Writer’s Workshops: To Critique or Not Critique?

Written text with red ink. It is to some writers what crucifixes are to vampires.

Picture, if you will, two writing workshops. One of them coalesces each Thursday at the local Barnes and Noble, and often draws aspiring writers who need some encouragement to continue in the craft. Many of these less-experienced storytellers have not yet developed a thick skin for unflinching critique, or for rejection letters. As a rule, the workshop outlaws critique of someone’s writing during the time they read it to the group. Some members are more than happy to critique if it’s requested, but you can only give and receive positive comments during the workshop.

The other group is led twice a month at a nearby library, mostly drawing middle schoolers and high schoolers. After a few years of fun, open minded, just-get-it-on-the-page writing exercises, the longstanding group decides to go ahead with allowing critiques of each other’s work (written outside of the workshops, and brought to the group for the express purpose of putting its feet to the fire). The fun, raw creativity of writing exercises still goes on, but now critique sessions will be part of the experience.

I attend both of these workshops, and have led the latter for five years. Both have blessed my life with writer colleagues, and with resources for growing as a storyteller. I plan to keep going to both for as long as possible. The first one may not get many opportunities for its members to be direct with the weaknesses in someone’s writing, but I appreciate its attempts to accommodate new writers who are still shy and may simply need encouragement and a positive environment. The latter will help its attendees, I’m sure, with constructive criticism and iron sharpening iron, and I’m excited that the group is moving in a new direction. Still, the presence of criticism might, just possibly, turn off newcomers who are not yet ready to hear negative things about their writing, no matter how well-intentioned.

There are trade-offs, is what I’m saying. What you’re looking for and what you need as a writer will help you find out if a particular workshop is ideal for you. Some questions I have for writers out there, out of curiosity:

Which writer’s workshop would you rather attend, if you could only pick one?

What do you want from a workshop? What do you need? They’re not necessarily the same thing.

Do you prefer writer’s workshops that have no critiquing, or ones that make time for both critiques and fun exercises? Or do you want a solid critiquing session, where each member runs a gauntlet of highlighted typos, suggestions, and potentially devastating criticism of their words?

When it comes to workshops, how do you think new writers should enter the fray? What kind of group do you think stands to benefit them the most?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and get a discussion going. Thanks for your time, everyone! Catch you on Thursday.

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