Constructive Criticism: How Not to be a Dick in Your Writing Workshop
Generally speaking, when you read a piece, you'll feel one of two Lucille Balls about it.
HOW TO NOT BE A DICK—WHEN BEING A CRITIC
Whether providing a simple verbal comment or composing a written document for workshop, there is a method to delivering criticism effectively. Tried and true, I’ve outlined my method below:
First, say something nice—not something superficially nice (what a nice font you got here, love the use of the word “and,” etc.), but something at the core of the piece. Each piece contains “a nugget of a great idea,” to quote the good people at Chapel Hill Writing Center. Find that nugget and praise it.
Next, ease into the critique. Remember, critique the writing, not the writer—rather than using the accusatory you “you really need to work on x” say, “this piece is lacking here, here, here…” and so on. Just as we don’t want to give superficial compliments, try not to give superficial criticism, either.
Finally, offer your suggestions for improvement. Here, I strongly believe your suggestions should be operating on a macro level. Which is to say, if a piece is brought in riddled with errors (which implies a rather early iteration of a work), do not waste your energy proofreading, but suggest the author proofread as they move to the next stage. Look at the structure, the characters, the plot—or, if operating in the realm of the poem, the structure, the rhythm, the turn. Endeavor to see the work as a whole, and treat it that way.
Don’t play the thesaurus game, a close cousin of the semantics game, which is equally a waste of time. All too often, this form of workshop becomes a game of the critic changing words here and there to words they think would fit the piece better—in effect, the critic rewrites the piece in their own voice, and thus obliterates the voice of the writer; when this has happened to me in workshop, I instinctively feel the critic is in some ways insulting my intelligence (I too can look for synonyms!) and in others disrespecting me as a writer. A better approach to this problem is to underline the word in question, mark “WC” for “word choice,” and suggest to the writer that this feels somehow incorrect. If the writer then asks you, “what wording would you suggest?” feel free to chime in then.
Be specific. While it’s suggested to offer critique on the macro level, this is in no way encouraging you to avoid citing specific examples to support your ideas. If there’s a specific place that’s tripping you up, point it out.
Also, just as a follow up thought: when marking up a work, remember to mark the things you loved, too. It’s certain to brighten the author’s day, and will key them into the specific places their work is successful.
HOW TO NOT BE A DICK—WHEN RECEIVING CRITICISM
To quote Adyashanti, “If you want to know something, go elsewhere. If you want to un-know everything, then sit and listen.” To quote Black Dynamite, “shut the fuck up when grown folks is talking.”
Young writers new to the workshop feel a desire to explain their work. They always rush to explain why they did this or that, or they try to preface their work before letting it slip out of their hands. This desire is the byproduct of anxiety, and believe me, we’ve all felt it; regardless, you must curb it. Your work must stand alone if it is ever to be in the world without you standing there with it. “This piece is going into the hands of someone whom I admire and respect; maybe if I say a little more they’ll like me better.” The point of a workshop is not to be liked, necessarily—it is to improve. If this person you admire and respect is willing to read your work and offer you criticism, is there any better gift?
Similarly, resist your urge to defend yourself and your work at the end of the workshop session; criticism of your writing is not a criticism of you as a person. The fear of rejection and the instinctual need to be right, always, will close you off from valuable advice.
On the other hand, be mindful that excessive praise does not go to your head. The swelling ego is just as harmful to the workshop setting as excessive anxiety and fear. To quote Noah Levine, “humility does not mean that conceit doesn’t arise in the mind; it means conceit is met with the wisdom of not taking the inflation personally. Conceit is both inflation and deflation of the sense of self.”
Remember: you are in no way beholden to take every piece of advice you receive in a writing workshop. In fact, if you followed every bit of advice you received, you’d be left with a patchwork disaster. The instinct to give advice is almost always coming from a good place, but advice can only be as informed as the one who is giving it. No one is going to be as informed about your work as you are. Be open to all input, you are still the author; you know what your vision is, so only take the advice that allows you to achieve your vision the most effectively. Account for human error, and act accordingly.
At the core of everything we do, the resounding hum of the golden rule rings: treat others as you want to be treated. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have a compassion practice that encourages us to treat everyone you meet as if they were once your mother; as if they have nourished your very body into being, be kind to those in your workshop group—and look out for them in all the ways you can. After all, they are doing you the kindness of dedicating their time to your work—and as we get older, there is nothing more valuable than time and attention.
Be mindful, though: blubbering praise, especially borne from a place of discomfort with giving and receiving criticism, is no kindness at all. Remember your mother, comforting you after you scraped your knee after running recklessly down the sidewalk; remember your mother, who let you run despite this small risk to your body rather than wrapping you in the bubble wrap of an overprotective hand. Better the mother who lets you get hurt, just a little, than the mother who never lets go of your hand. It is better to scrape one’s knees in the safety of the workshop than to lose one’s legs at the knees out in the shark pool of the real world.
How do you handle criticism in workshop? Contribute to the conversation in the comments below.