How to Listen to Workshop Criticism

If you ask people what’s wrong with a story, chances are they will find something. That’s the default in some critique groups, the subconscious premise that often drives the members’ comments: you have given us this work to analyze, therefore there must be something wrong with it.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything wrong. After all, if you feel a work is ready to submit you should just do that and not send it to your group. In theory writers present work to their groups that they believe is the best they can do at that point, but know that there is room for improvement. They may wonder if it resonates with readers, or maintain interest until the end. Is the ending impactful and lasting?

Often, however, group members don’t have the writing and editing experience to evaluate a work in depth. (And if yours does, congratulations! You can skip down to the bullet points.) They tend to look for simpler aspects, and they address those simple aspects in a pass or fail manner. This leads them to make more negative comments than positive. It seems to be human nature to find the negative before the positive. Plus, it’s easier to say an aspect of a story is not working than to consider it as part of an overarching whole.

And that’s why so much workshop criticism should be carefully considered before taking it as gospel. It’s often well-intended readers reaching for anything that seems like a discovery, whether it is truly a flaw or not. Anyone who has participated in a writers’ group is probably familiar with this process. You submit your work and then listen to the comments pointing out failures of technical aspects: point of view, tense, description, characterization, and a whole checklist of Fiction 101 attributes, and which sometimes even includes the speaker’s attempt to rewrite passages the way he would have written them.*

The bad news is writing group members are not going to stop delivering criticism in that way. The good news is that there is a way to listen that can help your writing. This comes in part from one of my MFA mentors, Bruce Holland Rogers. These are tips based on his advice, and developed over my many years of participation in writers’ groups:

  • Listen to the phrasing of the comments. Is the speaker using vague language or clichés? This applies both in terms of the praise (some groups insist on members making positive comments before they go negative), and the criticism. For example, when I hear the generic phrase, “It’s well-written,” to begin a critique, I immediately assume that the speaker didn’t like the piece, but wants to say something nice. In my experience that comment is usually followed by the ever-popular, “But I couldn’t connect with…” When someone speaks to specifics, however, I know the praise or criticism may have value.
  • Listen to the tone of the speaker’s voice. Just the pitch and cadence of the words can indicate the sincerity of the comments. If the person liked the story they should sound more excited about it.
  • Listen for how well the reader sympathized with your characters and their situations. Listen for an understanding of your theme and meaning. Criticisms connected to those aspects are more valuable than random points that pick out minor errors.
  • Listen for comments that include specific details about your characters or plot. That indicates the reader was interested enough to pay attention. If the speaker can’t recall details or gets them wrong, chances are they lost interest early on. That tends to invalidate the criticism. It means that person didn’t like the story, but not necessarily that it didn’t work, especially if others liked it.
  • If the opinions are split—say two people liked it and two people hated it—then you can assume there is an audience for the story. You can never please everyone. Don’t let the criticism of one or two group members scare you into making unnecessary changes.
  • When you listen, just listen. Fight the urge to defend your work during the group meeting. It closes your mind to what may ultimately be helpful, and it casts you as the bad guy. Some explanation after the critique is fine, if the members are open to it. But don’t become the angry, I’m-so-misunderstood writer.
  • Most important, take some time before starting revision. Let the comments work themselves out in your subconscious. I’ve often found that the valid ones stick with you, while the unsubstantiated ones are soon forgotten.

In general, you are listening for authenticity, for the reader’s honest reaction to what you have written. Bruce even went so far as to suggest listening without taking notes; if the criticism is valid you may recognize it as a confirmation of what you may have wondered was a flaw. And if so, you’ll definitely remember it without notes.

– Joe Ponepinto

*I had a friend in a group once who did that, much to the dismay of his victims.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay