My Two Cents

Ten habits of effective writing critiquers

by Jan 30, 2012Craft, Writers5 comments

Creative writing workshops can be a place where writers help colleagues shape their written work so that it effectively communicates the author’s intention. Or workshops can be a place where writers rip colleagues’ work, and the authors, to shreds.

I don’t know what value there is in the latter, and I think abusive workshops should be outlawed. That’s unrealistic, however, so let me suggest that we all vow to avoid the rip-to-shreds workshops and instead learn to critique writing generously and constructively.

To that end, here are 10 habits writers should adopt in order to create a positive workshop experience*:

  1. View your role in the workshop process as one of helping the writer communicate his or her intention to the reader. This means, in part, that you need to discover the writer’s intention.
  2. Become a good reader. If you are a good reader, you will discover the writer’s intention more easily.
  3. Participate in the workshop and critique process willingly. If you don’t want to be there, you will not give your best to the process.
  4. Pay attention. Focus on the work under discussion. Read for intention, with an eye to whether style, technique, word choice and voice assist in delivering the author’s message.
  5. Erase all preconceived notions about the work under discussion, and its author, from your mind and read the work with an open mind.
  6. Put your preferences aside. Even if you never before have read science fiction, when a science fiction piece is under discussion you are the world’s biggest science fiction fan.
  7. Understand that it is not your job to agree or disagree with the author’s message or intention. It is your job to help the author communicate the message effectively. So resist the urge to judge or affix a value to the work.
  8. Use the sandwich approach to comments: start with a positive, insert a constructive comment, and end with a positive (preferably the most important positive.)
  9. Treat others as you would like them to treat you. As a wonderful workshop leader said to one of the first workshops in which I participated: perform acts of generosity and mercy.
  10. Recognize that while your critique gives value to the author of the work under discussion, it also gives you value – you are identifying writing techniques that work and ones that don’t. And that can only help your own writing.

*A Toastmasters colleague who trains people in verbal communication skills mentioned some similar habits the other day when she discussed evaluation skills as they apply to public speaking (for example, being a good listener, avoiding judgment, and improving your own speaking skills by evaluating others.) Her presentation made me realize that evaluation skills cross many boundaries, and what works in one environment can work well in another.

What other habits or techniques of workshop participants have you noticed that contribute to a supportive, helpful evaluation of creative writing?

5 Comments

  1. iriswriter

    Excellent advice, Charlotte – could become habit-forming! I’ll pass this along to my critique group.

  2. Claire Gebben

    I love these ten tips! After first being ripped to shreds (decades ago) and believing such a practice was the necessary evil of critique, in the 21st century I am grateful we can be more civilized about the process. After all, we writers come to the table at different levels of experience in the craft. Constructive critiques nudge and inspire. I especially love 10.) I agree the critiquers are learning as much, if not more, than those being critiqued

  3. Bonny Becker

    I like 10, too. I’m adding it to my advice when I lead a workshop!

  4. Charlotte Morganti

    Iris, Claire and Bonny: thanks for the comments! I have been planning for a long time to write about the “perfect workshop”. On the week end a colleague from my Toastmasters group outlined evaluation techniques for speakers and many of them are exactly what we do (or should do) in a workshop. So I owe her a big thanks for prompting me to flesh out my thoughts on workshops.

  5. ssternberg

    It is difficult to critique. It’s so hard to not throw up one’s hands, and that’s before one has even opened one’s mouth. Seriously. I think the difficulty in critiquing is that we are often focused on those things which we are working on in our own writing and so end up seeing our flaws in others.

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