Critical Mass

Chalkboard that says "Perfection is Stagnation"

We all need someone to check our work.  When we’re in school, it’s our teachers.  When we grow up, it’s our colleagues, our bosses, our significant other.  But a career in writing can be a very solitary venture.  Who cares if you write your book? Nobody but you. Not really.  They might love and support your writing, but tomorrow, if you called them and told them you had given up writing for the adventurous world of papier mache art, they may be confused, they may be disappointed, but they will NOT be the person sitting up in bed at 3 am waiting for the characters in their head to be quiet. That would be you. You are the only person who can motivate yourself to keep going.

So…solitary.  But it doesn’t have to be lonely.

When babies first learn to play, they don’t learn to play together.  They play side-by-side. Two different stories, two different imaginings, next to each other. They get older and they start discussing each other’s worlds. “Your castle is the biggest castle ever!” or “That picture is ugly!” Yeah, there’s one of those in every class. I know because I encounter one in every workshop.

When we learn to write, we need to learn to do it alongside other writers. And that is what a writing workshop is about.

A writing workshop is an exhilarating experience and kind of a terrifying one. It’s more like your child’s first day at daycare. You bring this creation of yours into a place where you no longer have sole control over it.  You’re still in charge, but your creation may now have outside influences.  When you distribute your story to the other participants in a workshop, you’re handing it off to trusted colleagues for an honest critique.  And many others will be entrusting you with their creations in return. So it’s very important that you create an environment of trust and respect.  Take criticisms with poise and, when necessary, restraint. Take some time, then turn an honest eye to your work.

When reading for others, read through the piece in front of you with a careful eye.  Consider plot, theme, characterizations, language and dialogue.  Look for things you don’t like, things that don’t work for you, things you love, that stick with you. Always consider the positive and negative.  If you don’t like the piece, search out that solid turn of phrase, that one character you enjoyed.  Praise that, then get to the nitty gritty. If you loved the piece, dig deep and find something that might still need a correction.  Is the prose a little too flowery? Is one character a tad weak? Don’t make something up. The writer will know. But really work on helping the writer improve the work in some way.

Most importantly, respect the work.  Read carefully. Know the characters.  Know the important plot points. Calling a main character by the wrong name shows that you haven’t read the story closely enough. When you critique, don’t act like you’ve been forced to read something, even if it’s something you wouldn’t normally read.  You are doing a service to another writer while simultaneously broadening your horizons. If you have a negative criticism, try to deliver it softly, without the edge of superiority or disgust. This isn’t a case of “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all”. You have to say negative things or your critique will wind up being pretty useless.  It’s about how you couch your response.

Everyone was a first time writer at some time in their career.  Everyone has produced a piece of utter crap once.  So lend a hand.  Be kind, respectful, and nurturing to the talent of others.

If you aren’t you end up being that kid in the daycare that kicks over everyone else’s castles.  Nobody wants to play with that guy.

2 thoughts on “Critical Mass

  1. You seem very at ease with your voice, Justine, and it carries through all your posts.

    This way of approaching a workshop–it’s so difficult for some to do. I’ve been in many tht turned into weird little ego battles. I’ve been trying to get some new writers to deal with workshopping now and they just want to proofread and note everything that is wrong–even if the author asks them to read for specific things. I’ve got one who claims that if she can’t find anything wrong with a story, she will look for something and not anything about the good things. Sometimes an author asks a specific question and she refuses to answer it (because she doesn’t think the author has a problem with the thing asked about.) She winds up trying to correct grammar, (even if it’s part of the voice!) and harping on insignificant things. Then she wonders why people drop out of her group or break away and form their own. (And why she hasn’t been invited to my workshop!) It’s exhausting! Why is it so difficult to respect another’s work and balance good and problematic?

    I know why. I’m just venting here, on your blog.

    Happy writing!

    1. Thank you!

      I wholeheartedly agree. Workshopping is so difficult simply because we are all putting our hearts on the line. It is easy to get defensive. It is just as easy to impose your own ideas on somebody else’s work. I have had workshop members cross out whole swaths of writing because it didn’t fit their style and with no discussion of why. I write first person mostly, and very much in the voice of the character, so I have people correct my grammar despite the voice all the time.

      Even though I have my gripes with the whole process, a good workshop experience can do wonders for a flagging piece of writing, so I still recommend it. Still, like you, I wish it could be a little more consistent, people could follow rules a little more closely, people could have a little more respect.

      But then, what’s more of a show of ego than deciding your story is important enough to tell the world? So there’s that. 🙂

      Thank you for swinging by! I’ve enjoyed reading your observations.

      Hope you visit again and happy writing!

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