Painfully Honest Critiques

Generally, I do not take criticism well.  It’s just something about being told I’m wrong that rubs against my grain, especially something I’ve been trained to do or something I’ve done out of habit for a long time.

The one exception to this is criticism of my writing during workshopping.  I handle criticism pretty well in workshops – usually because whoever is criticizing me is right.  My boyfriend, for example, is also a writer and does an extremely thorough job obliterating my work into smithereens.

Not that I mind, of course.  When your work gets blasted to smithereens, you have the chance to go in and make extreme changes to radically improve your work.  Here are a few hints on giving painfully honest and incredibly helpful techniques.

  • If the piece doesn’t make sense, do not hesitate to tell the writer.  It’s extremely important, though, that you tell them precisely why it doesn’t make sense.  “I don’t understand” is not as good as “Stanzas X and Y mention this element, but then it doesn’t show up again until five stanzas after that at stanza Q.”  It would also be important to explain “I don’t see how element T connects to element Z in this poem.”
  • In a poetry critique, nit-picking over word meanings or word choice can make or break a poem.  An example: there is a huge difference between “click” and “tick” when referring to the sound a clock makes, and it’s important to tell the difference based on what you mean.
  • Always, always, always make sure you are providing a fair and kind critique.  Each criticism should be accompanied by either a suggestion for improvement or an explanation of what you like about the piece.  You should never tell a writer “I don’t like X” or “Z is not working” without also saying “…but I like Y” or “…and Q is my favorite part/line/word.”  Knowing what does work will help the writer – both by knowing what to change and knowing what not to change.  Fair and kind critiques also help ease the pain of a critique as well.
  • Remember: a strong critique should ultimately help the writer and the pain will only be temporary.  While it’s a bit disappointing to be told your narrator is flat and the least interesting person in the story, that’s a very important thing for the writer to know: nobody wants to read a story with a boring narrator.  Your purpose as a critiquer – or critter, as they’re sometimes called – is to help your friends and colleagues build on their foundation to develop a better piece.

Critiques should be different according to preferences.  If you’re not sure what is appropriate, ask the person receiving the critique how in-depth they want you to go.

When my work is being critiqued, I prefer to have the harshest, most painfully honest, and most in-depth critique possible because that’s how I learn and improve.  What do you prefer when you’re being critiqued?  When you’re receiving critiques?  Are painfully honest critiques important to you?  Share your thoughts on critiquing in the comments below.

Workshopping: Poetry

Third in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines and the second about short fiction.  The fourth will focus on scripts and the fifth on workshopping and editing long fiction.

This week, we’ll talk about workshopping poetry, including how you should format your poems, what specifically to have, and how to go about critiquing it.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

When you decide to bring poetry into your workshop, you may want to make sure you do a few things before actually having it critiqued.

Firstly, go over the poem and make sure all of the words are spelled correctly – specifically, that they are spelled correctly according to how you want them spelled.  Because poetry is so flexible in its use of language, spelling things correctly or incorrectly actually can have a real impact on the way it is interpreted.

Your poem should also be in the format you want it to be in.  Poetry, unlike prose, can be formatted in any way you like, because sometimes it is the actual physical position of the lines that contains meaning.  If that fourth line in the seventh stanza needs to be tabbed over two inches, feel free to do so – it could have a strong impact on your reader.

Once you’ve tackled those two things, you can start in on the actual content.  Poetry differs from prose in that imagery is the most important thing.  Make sure your images are well-crafted and memorable – while it’s never helpful to use cliches in writing, using cliches in poetry is a horrendous beginner’s mistake because unique ways of seeing, hearing, or experiencing something is the point of reading a poem.

These basic rules apply to all types of poetry, from lengthy dramatic monologues down to 17-syllable haiku.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

There are very particular things you should look for when critiquing poetry in a workshop because poetry has particular needs associated with it.  Unlike short fiction or scripts, poetry doesn’t necessarily need a plot – just a theme.

With that in mind, consider the following when you read and critique poems.

Take special heed of what precisely the author is trying to do in regards to spelling and format.  As I mentioned above, spelling and format are both pretty important to style and tone, which are vital in poetry.  If something is spelled incorrectly and shouldn’t, that needs to come up in the discussion.  If something is spelled correctly and shouldn’t, that also needs to come up in discussion.

It’s also important to look at what the author is trying to say and whether or not it’s working.  In one poetry class, a student brought in a poem titled “Human Pet” – but the subject of the “pet-like” treatment wasn’t being treated like a pet but rather like an object instead.  While that may seem like a small nuance, those small nuances of language are important for the poem to work the way it should and to actually be effective.

As mentioned above, a poem don’t really need a plot because its beauty often lies in the images and texture of the language.  Identify and examine each image in the poem and see how it works.  Is it unique?  Does it make you think about the topic of the poem – or at least the item it is describing – in a new or different way?  For example, does that description of a teenage girl’s bangs help you understand why her teacher is in love with her?  Does the line about flying crows help you see the underlying beauty in life on a farm?

While all three of these basic poetry-critiquing rules are important, it is the third rule which is most important, because the imagery of a poem can make or break it.  Always take a good look at the images as well as how they tie together; if you can help a writer in your workshop manage this well, it will greatly benefit him or her as a writer.

Conclusion

Workshopping poetry is much, much different from workshopping prose!  If one member of your group regularly brings in poetry, you should probably get yourself familiar with the genre.  Ask him or her what poets his or her work is drawn from and take some time to check a book out of the library.

If you’re interested in poetry yourself after reading this article, I highly recommend you start reading poetry!  If you’re inclined towards prose, start out with the poet Ai, who writes in dramatic monologue style.  I recommend her collection called Dread – it’s the first collection of hers I have read and it is absolutely fantastic, if a bit dark.

Workshopping: General Guidelines

First in a series about conducting writing workshops.  The second part will focus on short fiction, the third on poetry, the fourth on scriptwriting, and the fifth on workshopping or editing long fiction.

As a member of the executive board for an on-campus writing group called UT Writer’s Guild, I’m supervising weekly writing workshops for our in-town members this summer.  I’ve noticed a few things that might be helpful to those who want to conduct writing workshops of their own.

1. Establish rules and/or guidelines early on

For a peer review workshop, rules about how to treat the other writers as well as guidelines on what to bring are usually pretty important.  Usually, I set basic conduct rules at the beginning of each session:

  • Treat other writers with respect – you can be firm, you have the right to dislike the work or to criticize, but you do not have the right to be verbally abusive.
  • Read out loud if you like, but we won’t make you do anything you don’t want to – we’re all about comfort and peer support at Writer’s Guild.

However, some workshops – be it a general writing organization or a student writing organization – will likely also find it helpful to set guidelines about what to bring.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Limit page or line count.  If you know that you’ll have 25 people at your workshop, it’s not practical to allow everyone to bring in a 10-page work.
  • Limit exactly what type of work.  Maybe your group is a NaNo prep or support group.  In that case, you don’t want scripts or poetry.  Or maybe you personally know nothing about fiction – then you should run a poetry workshop.  You don’t have to do everything, you know.
  • Limit who brings what.  I’ll go back to the 25-person example above: going through 25 short stories is never practical for a single workshop, even if it lasts for hours.  Assign weekly rotations and let everyone know who can bring in work on which week.  Added bonus: you can hand out the work the week before so people can read at home, leaving you more in-workshop time to discuss the piece.

Again, that’s just a sample, but seriously consider making a list of guidelines and rules for your group workshop.  As I write this, I’m beginning to seriously consider writing down my rules.

2. Establish a meeting place and stick to it

Everyone’s had it happen to them: attend a meeting, make friends, love the group, decide to come back next week – only to discover the day’s changed, the time has changed, or the place has changed.  Sucks, right?

When you’re deciding to do a weekly or bi-weekly workshop, choose a place, day, and time to go and make sure you stay there!  If you MUST change it up – for example, if you get a new job or your class schedule changes – make sure everyone knows about the change.

It’s also best if you choose a public location instead of someone’s home unless everyone in the group is very close and friendly with one another.  UTWG meets at a coffee shop near campus during the summer.

3. Recruit newcomers to the workshop

This is more or less a no-brainer for every organization, but don’t forget to recruit others to your workshop.  Figure out how many people your group can handle each week, then try to reach that goal.

For example, we can comfortably workshop with 4 to 6 people or, if we have more than that, split into two groups so we can have more personal discussions.  Usually, about 3 or 4 people attend, so we’re trying our hardest to let the other members know where and when we meet.

Incidentally, you can even use the workshops as a recruitment tool: letting others know that you’re having a workshop may entice them to come.  Which brings us to our final point…

4. Network, network, network!

Anyone who wants to succeed as a writer or editor knows that networking is incredibly important, so don’t pass this opportunity up!  Talk with other members of your group, get their phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and learn more about your local writing community.

Of course, you have to follow up on it.  Check out their blog – many writers have blogs about something or another – and post comments to it.  You may find interesting stuff you may want to recommend to your friends.

There are also other ways that networking can help you.

Social networking is an excellent tool for writers.  Facebook has a Groups application that makes it easy to create, organize, and contact your workshop group.  We post prompts, links, and meeting times in the group, which makes it easier to see who’s going and who’s not.

Conclusion

There are plenty of ways to create a writing workshop.  While it’s good to have freedom in the group, it’s also good to have a little structure.

The most important part, however, is to grow as a writer and to help others in the workshop grow as writers, too.  There are many ways to help your members do so, and the rest of the Workshopping series will help you help others.  Keep checking back here for the next four parts of the series.

Do you attend workshops?  What works best in your workshops?