Monday, December 13, 2010

Workshop Etiquette

You know the old joke about how there's an asshole in every room, so if you look around and you don't see the asshole, it's you? I feel that way about workshops – there's always that one person, right? And it's not that they're rude or ego maniacal or attention-hogging (though that's sometimes part of it), it's mostly that their comments on your work just aren't useful. I once got a comment on a piece that said, "C'mon, Sally Jane, you can do better than this." Or then there was the guy who said, "I mean, it's good and all, but I just don't like it." Or the time a classmate criticized my play (set in Tennessee) because "this kind of thing would never happen in Minnesota." How is that helpful?

The whole purpose of a workshop, whether as part of your MFA program or in an independent writers group, is to help the writer with his/her work and development of craft. My basic rule for any comment is if it's not useful to the writer, then keep it to yourself. Avoid delving into the writer's psychology or personal life ("Your characters are having trouble with their marriage; is this because your own marriage is falling apart?"), and try to remember that just because something is outside your own realm of experience doesn't make its existence impossible.

But don't listen to me. Listen to Meir Ribalow. He runs a playwrights group at The Player's Club in New York City, and he begins every session with a recitation of his rules. I think these rules are genius, and everyone in every workshop on earth should use them. So here they are:

  1. All comments have to be constructive. No trash talking allowed.

  2. You have to comment on the work in front of you, not what you would have written if it had been your idea. Even if you think your idea is better.

  3. No invidious comparisons. Saying "Sophocles did this better" isn't helpful.

  4. Don't try to rewrite for the author. The author can do that him/herself. Just point out the areas of concern.

So what has your experience been like? Got any workshop horror stories? Or rules you think should be added to the list? Comments, please! (Constructive ones, of course.)


Danny said...

I've been in two workshop situations where one student proceeded to destroy another student's story in the most vile and necessary manner. In both cases the teacher just sat there and did nothing to stop it. And in both cases, the angry student had had a story that didn't go over so well in the previous class.

The constructive part: don't let this happen. If the teacher won't speak up to stop such abuse, someone else should. I've vowed to never let something like this happen again.

Anonymous said...

My first college poetry class - my instructor said, "this is just crap." After that class I didn't write for years. I mean, he was the instructor, a published poet - he knew what he was talking about.

I learned constructive criticism several years later in a poetry workshop class - "You know Emily, this has some great moments in it (mentions a few) - there is something (points) that feels a bit . . ."
"Clunky?" I said
"Yes, that's the word."
"I thought there was something weird going on there."
Other classmates gave a few small ideas for maybe a word exchange or some rearranging of syllables, that sort of thing.

I really started writing again.

Now I'm able to ask at a workshop "okay that doesn't work, why doesn't it work? Is it the language? the flow of the visions? the static formatting?"
If someone says "I just don't like it" - well that doesn't tell me anything about why. Those are the comments I don't pay much attention to, because they don't know why they don't like it - OR - they don't want to tell me. If it's the subject matter, there's nothing I can do about that - that's what the piece is about. If you don't like the subject matter, talk about the writing itself, not the subject. Is it written well? Does the subject come across? Does the language make sense? Like the subject or not, tell me if it's written well or poorly, and then tell me why.

It doesn't hurt my feelings any more to have people critique my work, because I do find it interesting to hear what they get from my words. I want to hear someone else read my work - I want to see how THEY interpret it. I'm one of those weird writers. I don't like reading my own work out loud, I'd rather hear what someone else does with it.

I write plays too - one of my one-acts will be up next semester for a staged reading, and I don't want anything to do with it - I don't want to see rehearsals, not going to direct or act in it - I want to see what other people do with my work, because once it's out there, it doesn't belong to me anymore. You have to learn to let go of it, otherwise all you have is a journal of words that only you can understand. If you want others to read your work, you have to let them have it and read what they will.

Danny said...

(And of course I meant "UN-necessary". . . .

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this goes without saying, but my favorite workshop rule has always been something to the effect of: "Oh, you're being workshopped? That's nice, now shut it."

Maybe I am the asshole, but when someone tries to interrupt my critique with their reasoning, I try and shut them right down.

Also, my workshops have always had the opposite problem. There are usually only one or two people whose opinions I trust or appreciate. The rest of the class comprises something of a peanut gallery. Then again, I'm still getting my BFA; I'll find solace in my MFA program... right?

la said...

Like @ Johnny Moore , I also prefer the author-is-silent-during-critique kind of workshop.

But I have to disagree with @ Emily a bit. While I wouldn't tell someone that their work is just crap, I don't recoil from that kind of comment if given to me. I find this kind of charged comment so much more useful than polite tiptoeing around the issue.

Anonymous said...

@ABC The instructor that said "this is crap" was during my freshman year in college, before I had taken any real poetry classes at all - I thought my work was good because other people told me in high school.
That's why it hurt so bad.
I'm at the point (and age) now that I can take that kind of criticism, it just isn't helpful for me. WHY is it crap? I can't find a way to fix anything if I don't know what's wrong with it.

Sheila Lamb said...

Will have my first official MFA workshop next month. However, critique groups I was involved with had a similar process. Make sure there is a positive point with the negative, be polite, etc. All common sense, you would think.

I remember only one or two times where the person being critiqued got all upset (even though the critique was right on and politely given) - those folks had yet to toughen their thin skins.

Gummy Bear Sacrifice said...

I will never forget that this one guy critiqued my work and said, "All of these grammar mistakes make me not even want to take this chick seriously as a writer."

....Ow! I went out the next day and bought a book on grammar.

Natalie said...

I just finished a workshop course on memoir/personal nonfiction writing. My biggest pet peeve was when students would give feedback, they would ask, "Do you mind if I give you a suggestion?" or "Are you looking for some critique?"

Um, yeah, that's why I'm in this class!

FZA said...

I don't know, I don't mind harsh critiques. Maybe I even like them. I try to pad my own critiques with moments I like. But, to be fair I don't mind hearing that something is crap. If it is, I'd rather know. Some drafts are not worth salvaging.

And Gummy Bear, while your critique might have been harsh, it did make you go brush up on your grammar, so it has a positive result!

For me the absolute worst workshop comments are things like "I liked this." This kind of comment comes up a lot. It's not useful AT ALL. It's nice to hear that someone liked your work, but I'm not workshopping something to share. I'm workhsopping to improve it.

I don't thik it's a teacher's responsibility to stop a harsh critique even if it is unnecessary. I think the best workshop leaders are ones that sit back for the most part and provide a structure for how the workshop runs, but do not dictate the comments. I had a teacher who really structured when and what type of comments were given in a workshop. It was the worst one I've been in.

anotherjenny said...

My favorite workshop story happened to a friend. She was the only Indian girl (born and raised in the US, mind you) taking a poetry class full of white kids. She wrote a poem in which the narrator looks at a picture of her mother, 20 yrs younger, sees similarities to herself, and realizes that even her mom was young once. My friend happened to mention in the poem that the mom wears a sari.

Instantly the poem gets written off as some reflection of dual identity/culture, etc. Someone leaves the comment: "I really enjoyed learning about your historical culture. How's that going for you?"


Now whenever I talk to Manisha I ask her, "Hey, how's that ol' historical culture doing?"

What IS "historical culture," even???

Gummy Bear Sacrifice said...


You can definitely spin douchebag comments in your favor.


Now THAT is my biggest pet peeve. Culture clashes! I could go on and on about that, but I won't. I'll just say this, people get so uncomfortable when it comes to heritage. It makes me want to yell, "Get over yourselves!"

Sally Jane said...

Re: Instructors - I definitely believe that the best workshops are the ones where the instructor has control and is able to bring the group back to the work when others try to derail it. Otherwise, what's the point of having an instructor? Without one, it's just a free-for-all and you don't need to pay tuition for that.

Johnny Moore: I should mention that Meir Ribalow also requires that the comments come in three sections: 1) The class members make comments while the author sits in silence, 2) The class members can ask the author questions about the work, which the author may choose to answer or not, 3) The author can ask the class questions. I find that this also helps with keeping the defensiveness to a minimum and the conversation focused.

Again, ultimately it's about being useful to your workshopmates. And about knowing which comments to listen to and which ones to ignore.

Grace said...

Workshop rules that I found useful:

1. Everybody comments (except the author, at least until the end). In my experience this keeps comments concise and relevant. It cuts out those agonizing minutes of someone starting out with something useful then going on and on until no one cares/knows what that person is referring to.

2. Describing what is happening in a poem/story in terms of structure, tone, etc is so much better than a good/bad/like/dislike judgment. At least description may help the writer see their own work through different eyes. This works well for me especially in poems; I'll think: oh, you thought that?...hmm...

3. It's often helpful to the writer to print out their piece/story and make detailed comments directly on their work. Give that copy to the writer. They can often get just as much out of that as the time-limited workshop experience. It also lets a writer know that you really spent time thinking about their work, and they will likely reciprocate the favor.

FZA said...

@Sally Jane

I agree that an instructor should have control and be able to bring a group back and focus them. But I do not think stopping a harsh critique should be something the instructor chooses to stop. We will all, as writers, face harsh critiques from people far less qualified and less well-intentioned than those in our workshops. I think it's good to develop a thick skin and be able to hear where your writing really lacks.

A good instructor, should provide the basis for the class early on, she provide general feedback that can benefit everyone, should meet with students one on one to discuss their work, should provide beneficial exercises and assignments, and should make sure the workshop stays tasks. But an instructor who is too vocal or active can influence the feedback in a negative way and can make it harder for students to hone their critical reading skills, as well as sugar coat feedback.

IHaveFewIdeas said...

If I was to ask my mom to critique my work she would follow many, if not all, of the rules laid out in these posts. When I am in a workshop, I typically spend over two hours on each draft I receive. I read it at least three times, I contemplate, I evaluate, I turn the margins into pools of blue and black ink. When I go into the class, I have just spent that time and I am going to be passionate about what I have to say; what I think the author needs to know. I want that to happen in return, I want my paper to be flowing with written reactions/feedback etc and most of all I want to watch the person try to articulate it. While I understand that nobody wants Don Rickles in a workshop, it also shouldn't be Mr. Rodgers and Sesame street. I want the personalities of the people I'm in a workshop class with and I want their passion when they critique my work, if only because they got mine when I critiqued theirs. If there's nothing exciting about the possibilities of writing, of critiquing and of engaging in this communal act...then I understand strict rules and boring results.

kaybay said...

I have to agree that I don't mind getting harsh critiques. In fact, in my experience, the harder the critique the faster the growth. BUT, the harsh critiques have to be "right." Personal attacks (I've got a few of those) are not productive. I just really don't mind having someone break a story down line by line. If anything, I'm more offended by someone just telling me how much they liked it, since it really just means they didn't really think about it. Lay into it like a bear into a salmon! Rargh!

I also don't quite understand why people get so offended by in-depth critiques of their work (so long as it's actually about the work). It's not an attack against your soul, it's a breakdown of what works and what doesn't. Besides, it's largely subjective anyway. It's like someone telling you they don't like your belt. Yeah? Don't buy it.

Unknown said...

I can only add...hang in there. Workshops can be like pulling teeth as you painfully feel your confidence as a writer diminish and get put under a microscope. Some people in the workshop will be like..."wonderful it's a butterfly with beautiful wings" while others will see Medusa.

Rosie said...

I completely disagree that someone saying "this is crap" (or some approximation of that) is an acceptable critique. People should conduct themselves like adults in a workshop, which means giving constructive criticism that doesn't resort to dismissive insults. How is "this is crap" any more helpful than hearing, "I like this a lot! :D"

Give me a break.

Suzette Standring said...

As a beginning writer, I once shared a piece about an episode I once had teaching meditation at a men's state prison. When it came time for comments, one woman said, "I don't know why you wasted your time with those criminals."
I just raised an eyebrow and asked, "Well, OK, but how about the writing?" She just shook her head with disgust.
Re future critiques: focus on the writing, not whether or not you agree with the subject matter.

Anonymous said...

What I found difficult in critiquing others' work is that I am a very auditory person. A piece of work has to be alive for me to understand it - I have to visualize it in order to really "get" it.
Hearing others' opinions or even just a small take on a single word in a piece can jump-start my own critiquing.
I think it's the "Aspie" in me - it's hard for me to write much abstract stuff - I guess I figure, "I want to say what I want to say, why go around it when I can just say it?"

Metaphors are murder for Aspies...
(fyi, "Aspie" is a nickname for a person with Asperger's Syndrome, a type of autism - my son has it and I'm seeing a lot of characteristics in myself too.)

Anyway - I'm a very concrete, literal writer. Trying to find an abstract way to say what I want to say is really hard for me. I can just say "the room - small enough to be a jail, large enough to house two men - and their equipment..."
It's literal with a hint of abstract (am I right?)

Anyway that's something completely different...

Sally Jane said...

Perhaps then we should have a discussion about what we mean by "harsh" and "useful." As Kaybay said, one can offer the painful truth without attacking the author personally. The rules are not meant to restrict one's surgical dissection of the work, just one's butchering of the author.

Do authors need thick skins? Of course we do. Every artist does because every art form involves some amount of public rejection. But I do hold to the fact that the delivery matters - there is a difference between saying "I see what you were trying to accomplish, but it didn't work" and "Your writing sucks." One is adult, the other is juvenile. One is honest and hopefully helpful (particularly if backed up with concrete examples as to why) and the other is destructive for destruction's sake. I understand that no one is interested in bland or sugar-coated analysis, but it should still be respectful.

Screwsan said...

Oh god.
1) The workshop piece about a devastating, home-wrecking flood which one dude refused to comment on except to say he found it illogical and unbelievable (!! it was a non-fiction piece?) that people would live so close to water and endanger themselves that way. Buddy? Look around you?

2) Same workshop, different story, different dude: Sole comment was that my story would be "good" if I got rid of all the "adverbs." Puzzled, I counted them. There were a whoppping three adverbs in my fifteen-page story.

You rock on, workshop dudes.

Screwsan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jdubs said...

I'm of the mindset that at the level we're writing at (and possibly all levels), workshops should be almost entirely descriptive, not prescriptive. The words "like" and "good" are not a helpful part of workshop vocabulary.

Writers know what they like. They know what they think is good. Sometimes they don't know that the poem/story has an ambiguous setting. Or that the setting in their head is not the one on the page. Or that their fifteen page/line story/poem is so complicated/unclear that it can't be paraphrased in one sentence.

Marti said...

I'm all for honest criticism, but I agree that there's no point in telling an 18-year-old freshman her poetry sucks. I'm no poet, but I'd guess that most 18-year-olds aren't writing killer sonnets or couplets, or whatever it is y'all do. All that comment did was discourage her, and that's not a teacher's job — just the opposite.
That said, it's a little different in an MFA program where the writing is a little more advanced. And if someone said something was crap, I guess for a second I'd admire him for his bravery, but ultimately decide he's an asshole if he couldn't offer anything substantial beyond that.

amanda said...

This is a really great topic. I think we probably all just need to agree to talk about workshop in an MFA setting. In my beginning undergraduate workshop, almost no one spoke. I know I didn't. We were all terrified of sharing our work.

In an MFA setting, where presumably everyone is serious about improving, most people are able to take criticism better. I think that some of the rules should be malleable. Most of the workshops I've been in don't allow the writer to speak until the end. At that point, the writer can ask specific questions if they haven't been answered. But I do think there are times when the writer should be allowed to step in earlier because the conversation has completely derailed and isn't productive for the writer. I think at that point, the writer should be allowed to say "OK OK, the person isn't dead, he's in a coma. What could I do to make it clear that he's in a coma?" or the like.

As far as the Ribalow rules, I think the last one could also be slightly altered. I know there are times when it's helpful to see how someone would do it differently (e.g., writing the poem out in long lines, with some of the articles taken out, etc.). In workshop this semester, Rick would sometimes take one of our poems and rearrange it completely. By moving the lines around, he was able to address problems with tension in the poem, order of events, clarity, and I don't think anyone was ever unhappy with that radical reordering. It took many of the poems from good to stunning, without adding a word. While this isn't exactly rewriting, it's definitely a radical revision, and I think there should be space for that.

Kat said...

Oh man, after undergrad, I took an awful creative non-fiction workshop course with a spineless instructor. Guy was classic sex-with-socks-on, couldn't wield any control over the class. Workshops of the memoir essays in the class would inevitably devolve into workshop participants totally ignoring the actual writing at hand, and instead discussing at length how they would have handled the situations the writer was describing, and asking lots of clarifying questions about the writer's personal life.

Before my own piece was workshopped, I went up to the instructor privately and asked if he could help keep the critique of my piece limited to issues of writing and craft, and not a forty-minute dissection of my personal life. He flat-out refused, and acted as though I were the jerkwad.


Sarah said...

I have no problems with critiques, but what drives me nuts is when the critiquers don't take the piece on it's own and can't forget the work you've done in the past. For example, I wrote one story that this workshop class really loved, and I had used a fairly specific whimsical style to one or two of my pieces and wanted to branch out and try my hand at a different tone, and people kept saying, "This is good, but I really enjoyed that other story. You should make it more like that, or write more like that." Obviously I appreciate that people enjoy one aspect of what I do, but it was extremely unhelpful for the new story I had in front of me. They kept bringing in what they knew and liked in my other work, rather than helping me broaden my horizons and perfect the story I was working on. No one wants to be pidgeon-holed.

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