Critique & Grace


This is another post “pulled from the archives,” so to speak. It’s about two years old, but the observations I made then ring just as true now. I should perhaps preface this by explaining that my writing background is heavily dominated by my experience working at my college’s writing center. I didn’t just advise other people on their writing for fun (thought it was)–I was paid for it, too. So if it seems like revision is a love of mine, you’re right. It’s also just as important as the other parts of the writing process, like planning and drafting.

If not more so.

The “Golden Rule” of Writing Workshops

We had just finished our first workshop in creative writing, and my teacher mentioned something that I’d encountered a lot in past writing conferences, but also online at the various writing communities. It began as the “Golden Rule” at the very first (and highly acclaimed) writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa.

“The [workshop’s] moderator’s essential job is to make sure the workshop’s ground rules are followed, that the author does not defend the work or inappropriately introduce it, that the author does not speak during the main part of the workshop, that the members of the group do not address the author, that the author is not embarrassed, and that the members remain courteous and focused only on the work and not the author nor the author’s intentions. The moderator makes sure the comments and discussion are moving forward—and not in circles—and that points are made in a way the author can use for improvements to the work. When it seems that by clarifying something about the work the group can more effectively move forward, the moderator might ask the author to clarify the point but never to defend.”
–Richard P. Gabriel, “Writers’ Workshops As Scientific Methodology

Basically, it’s saying that it doesn’t matter what your intentions were–the only thing readers have when they read your piece are the words, not your disclaimers and explanations. If the reader makes a comment or suggestion about your paper and you know that’s not what you intended, nine times out of ten it’s the author’s problem, not the readers’. What you intended simply isn’t coming across on the page.

“Finally, the author is allowed to ask questions of the group—perhaps clearing up points that were made or asking about specific parts of the piece. The author is not allowed to defend the work.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending something that’s so deep-seated in your being–an extension of your ego, even–so asking questions is perhaps the best way of “responding” to the critique. “What could I have done differently?” or “How do I need to fix the dialogue/plot/pacing/etc?” is much more constructive than countering with, “Well, she was supposed to be xyz…”

My creative writing teacher herself admitted that the most painful criticisms to bear were the ones she ultimately had to address to better the piece. Perhaps if we were all more gracious and listened to what our critters have to say instead of rebutting them, we could all gain more from such peer reviews.

Cheat Sheet

  • Next time you ask for a beta reader or crits, don’t fight them on their suggestions. Why not? Because they’ll likely not want to work with you next time, since it’s clear you’re not looking for ways to improve, but merely validation of your inherent genius. If you need clarification, that’s different, but don’t look at them as being “wrong” in their reading of the piece.
  • If your reviewer has nothing but praise to offer you, look elsewhere. They either don’t know enough about prose/poetry/whathaveyou, or they’re not willing to be “mean” and tell you that you have room to improve. Because believe me, you do. We all do. The Perfect Piece is nigh on impossible to achieve. We’re human, and continuously learn, after all.

Your Turn

  1. Think back to the last time you got what seemed like an “unwelcome” bit of advice. You know the one, that bit that made you bristle the most, that bit that seemed meanest, that bit that was clearly just plain wrong. (If you don’t have something come to mind, just ask someone to read your work. If they’re serious about reviewing, they’ll offer you something that falls into the above category.)

    So you’ve acquired/identified one such bit. Now, address it. It doesn’t matter how bogus you think it is–just work on it. Cater to their whims. You’re right, after all, so you can do this, prove your point, and move on to continue being awesome.

    Next, show the revised piece to someone else. What did they think? Were you vindicated? Or was your reader maybe, just maybe, right about their observation?

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