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.
William B. Patrick
By Wayne Ude
Five general suggestions:
- Read the story through once, quickly, without stopping, both to get a general sense of what it’s about and to see how readable it is. If you have to stop to figure out what’s going on (or, worse yet, to go back and reread), make an x in the margin at that point to remind yourself, but don’t further break your first reading to make extensive notes.
- Give the story a very careful second reading, in which you write as many comments in the margins as occur to you. On this reading, you may look for any or all of the elements discussed below.
- Ask yourself what seems to be at the story’s core: it could be a character, an event or series of events, a symbol or image, a theme, a relationship, etc. Attempt to identify those elements in the story which most effectively create the core, and those which seem less important or even irrelevant to the core.
- Look for elements in at least three categories: strengths, weaknesses, and undeveloped potential strengths. It’s a mistake in critiquing a story to focus only on strengths or only on weaknesses – either approach will lead others to regard you as a one-dimensional critic.
- Don’t be afraid to suggest radical changes in the story. One purpose of critiquing a story is to re-open the author’s mind to unexplored possibilities, and sometimes, in the process of rejecting a wild suggestion, the author will simultaneously come up with a better one. In other words, looking at something which the author knows won’t work may reveal what will work.
Some more technical suggestions:
- In what ways are characters created – through action and dialogue, through their thoughts, through others’ reactions to them, through the narrator’s commentary, through the quality of the language that surrounds them?
- Are important moments shown in scenes rather than in summary? What is the relationship between scene and summary – key moments should be in scene, but ten pages of summary and three of scene still isn’t likely to make an effective story even if the key event takes place in the story’s single scene. Do individual summaries go on too long?
- What point of view is used to tell the story? Is that point of view effective, or might another be more effective?
- Is the language consistent, or does it range out of control from very colloquial to very formal? Is the language appropriate to the characters? And beyond that: is the language doing anything special, anything that has you noticing and appreciating it? Is there a sense of an individual mind behind the words?
- Is the central character involved in relationships, conflict, action, or does s/he tend to go off alone and soliloquize at key moments? If the latter, is there a way to involve him/her with other characters? Further, does the story create or at least imply a society within which the central character moves?
Originally published in Southeast Writers’ Handbook: see our Books