Friday, June 12, 2009


Too often, it seems that we misread "writing workshop" as "writing worship": the workshop as a place of mutual worship (both silent and spoken), where we avoid critical feedback for a host of complex psychological and social reasons. And part of the difficulty may have to do with cultural notions of criticism as inherently negative and destructive versus positive and constructive.

A workshop is a place of work, a place of work-in-process, and a critical space. The etymology of criticism links an ability to make judgments with a state of separation (Gr. krinein, “to separate, decide”). Contrary to the “fusing-together” of confusion, you may think of the critical space of the workshop as a place where separations occur: the writer separates herself from her work; the writer separates herself from her private sphere and enters the public sphere of a readership; the reader presents herself as separated from the writer’s intentions and the writing itself; the act of writing separates from the act of reading/rereading, and so on. You hear the same idea in the phrase "critical distance," which implies that critical vision cannot take place without stepping away from whatever it is you would criticize: a poem, an experience, and so on.

Any act of separation presents a crisis, and there is the connotation of crisis in the etymology of the word criticism. Among other things, a crisis is “a turning point in a disease.” Indeed, there is much crisis and dis-ease in giving and receiving criticism, but also think of criticism as an occasion in which whatever is diseased in the body of the work begins to separate out and name itself in the critical act of the workshop. As you give and receive criticism at workshop, keep in mind this constructive notion of criticism as a turning point in "right naming" motivated by a desire to cure what is diseased.

Along these lines, the following is a selection I made from a document that a colleague gave to me some years ago. I think these guidelines may be helpful as we continue the workshop process.


Read the work attentively at least once. Follow your workshop guidelines and write a thoughtful response.

Take notes as you read. It's much easier to comment in detail if you have the details in front of you.


Practice professional criticism. Just as writers must learn to respond to criticism in a professional manner, critics must learn to offer it responsibly. Critical responses should be concrete and specific; explain clearly and thoughtfully what you mean. Demonstrate that you've tried to understand the writer's work

Allow the work to stand alone. The writer needs your "cold eye" in order to know whether the work is succeeding. Put aside friendship, competition, annoyances, and all other irrelevant reactions, and focus on the writing itself: does it work?

Respect the writer's process. Writers need your honest criticism, but keep in mind that workshops produce works in progress.

Practice good communication. It is one thing to articulate the flaws in a work; it's quite another to communicate these insights in a way that the writer can understand, accept, and use. Try focusing on your own response to the work-how you felt as you read, rather than harping on its flaws.

Be honest and sensitive. Honesty does not mean a free-for-all, and sensitivity doesn't mean sugar-coating the truth. Try to identify precisely how the work affected you as you read it. Try to communicate this in a way that won't alienate the writer.

Ask questions. Even if the writer can't answer at the moment, a question shows respect, as well as raising legitimate concerns about the writing.

Never skip a workshop unnecessarily; many writers take this personally.

Return your clearly marked draft to the writer. Belonging to a workshop is a kind of mutual promise-others will respond more fully to your work if they receive a generous response from you. (Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.)


Turn in a clean, complete manuscript. Be sure to use a readable, l2-point font, and leave margins wide enough for readers to write comments. Double-space, number, and staple your pages. Remember that respecting deadlines gives others time to read and comment on your work thoughtfully.

Write down your questions. As you work, list places where you're uncertain, technical questions that you may have, and passages you wonder about. Include page numbers, and be specific about the kind of information you want from readers, such as ideas, an emotional response, or a critical judgment.

Prepare emotionally. This rare opportunity for concentrated critical attention will be both helpful and stressful. It may help to remind yourself that you joined the class in order to improve your writing, and that is what the workshop will help you to do. Before your workshop begins, resolve that the draft is finished: it must stand on its own.

Engage. If your workshop allows it, ask some of the questions that you had noted while you were preparing for your workshop. If you can't ask questions during your workshop, keep them in mind anyway; having a clear objective will help as you process the information you receive.

Question purposefully. Use open-ended questions to stimulate discussion; use yes/no questions to redirect it.

Take notes. Keeping a careful record of others' comments will help you to recall the discussion, which may be difficult to remember in detail otherwise. Consult your notes after some time has passed and you're ready to revise; or, use the notes as a reference to remind you of questions you'd like to pursue with individual readers.

Listen. If your workshop emphasizes receptive learning, don't just sit there—pay attention and try to understand others' ideas. If you're allowed to speak, spend this time asking purposeful questions rather than defending the work. It may help to remind yourself that you're under no obligation to accept the criticism you're offered. In any workshop, the last word is the writer's final draft.

Consider. Give yourself some time to think over all the ideas that you've received. If possible, it may help to take a break before starting to revise. Try using this incubation time as a reading period—the voices of other writers will be an added positive influence.

Maintain your integrity. No one has to write by consensus. Over time, you'll learn to recognize the critical voices that are most helpful to you, and not to be shaken by those that are less beneficial.

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