Respect and Criticism in Workshop

Now that I’m starting to teach a new workshop, it’s time for me to go through some of the important rules when workshopping someone else’s writing or having your own writing workshopped. It can be a very tense time for budding writers; this may be the first time they’ve received criticism, and this can feel like quite the shock to the system. That’s why it’s so important to remember our twin guiding principles of respect and sensitivity. For those who take their work very seriously, a workshop can feel like as vulnerable a place as a group therapy session, so it’s important to keep that vulnerability in mind. At the same time, everyone’s time will be wasted if we hold back and don’t say what we really think about the work. Here a few rules of thumb to keep in mind if you’ve been asked to comment on someone else’s work, or if you’re on the chopping block yourself.

1. Know your editing notes

First, it’s very useful to have a universal editing language that everyone in the workshop can agree on. It can save time if you don’t have to write “I don’t think this is the right word for this description” every time, but can instead just put “wc.” Here are a few editing shorthand notes that many writers use when workshopping.

WC: “Word choice” — a general comment that this isn’t the right word and the writer should try a different word
AWK: “Awkward” — if the phrase just isn’t hitting right, sounds too wordy or just clumsy, and the writer should rephrase
Squiggly underline: general disapproval. The squiggly line can highlight anything that isn’t working and can be accompanied by further elaboration on why it isn’t working.
Straight underline: great! Underline the things that are working well.
STET: ignore. If the editor makes a comment but then changes his mind, STET tells the writer to ignore any markups there.

If you are being workshopped

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are up to be workshopped.

No talking — while some teachers vary on how strictly this is enforced, you should not really be talking while you are being workshopped. Your work should speak for itself, and there’s no need for you to defend the piece. Now is your time to be listening and taking notes.
Don’t get personal — remember that your work, not you, is being criticized.
Stay calm and take in what you can. The influx of feedback can be overwhelming, but it’s best to act as a sponge and take everything in. Sort out conflicting opinions later, when you are calm and ready to begin revising.

After the jump: how to workshop.

If you are doing the workshopping

Now here are a few rules for if you are discussing someone else’s piece.

Separate the work from the writer — Remember that it is a work of fiction, not a person, that you are critiquing. Keep your language directed at the piece, not at the failings of the writer.
Begin with the positive — It’s always nicer to hear what’s working first.
Use “I” statements — I know it sounds like kindergarten, but it’s important nonetheless to avoid absolute declarative statements such as “This piece was terrible.” Try instead, “I was confused in a few places,” or “I wasn’t sure if this character was developed enough.”
Avoid comparisons — It’s never a good idea to play writers off each other and make comparisons within the class.

Follow these general guidelines, and you’ll have a productive, respectful workshop!

One comment

  1. Blair, I agree on the “no talking” rule. I’ve found it very helpful NOT to be allowed to comment on the comments at the time of the workshop. This prevents me from bursting out with angry “You just don’t get it,” over something that later turns out to be a valid point — or NOT — as the case may be. Sometimes it take me a while to get over the “personal attack” automatic response and take in the actual criticism.

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