I am an advocate of creative writing workshops. They are such an easy, wonderful way to get feedback from multiple writers at once, and they have the possibility to cultivate long-term friendships and to network within your field of expertise. But the workshop is a very delicate ecosystem requiring a healthy balance of trust, professionalism, and fun. If we are going to make our workshop classes more constructive and worth our time and our colleagues’ time, then we should keep the following in mind:
Critique what they are attempting to do with their work, not by your own aesthetic standards
Each of us has a unique writing style. Our wording, pacing, genre, even use of punctuation will not always align with the tastes of others, and it’s important to keep that in mind when reading a piece we cannot fully connect with. It’s not our job to mold that piece into something we’d find interesting; it’s our job to help the writer mold their piece into what they want it to become. Don’t revise their manuscript to live within your parameters.
Do not generalize
“That’s not believable because no woman would do that,” is a generalization and is not constructive. We must not critique based on some statistic rooted in our own anecdotal evidence; we must critique based on the character. If the character is constructed in a specific way, we can ask if a thought or action would be believable for he or she to do. However, a character acting “out-of-character” may be the author’s way of signaling that the character is hiding something or maybe went through a profound change. The context in which this happens will give you the answer; if it doesn’t, then that could be a great constructive point to bring up.
Be mindful of your colleagues’ time
One or two people should be in charge of keeping the workshop on task. Tangents will inevitably happen, and that’s fine; but to be respectful to author whose work you are discussing, you must focus on their work. There’s nothing worse than listening to the entire group laugh and talk about something other than your own work and only receiving one or two pieces of feedback. I have seen this go on for longer than necessary and once it’s over, everyone moves on to the next author’s piece. This is unhelpful and frustrating.
Don’t be a dick
Everyone knows that person — that person who thinks they are the exalted son of God himself and their writing is the greatest gift to humanity since before they were born. Everything they write is perfect because they are so perfect. Or maybe there’s another person who uses his or her sense of humor to write by committee: “Or maybe you can have the cat explode into the cake after it eats the crystallized meth on the baking sheet, because that would be funny. At least, I find it funny.” Stop it. Of course, exceptions can be made depending on the tone of your voice or how well you know the author, but throwing out harsh criticisms without an explanation to back up your opinion is a huge “fuck you” to the author. And that’s not a way to make friends.
Give the attention to your colleagues’ work that you would want someone to give to yours. You don’t need to walk on egg shells, but you don’t want to kick rocks in their face either. Diving head first into a plastic ball pit is the right balance. (No? Didn’t you ever do that as a kid? Yes? Remember how fun it was? Now you want to jump into a ball pit, don’t you? Yeah, I thought so…)