It’s writing workshop day! Maybe you’re a sixth grader who’s never been through the process of getting feedback live and in person–and from six people all at once! Or maybe you’re thirty-two, sitting at shaky table in the Barnes and Noble café, waiting for a bunch of strangers you found through GroupMe to give you feedback on the first three chapters of your novel.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? I mean, what could be better than sharing your writing with people so they can shred it into itty bitty pieces?
Okay, your experience probably won’t be quite that dire. In all likelihood, most of your fellow workshop members will be thoughtful and generous. But that doesn’t necessarily mean having your work critiqued out loud and in public will be a blast. So how do you make the best of it?
Here are some tricks for surviving a critique session and actually getting something out of it.
1. When it’s your turn to receive feedback, take notes. First of all, it’s a great way to avoid eye contact. It also signals that you’re taking everyone’s critiques seriously, which may in turn make people consider their comments more carefully. Finally, you’ll have a record of what people thought were the strengths and weaknesses of your story. If you don’t take notes in the heat of the moment, you may have a hard time later recalling what people said.
2. Stifle the urge to argue with criticism you disagree with. Most workshop leaders make a rule that the person receiving feedback can’t talk until everyone else is finished talking. This is a workshop, not a trial, and the point is for the writer to hear what readers think about their writing. Usually the writer is given a chance to speak after everyone else is done, but once again, resist the urge to argue. If you truly don’t understand why someone had a problem with the beginning of your poem or the end of your story, ask them to clarify. Otherwise, zip those lips.
3. All feedback is not equal! If you’re in a workshop that meets regularly, you’ll figure out pretty quickly whose feedback is useful and who’s full of hot air. You’ll also learn people’s biases and proclivities. Sienna, it turns out, resists narratives that don’t play by the rules, while James turns his nose up at plots that follow the traditional story arc. Keep that in mind when listening to their critiques. It’s not that you can’t learn from people who have firm ideas about plot or character development or adverbs, ideas that may differ from your own; you can and you will. But if you’ve written an experimental story, don’t take it personally when Sienna doesn’t like it. Of course she doesn’t like it. You already knew she wouldn’t.
4. Speaking of not taking things personally … Do your best to remember that it’s not you that’s being criticized here, it’s your story. And yes, I know, it’s hard to differentiate between the two, but try. It gets easier the more you go through it, I promise. On a related note: don’t forget to breathe.
5. If your workshop has a leader—your LA teacher, say, or an established writer—it’s understandable if you give her feedback the most weight. But be sure to listen carefully to everyone, and don’t assume the workshop leader is always right. Everyone has their blind spots and their bad days. Again, you’ll learn over time whose opinions are the most valuable to you, and if those people are saying they love your story and the leader says she doesn’t … well, definitely ask her to be specific about what she thinks doesn’t work and what you might do to fix it. But don’t assume her opinion is more valid than those of other trusted critics.
6. Very important: You have final say! If everyone hates your story’s opening, but you love it and want to keep it, then keep it! Now, before you make the decision to leave the opening exactly as it is, do give serious consideration to the negative comments. Make sure you understand why everyone else hates it and be able to explain—at least to yourself—why you think they’re wrong and you’re right. Make sure you’re not just being defensive. In fact, if you love a part of your story that everyone else hates, put the story away for a week or two. You might find that when you come back to it, you understand why the others thought you could find a better way to start. But you also might find that you still love the opening and want to keep it. Then you should. Sometimes the critics are wrong.
Next week we’ll discuss what to do with all that feedback once you’ve received it. Yep, I’m talking revision, folks–everyone’s favorite part of the writing process!