Workshop Critiques: Four Ways To Convey Constructive Criticism

By Michele R. Bardsley

Writers who seek out critique workshops want to improve their writing. They must. Why else would they allow their works to be judged by other writers?

While writers who offer their manuscripts to the group must be mentally prepared to accept criticism, it is the group’s responsibility to make sure opinions are conveyed in a positive and encouraging manner. Yet is that always possible? Some manuscripts need a little fine-tuning, but others need a match and some kerosene. How can you, as a critique group member, impart constructive criticism to another writer?

Start With Positive Comments

No matter how badly written a manuscript is, there is always a little nugget of goodness nestled in it. Even if it’s only a word or phrase, point it out before expounding on the manuscript’s problems.

“Writers should convey criticism honestly, but with tact,” says Judy Snavely, an award-winning writer who recently finished her first novel. “I have experienced something very close to ridicule a time or two from my fellow writers. It’s unnecessary and unprofessional.”

Your choice of words can help or hinder a fellow writer. Blurting out, “This is awful,” is not helpful. In one classroom workshop I participated in, a beginning writer turned in 40 pages of his mainstream novel. I disliked the protagonist, the love scene offended me, and the writing was, well, awful. I found one beautifully written sentence that I complimented him on and then I picked one or two aspects—out of the hundreds I wanted to say—to tactfully criticize.

Positive comments cushion the forthcoming criticisms and the writer will probably be more receptive to your ideas. If you can’t find a single good thing about the work, do as your mother told you, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Use The Phrase “It’s Your Story.” Then Believe It

End your commentary with, “This is my opinion, but it’s your story.”

Using this phrase will reassure the writer that you’re trying to help him or her and it also reminds you not to try and change the story to fit your ideals. Always remember that you are trying to help the author first. As writers, we automatically think of additions or plots or twists, but we can’t impose our ideas. Unless a writer wants a brainstorming session, focus comments on your initial reactions to the work. Offer suggestions for changes–but only go into detail if asked.

Offer Your Ear, Not Your Pen

Unless you’re getting paid, be careful about offering editing services to group members. A writer can easily become dependent upon someone willing to line edit and critique a manuscript. For example, a writer in one of my critique groups relied heavily on members to fix her manuscript’s problems. We happily helped her by taking chapters home and spending hours on them instead of our own writing. Finally, we had to stop “helping” her and suggested she rewrite the chapters before bringing them to critique.

The purpose of a critique group is to help the writer improve. Critique members should learn from each other. If a writer is taking advantage of the group’s skills without infusing the knowledge into his or her writing, then the group’s effort is wasted.

A Writer Doesn’t Have To Listen

No matter how right you believe your comments are or how well you think you can help, the writer doesn’t have to listen to you. Writers should choose the information they feel will best help them. However, there are some members who refuse to listen to anyone. Just as the writer has the right not to listen, you have the right not to comment. If you feel your input is always ignored, then pass when your turn comes to critique.

A few years ago, I took a Novel I class. We were all novices, except for one gentleman who had completed two novels. He submitted his chapters for our approval, but we all had difficulty with his plot. He didn’t want to listen to our reactions, he only wanted to hear about his wonderful writing. No matter how we put our comments, he had an answer, a jibe or a blithe quip. Eventually, we gave up trying to help him. While giving critiques is sometimes a difficult task, it is usually worth the effort.

Think of a critique group as a flower bed. Seeds are planted, fertilizer is added (we are writers after all), and after a lot of sunshine and pruning, the writer grows. Nurturing a blossom is not the same as holding a wilting plant up with wires. Encourage growth, but if it doesn’t happen, concentrate on the writers who are blooming.

© Copyright by Michele R. Bardsley

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Michele Bardsley lives in Las Vegas with her husband and two children. Visit her at michelebardsley.com.

Delaware Dangerous!

Delaware Dangerous logo art

I’ve been corresponding with Lela Gwenn, an event organizer for a writer’s retreat that allows a writer to experience encounters with fist, blade, or gun, in a controlled and safe environment under the experienced supervision of self-defense and weapons instruction professionals.

I’ve long been a big believer in writers getting our hands dirty, if we’re going to try to write anything that actually resembles real life. If you’re going to be anywhere near Delaware in September of this year, this is your chance to safely experience a great deal of mayhem in a short amount of time.

When I asked for a description of the workshop I could share with all of you, she sent me the following copy:

Delaware Dangerous is a unique concept in Writer’s Retreats. We offer the opportunity to get hands on with all types of weapons and combat– Hand guns, Long guns, Knives and Hand to Hand.

Our team of professional instructors will provide detailed instruction. We have five black-belts on the team, two of whom are former military. Participants will get twelve hours of firearms training, six hours of knife training, and six hours of hand to hand. This isn’t just theoretical or role-playing or demonstration. After receiving appropriate safety training, you will have a gun in your hand.

The weapon work is always serious, but there is plenty of fun to be had. Brewery tours, kayaking, behind the scenes at a tattoo shop, tax free shopping at a huge outlet mall. The Delaware Beaches are beautiful and have something for everyone. Nature, nightlife, gourmet dining and down-home charm.

Delaware Dangerous. Put a little violence in your vacation and a little realism in your writing.

For more information go to www.DelawareDangerous.com or email me directly Lela@DelawareDangerous.com

I know I’ve written in the past about how very integral I think real experience can be to writing authentically. I strongly believe there’s nothing in the world like hands-on experience to help a writer achieve that kind of authenticity.

From the details section of the Delaware Dangerous Website:

Dates:
Sept 9-16 2011

Cost:
$889/ person
discount available for 2 people booking together

Includes:
Professional Instruction
12 hours gun training
6 hours knife training
6 hours hand-to-hand combat

Ammo, use of various firearms, training blades and live blades.

2 Dinners
5 Lunches
Breakfast Daily

Value of the Range Time, Instructor fees, Ammo and Meals- $1350.00

If you are interested in being paired up with a roommate Contact Us and we will try to help.

Group STRICTLY LIMITED to 20 participants for safety reasons.

Here’s the thing: I know it sounds awfully expensive, but for a workshop to do this for under a grand per student? That’s actually a screaming deal. And Lela says that she’ll offer AWers a $50 discount.

So take a look, figure out how you can swing it, take some vacation days, go to Delaware and get sweaty and loud!