Workshops and Critiques: All in the Life of A Piece

By Meagan Jones

The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.

 

You sit in a white-walled classroom, fidgeting in your seat. A cluster of tables is in front of you, and fourteen other people sit around them, staring at stapled sheets of paper: your paper. It contains your fiction story.  

Two weeks earlier, you had typed away at your keyboard, word after word, feeling like a genius. The story was perfect. A masterpiece. You couldn’t believe how amazing your talent was.

But now, you are thinking of all the ways your classmates may not like it – you suddenly remember a typo on page three – and hope to whatever gods exist that they do not focus on that. Or that inconsistency on page four. You don’t know how you’d be able to handle that.

Breathe. Just breathe, you tell yourself. Your breath comes out in hot spurts; that can’t be right. You inhale, realizing that your lungs have turned to stone. You wait. You wait. And you wait.

Someone speaks.  

 

Having your work critiqued is a fundamental part of the process of writing. At some point in a piece’s life, it will be judged by a myriad of people, from your peers to your publisher.

At many colleges with creative writing classes, including UMF, those classes include a workshopping format. This means that a piece can have many people looking at it at once, give you feedback, and give suggestions on how to make it better.

As a first-year college student, I had a hard time with this (in fact, what’s written above is probably a close representation of what I was feeling the first time my work got workshopped). It can sometimes be a difficult process. It is hard to have something you’ve put your whole soul into get torn apart.

Over time, I’ve gotten used to it – I have recognized that listening to what my peers and professors have to say about my pieces helps me improve my skills as a writer. The more you are subject to criticism and understand that most of the time it is meant to help you, the more you can use that criticism in a positive way to make your work better.

That said, there are certain rules and strategies one should go by when getting workshopped, and when one is doing the workshopping.

Here’s a couple things to think about when preparing to be workshopped:

  1. Make sure your work is ready. Know that there’s something in your piece that can be fixed? Don’t submit it to workshop yet. Chances are, someone will point it out, losing time to talk about the issues you didn’t catch.
  2. If you’re nervous, take a deep breath before the workshop/critique begins. Find some calming exercises that you can do. Do an activity that takes your mind off of it. Go for a walk to clear your head.
  3. Keep an open mind. It is impossible for your piece to be perfect on the first, second, or even tenth draft – and in the workshop, someone may point out something you’ve missed.  

Here’s a few things to think about when doing the workshopping:

  1. Find something you liked about the piece. It is good to open and close a session with a positive. Anyone will get defensive if there are only negatives pointed out. Writing is difficult. We want at least something that will make it feel like it was all worth it.
  2. Be specific with your comments. Don’t just say you didn’t understand something about the piece – point out the specific page, line, sentence, or phrase that you didn’t understand. If you say something like “I didn’t understand anything about this,” it doesn’t help the writer make it so you can understand.
  3. Don’t focus on grammar. There is one point when grammar becomes important. Usually, it occurs within the last stages of a piece. If the piece is smaller, (for example, a short poem), and because of the grammar, something doesn’t make sense, then you can say something. But when it’s for a longer story, this isn’t as necessary, and eats up time when you can talk about larger issues with the piece.
  4. Look at the Setting, the Characters, the Plot, and the Theme. Try to find places where each of these could become stronger. Would the setting be easier to imagine with more imagery? Do the character’s motivations make sense to you?
  5. Make a list of what to say beforehand. It’s easy to forget what you wanted to talk about in the actual moment.
  6. Write on the working draft. You won’t be able to get through all of your points in a group setting. Also, remember to write your name on the paper, in case the writer has questions about your comments.
  7. Make suggestions, but recognize that it is the writer’s choice whether or not to follow them. It’s easy, sometimes, to look at a piece of writing and imagine how you would have written it. Please remember that in the end, everything is up to the writer.

 

In the end, critiquing and getting critiqued are fine arts. It takes practice master the skills. It takes effort. Remember that a critique just means something more to learn, and that you can always improve. Your workshop buddies are there to help you, and you to help them. Thank each other for support – because with them, you’ll be sure to grow as a writer.