Writing Workshops

What are Writing Workshops? These are workshops in which a group of writers gather to share pieces of their writing, i.e. 1,000 words or one poem, to be constructively critiqued. There are good groups and there are bad groups and what makes the difference is how they critique each other. Constructive Criticism is when a person criticises a writer’s work with feedback that would aid the writer in bettering their work. A critic has the right to say if they liked the piece or if they disliked it, just as long as they give a reason. Here are some examples:

 

Constructive Criticism                                                    Vs                                                  Blind Feedback

a1. I did not like this poem because it did not resonate any emotions within me. The word choices were good but they felt overly technical.

b1. I did not understand so-and-so section. The wording is confusing because you first wrote ‘this’ and now your characters are doing ‘that,’ which seems out of character or out of place with the story.

c1. I love that section because it’s very clear and it adds to the development of the character/plot.

d1. I have not come across your writing style before/your writing style is unique so I am not sure if I am understanding this correctly but I feel confused/delighted/sad when I read your work. If you meant to steer these emotions then you have succeeded.

 

a2. I did not like this poem, why don’t you change it?

b2. I don’t get it. Why did you do so-and-so?

c2. I love that section!

d2. I don’t like your writing style, is it because this is how your people write or because you only read one genre? (Note: This is a good example of attacking the writer rather than the work. This is never acceptable in a workshop).

 

Helpful guideline when critiquing in a group

 

Literature is subjective, what may please one person may bore another. There have been many a time I’ve witnessed heated arguments in book-clubs over plots and even the morality of fictional characters. It is the writer’s job to decide what type of story, or in the case of poetry, what type of emotion they wish to convey. It is the critic’s job to act as tester. I have enjoyed workshops in which a group was heavily divided over a piece of writing – some loved it while others felt offended. Personal experience plays a big part in how critics look at literature and that is why it’s important to research your local workshops before submitting. A diverse group with several nationalities and backgrounds will provide for a global view, however, if the piece is intended for a target audience, i.e Young Adults then a focus group would be adequate. In Singapore there exists a meetup called The Singapore Writers’ Group (Facebook, Meetupwhich has multiple focus groups: General Fiction, YA (Young Adults) and Children Fiction, Sci-fi/Fantasy/Romance Critique, Flash Fiction and the Poetry Meet-up. Each provides a focus group with people who read heavily in their respective genre. I took a science fiction short story to both the Flash Fiction and the Sci-fi group – each provided distinctive critiques on how the story should be told. Suffice to say, I could not please everyone and made an executive decision to whittle some of the advice.

 

Emotions:
Having your work critiqued is an emotional endeavour. Your literature is a part of you and receiving any negative comments can feel like a personal attack. I’ve heard one newcomer comment that this was a ‘safe group,’ implying that the attendants were friendly and critiques were helpful. As noted in the example, attacking the writer is never acceptable. If the workshop you’re attending functions on that level then they are not only negligent but also vindictive. Depending on whether the workshop is open or private, chances are you will face an unpleasant individual somewhere along the line. It is very important to research the group beforehand. If a group offers the chance to sit in without submitting, take the opportunity to see how they interact.
No matter where you are, there will always be people who outshine you. It is hard to watch the group shower praises on one writer while your work receives constant corrections. Writing is a skill that needs practise. Even though the road looks long, perseverance will make you a better writer.
Constructive criticism can be hard to swallow, especially if an individual did not understand your work. Upon completion of a workshop, I will send and receive digital copies with markups and notes. I will usually wait a few days before viewing the corrections. This allows me time to relax and clear my head. Emotions are often high before and after a workshop. Consider a person’s feelings before critiquing or defending – there is always a pleasant way of communicating your thoughts.
Contests do spring up between individuals. These can turn ugly if self-esteem is challenged or when someone gets published.  It is important to remember that everyone works on their own time and their own style, and that there is nothing wrong with that.
Always thank your critics because they took the time to read and comment on your work. A friendly atmosphere helps everyone.

 

How to Critique:

Start with the positive by stating what worked, what made you curious, happy or excited. Continue to the negative with what confused you and what problems the piece might have. Finish with suggestions and one more positive note.

  • Overall impression:
    • What did you think of the piece as a whole?
    • Did it evoke any emotions, memories, ideas?
    • What was your interpretation of the story?
    • Does the piece fit with the writer’s target audience?

 

  • Presentation:
    • What do you think of the title?
    • Are the scenes divided enough to understand the shift, i.e are they separated by paragraphs, lines, stars, new pages?
    • Is the font appropriate or distracting?
    • For poems –
      • Is the format eye catching or obscure?
      • What did you think of the stanzas? Do they fit or are some too long/short/varied?
      • How did the punctuation affect the poem?
    • For performance pieces –
      • Could you hear all the words? Was the performer projecting themselves?
      • Where gestures important or distracting?
      • What did you think of the props?
      • Was the pacing too fast/slow or just right?
      • Did the performer have a strong presence?

 

  • Details:
    • Language and style:
      • Did the opening capture your attention?
      • Are there any odd word choices?
      • Was the style consistent?
      • Was there an excess of adverbs or adjectives? Did it feel ‘wordy?’
      • Was there an overall mood?
      • Did the writer show or tell the story?
    • Characters:
      • Is the Point Of View (POV) consistent?
      • Were the characters believable in the context?
      • Did you connect with the characters?
      • Did the characters do anything that did not suit their personality?
      • How did the character make you feel? Did you like or hate them? Remember to distinguish personal love/hate from function, i.e Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones is a villain whom we are supposed to hate, however, from the viewpoint of a writer, shes a fantastic and complex character I would love to work with.
      • Did the dialogue sound plausible?
      • Was there too much exposition in the dialogue?
      • Was the character description clear, too long or short?
    • Plot:
      • If imagery or metaphors were used, were they clear or relevant?
      • Was the climax of the story correctly positioned? Did it weaken or strengthen the plot?
      • Was the ending justified or did you feel there was something missing? Was the end forced?
      • Even in a fantastical world, did the laws remain constant or did story elements disconnect? i.e there was a science-fiction alien student in the Harry Potter fantasy universe.
      • How was the setting in the context of that universe?
      • How was the pacing?

 

  • Suggestions:
    • How do you think the piece can be improved?
    • Would you add or remove content?
    • Less is more – could the removal of words or sentences strengthen the writing?
    • Where can the writer expand to explain any plot points or scenes?
    • Point out if and where your attention wandered. Was the piece monotonous at any point?
    • Ask the writer if they have any specific feedback they would like.
    • Would the story work better in a different Point Of View, setting, time?
    • If you feel the writer would benefit from detailed feedback that cannot be covered in the workshop, give or send them a copy with all your notes.

 

I am sure there are many more points to consider during a workshop, so please feel free to send them to me and I will add them to the list. Have a wonderful workshop!

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