestuous, climactic chapter that brings the main character to a new place – a place of shock and disorientation.
Sofia strikes me as a needy, complicated woman with no potential for growth, but this chapter introduces the smallest possibility of change.
This reads like a light-hearted prose poem that is meant to entertain without straining our brains.
The first few pages of this feel like notes toward the chapter. The chapter feels like it really begins on page 3.
The following principles infuse step one:
Orientation Principle: We can’t give good feedback about how to shape something if we don’t know what shape it was aiming for. We need to demonstrate to the writer that we understand and support his/her writing style and goals.
Mirror Principle: The one thing a writer can’t do is see his/her own work through the eyes of others – and yet a writer needs this view. No matter how skilled or unskilled a writer themselves, the reader can mirror back to the writer what she sees and hears in the piece, and this is a great service.
Step 2: Tailor your feedback the writer’s request and to the kind of draft you have.
If it’s a rough draft, don’t waste time on line-by-line edits. Instead, respond to the overall shape. Save line edits for later drafts.
Step 3: Start with positive feedback.
Mark not only the lines you thought worked well, but the positive way it impacted you emotionally. Because it’s human nature to notice the negative first, and because we tend to take the positive for granted, it is sometimes hard to identify a story’s assets. Many will be tempted to skip this step and dive straight into the story’s problems. However, problems are only a small portion of the big picture. Some teachers recommend avoiding the verbs “like,” “love” and even “work” (as in “this works”), because they are too vague and judgmental. Try to characterize what you see or explain how it impacts you.
This physical detail characterizes her well.
This images works as a symbol of evil for me.
This whole paragraph moved me to tears.
The rapid language mimics the rapid action and really carried me away.
The following principles infuse step two and three:
Reciprocation Principle: All effort needs reciprocating effort and reward, or we lose motivation.
Trust Principle: We need to trust our workshop members and know they are rooting for us, enjoying our natural style and aims. By telling members what you like, you are helping them to trust you.
Growth Principle: Unblocked writers will naturally rise to their greatest potential. While some people respond to stress, pressure and competition in the short run, most writers need a sustainable practice.
Step 4: When you critique, use I-statements where possible, and translate criticisms into invitations.
Don’t say: Do say:
This is boring! I got distracted here.
This part is bland. I want to see what the house looks like
This is cliché. I’m craving a new way to see this
This is all over the place I was confused how this chapter relates tot he whole.
The following principle infuses step four:
Motivation Principle: People respond better to invitations than to roadblocks, partly because they are more clear, but also because a criticism is bent on stopping a behavior and thus invokes stagnating energy, while an invitation is bent on encouraging a behavior, and thus invokes moving energy. It just works better to tell someone what to do rather than what not to do. This works on children and significant others, too.
So, I hope you’ll get out there and start your group. Select your members carefully, explain the rules of the game and dive in. If it doesn’t seem to be working, be honest about it, dissolve the group, and try again with new people. Hilary Rettig, in her book The 7 Secrets of Prolific Writers, said that prolific writers walk away from bad situations knowing they can find or create a better one.