“Ten Habits of Effective Writing Critiquers”

Creative writing workshops can be a place where writers help colleagues shape their written work so that it effectively communicates the author’s intention. Or workshops can be a place where writers rip colleagues’ work, and the authors, to shreds.

I don’t know what value there is in the latter, and I think abusive workshops should be outlawed. That’s unrealistic, however, so let me suggest that we all vow to avoid the rip-to-shreds workshops and instead learn to critique writing generously and constructively.

To that end, here are 10 habits writers should adopt in order to create a positive workshop experience*:

  1. View your role in the workshop process as one of helping the writer communicate his or her intention to the reader. This means, in part, that you need to discover the writer’s intention.
  2. Become a good reader. If you are a good reader, you will discover the writer’s intention more easily.
  3. Participate in the workshop and critique process willingly. If you don’t want to be there, you will not give your best to the process.
  4. Pay attention. Focus on the work under discussion. Read for intention, with an eye to whether style, technique, word choice and voice assist in delivering the author’s message.
  5. Erase all preconceived notions about the work under discussion, and its author, from your mind and read the work with an open mind.
  6. Put your preferences aside. Even if you never before have read science fiction, when a science fiction piece is under discussion you are the world’s biggest science fiction fan.
  7. Understand that it is not your job to agree or disagree with the author’s message or intention. It is your job to help the author communicate the message effectively. So resist the urge to judge or affix a value to the work.
  8. Use the sandwich approach to comments: start with a positive, insert a constructive comment, and end with a positive (preferably the most important positive.)
  9. Treat others as you would like them to treat you. As a wonderful workshop leader said to one of the first workshops in which I participated: perform acts of generosity and mercy.
  10. Recognize that while your critique gives value to the author of the work under discussion, it also gives you value – you are identifying writing techniques that work and ones that don’t. And that can only help your own writing.

*A Toastmasters colleague who trains people in verbal communication skills mentioned some similar habits the other day when she discussed evaluation skills as they apply to public speaking (for example, being a good listener, avoiding judgment, and improving your own speaking skills by evaluating others.) Her presentation made me realize that evaluation skills cross many boundaries, and what works in one environment can work well in another.

What other habits or techniques of workshop participants have you noticed that contribute to a supportive, helpful evaluation of creative writing?

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About Charlotte Morganti

Charlotte Morganti has been a burger flipper, beer slinger, lawyer, and seasonal chef de tourtière. And, always, a stringer-together-of-words. In addition to her law degree, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction appears in Tahoma Literary Review and The Whole She-Bang 2. Her first novel, The Snow Job, was a finalist for Crime Writers of Canada’s Unhanged Arthur award in 2014 for the best unpublished crime novel. She lives on the west coast of Canada with her husband and the quirky characters who populate her fiction.