In my fourth upper-division university writing workshop (in the superlative Writing Program at University of Colorado Denver), we were—ahem—blessed with a student who cried at every critique. Positive or negative feedback, pleasant or unpleasant delivery, type of issue, depth of commentary, even friendship status with the critique partner was irrelevant. Just the act of being “judged” brought on copious tears. Some students were kind enough to bring tissues and provide shoulders to soak up the insecurity; I was—ahem—kind enough to walk out when it happened.
I understand the emotion involved in putting one’s work out for inspection and comment from other writers; it leaves us vulnerable in a way that even saying “I love you” doesn’t match.
However, critique is one of the most important tools we have. It not only improves our immediate work, but all of our writing to come. It forces us to develop a thicker skin and strengthen our backbone [seeSkin and Bone]. It forces us to look very closely at the details of our writing, our strengths and weaknesses, our goals, and our accomplishments. It provides community and context to an otherwise extremely solitary occupation.
If you can’t participate without breaking down, it is time to consider another life path.
I consider myself “blessed” by this
whiny emotional crybaby fellow student, because she led to my abandonment of college-level workshops in favor of professionals as serious as I. I met my most stalwart critique partner in that class (five years and counting), and we began a group that has continued, with varied membership, every two weeks since then.
(I have heard it said—and I agree—that finding a good critique partner is like finding a good spouse, though I doubt Mike Yost’s boyfriend would appreciate the comparison.)
Because I am asked fairly frequently “how it works,” I offer the following rules by which we live:
1) NO CRYING IN WORKSHOP! (Let me repeat: NO CRYING IN WORKSHOP! NO CRYING IN WORKSHOP! NO CRYING IN WORKSHOP!!!) Crying results in screaming, also frowned upon.
2) We critique a maximum of 15 pages per person for each session, double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 pt., 1-inch margins, with numbered pages.
3) We have recently instituted “auditions” for new members, requiring 10 sample pages and a description of the work they initially intend to submit. We have discovered, over time, we prefer to work with other novelists who are well into a project, and members who use the group to force themselves to write do not last (although the group does, in fact, encourage accountability).
4) Critique requires serious thought and consideration. We all spend a great deal of time on others’ work, and there has to be a sense of reciprocity.
5) While small issues are as important as large ones, the overall work and intent has to be considered. This means word and sentence-level suggestions, but also thoughts on voice, tone, development, patterns of error, ideas for fixing problems, etc.
6) We are all in different stages of development. Correcting typos is not as relevant at first-draft stage as comments on how the piece is working, and comments on overall structure aren’t particularly welcome at final draft stage. That said, we all have to be willing to ask for the specific feedback we are looking for as well as listen to things we might not be happy to hear.
7) If you miss a session, you have to wait until the next group to get your critique, and you can’t submit anything new. This does not absolve you of the responsibility to look at everyone else’s new submission and provide the missed critique of their work.
8) The group should decide whether to use handwritten or electronic notes. Ditto providing copies to the group by email or by hand.
9) Missing more than three meetings without letting someone know results in removal from the group. If you aren’t at group ten minutes after the appointed time, we will start without you.
10) No drugs/alcohol/inebriation during workshop.
11) We try to stay to about half an hour per person. This does not always work.
12) We do not have rules about not replying to critique in the moment or “starting with the positive” or similar policies other groups employ. Potential new applicants are warned immediately that we will not pull punches and we do not couch our criticism in polite banter. We do not “damn with faint praise.”
13) And finally, NO CRYING IN WORKSHOP!