My favorite writing workshop story comes from my time at Clarion West. We were critiquing a story of mine, and one of the students — let’s call him X — was ripping it to shreds. He got to the end of his rant, and Therese Pieczynski, who was the next critiquer, said, “I anti-ditto (Clarionspeak for “completely disagree with”) everything X just said.”
X got mad! His feelings were hurt, not because someone had criticized one of his stories, but because someone had criticized his critique!
I found the whole thing hilarious. In fact, I think it might be the funniest thing that happened at Clarion, except possibly for the night when we all ended up half drunk in someone’s room watching several of the guys play air guitar to Black Sabbath (you had to be there). While I have often questioned the judgment of people who liked stories I detested, it’s never hurt my feelings that they disagreed with me.
I don’t remember what X didn’t like about my story. For that matter, I don’t remember what Therese liked about it. But I am sure I didn’t pay any attention to anything X said and that I listened carefully to Therese. It didn’t take me long at Clarion to figure out that Therese was great at getting to the heart of what worked and didn’t in a story. To this day, she’s still my favorite first reader; I can list several stories I’ve completely revised because of something she said.
At Clarion, I discovered the importance of finding the right people to critique my stories, but it was several years later, when I attended Milford, that I figured out the most important rule for participants in writing workshops, one that makes it possible for a writer to get a useful critique even from those who aren’t simpatico with their work. Here’s that rule:
The critiquer’s job is to help the writer tell the story the writer wants to tell.
The Milford workshop was the most constructive one I’ve ever attended. In a group of about 15 people, including several with significant publishing reputations, not one person used their critique to trash a story or to show off. Every criticism — positive or negative — was intended to help the person improve the story they wanted to write.
It was a refreshing experience, one I’ve never had in any other workshop. It could be that British writers are just nicer — and smarter — than the rest of us, or it could be that I just lucked into the right group at the right time. But from that experience, I’ve come up with five instructions for participants in writing workshops that implement the core rule of helping the writer tell the story they want to tell:
- Keep your ego in check. Do not use a critique as a forum for showing off how much you know about the subject at hand. It’s one thing to point out that the writer has erred in their use of physics; it’s another to use this error as an excuse to lecture on either physics or the stupidity of people who don’t know physics.
- It’s not your story, so don’t rewrite it the way you would tell it if it were. This can be a difficult rule. For example, if I were critiquing Much Ado About Nothing, I would be sorely tempted to tell Will Shakespeare that Hero’s willingness to marry Claudio in the end is absurd. No woman would ever marry a man who treated her as he did. However, if she tells him to go to hell, the story becomes something darker than the romantic comedy it’s meant to be. My version might make an interesting story, but it’s not the one Will was writing.
- Don’t tell the writer how to revise the story to make it publishable if your revision changes what the story is about. This is slightly different from the last rule — a corollary of sorts. I mean don’t tell the writer to change the story to something that fits the current fashion of what gets published. My few forays into love stories usually end with broken hearts or worse, but I don’t want to change them to fit romance guidelines no matter how many times someone tells me how well romance sells. That’s not the story I’m writing.
- Don’t waste group time on grammatical nitpicks; you can mark minor errors on the manuscript. And particularly avoid parroting the various canonical rules you’ve learned along the way, such as the ones about the passive voice, the overuse of adverbs, or the error of beginning a sentence with a conjunction. If a sentence isn’t working, try to explain why it doesn’t work instead of falling back on a rule that probably isn’t the real problem to begin with. Besides, telling the writer to revise a sentence that works well just because it doesn’t follow a particular rule shows you’re missing the point. Would you tell Charles Dickens he should rewrite the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities because it’s 118 words long and he uses the verb to be 13 times?
- Don’t be nasty. It is possible to tell someone their story sucks without putting it in those words. Believe me, they won’t miss the point just because you’re polite about it.
These rules are for workshop participants, not for teachers. An experienced teacher knows the same approach doesn’t work for every student and every situation. Sometimes a teacher must be very encouraging; sometimes they need to hit the student over the head with the proverbial two-by-four. But peers in a workshop are not teachers, and they should not act as if they are.
I’ll end with a piece of advice for those on the receiving end of a critique, my take on something Samuel Delany taught me at Clarion: The problem people point out in a story may not be the actual problem. Something else entirely may be out of whack, causing the scene in question not to work. It’s the writer’s responsibility to figure out where the real problem lies.
By the way, the story I mentioned at the beginning, the one X trashed? Despite not taking X’s advice, I sold it a couple of years after Clarion. Selling the story is the best revenge I can think of for a bad critique.
Note: This essay originally appeared in 2010 in Brewing Fine Fiction, an anthology of essays on writing by members of Book View Cafe.
Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press. Her earlier books include a collection from PS Publishing, Conscientious Inconsistencies, and a novella from Aqueduct, Changeling. She is a member of the cooperative publisher Book View Café, where she has published several ebooks and contributed to anthologies. You can follow her on Facebook. She posts on Thursday at the Book View Café blog. Reprints of some of her stories are available at Curious Fictions.