In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten some exciting news! I received acceptances to my first fiction workshops! I’m looking forward to the communities, instructors, and dedicated time to focus on my writing.
But along with the excitement, I’ve also been feeling some anxiety.
My only workshop experience was an introductory creative nonfiction class in college. Like many workshops, it required the writer being critiqued to remain silent. The first essay I submitted was some David Foster Wallace-esque dissection of smartphones (tbh it was as cringe as it sounds). The first few people to speak didn’t like it and the discussion consisted mainly of pointing out weak spots. By the end, the few people who had seen interesting things in the piece had also demurred.
I knew I had to sit through the critique, but all I wanted was to disappear. I took all those printed, marked-up drafts from my classmates, shoved them in a folder, and never looked at the piece again. Soon after, I abandoned my plans of applying for the Creative Writing major. I figured I wasn’t cut out for it—I didn’t have thick enough skin.
Remembering this experience has made me reflect on traditional workshops and writing feedback. What and who are we prioritizing? Even if my essay wasn’t ‘good,’ was there a way I could’ve left that classroom feeling energized rather than dejected? What if we centered the author and their emotions? What assumptions do we make that should be revisited or dismantled—and who will they impact most? What are alternative models or mindsets we can adopt that make the long arc of writing more sustainable?
Ash Huang wrote a great essay called “The Case Against Harsh Critique.” Her time in design school taught her that harsh critique was preparation for the harshness of the real world. I’ve heard similar rhetoric in the context of writing: navigating submissions and publishing requires you to develop a thick skin. But Huang observes that “besides being borderline abusive, harsh critique chips at the one thing a creative really needs to succeed in their career: perseverance.”
In Catapult, A. E. Osworth discussed “revising towards praise” and outlined a different workshop format they call Useful Praise. Since writers may find it difficult to pinpoint their own strengths, trusted readers can provide praise that is useful because it is “specific, intellectually rigorous, and honest.” Specificity means that praise should point to something that objectively appears in the text. Intellectual rigor means naming the skill, where it was deployed, and its effect. Honesty means that the comments are genuine.
I like this approach because it challenges the notion that useful critique only stems from negatives—what’s missing or not working. This also isn’t a call for niceness just for niceness’ sake. Matthew Salesses, author of the superb Craft in the Real World, says that comments like “I liked it” or “I related to it” aren’t helpful because they’re opinions without analysis. He similarly emphasizes specificity and precision in feedback, as well as thinking about questions and possibilities. Observations and asking the author questions can orient the group, so people are “reading the story for what the author wants it to be, not what you want it to be.”
His goal is for folks to leave workshops wanting to go back to work, to “reengage with process, rather than feeling intimidated by product.” (I triple underlined this.) Osworth similarly writes, “revising toward praise gives a writer a direction to go, something to build to instead of something to run from.”
The importance of feedback is to help writers become more conscious of their decisions, goals, and aesthetics. It’s to give them the tools for revision and help them ask the right questions of their own work. It’s to encourage further writing.
This is especially meaningful for writers of diverse backgrounds. Salesses calls craft a “set of expectations” that is shaped by, and in turn shapes, culture. Decentering the author, for example, reinforces the same real world silencing of marginalized writers.
We need to think more about how and when to empower authors. And we need to talk more about power’s relationship to audience (as marginalization only increases if it is unacknowledged or unchallenged).
The critique I received in that first workshop wasn’t cruel, but it was far from empowering. I was also one of a handful of students of color and it compounded my sense of alienation. The experience pushed me away from writing rather than pulling me back in.
Some friends and I recently started a writing group. It’s not a formal setting by any means, but I’ve firsthand felt the effects of a kinder approach to feedback. While we nursed iced coffees on the roof of the library one weekend, we opened the discussion of each piece with strengths. As Osworth’s workshop model outlines, these could then be distilled into action.
By focusing on questions rather than prescriptions, we all left feeling genuinely excited to return to our writing. Revision was no longer daunting, but something to look forward to. Osworth encourages us to change our relationship to feeling good while revising, because it’s something we’ll spend a long time doing.
“Critique should push us towards our voice and truth,” says Huang. “Towards working as ourselves.”
- I enjoyed the section on writing groups in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers. Here’s a practical guide to starting your own and a look at the many types of writing groups you can participate in.
- “The Ultimate Guide To Getting Published In A Literary Magazine” by Lincoln Michel (who writes one of my favorite newsletters Counter Craft)
- Matthew Salesses’ “25 Essential Notes on Craft”: “Craft is inseparable from identity. Craft does not exist outside of society, outside of culture, outside of power. In the world we live in, and write in, craft must reckon with the implications of our expectations for what stories should be—with, as Lorde says, what our ideas really mean.”
- A collection of Asian American short stories and personal essays, compiled from a thread by Cathy Park Hong.
- I grieve for those lives lost this past week to gun violence and their loved ones. I rage at the brokenness of this country. Revisiting Yanyi’s letter on writing through chaos: “We cannot just survive in a world that needs to change. We must cultivate the world we want to inhabit without shame or fear. Choosing is the opposite of reacting.”
Recent reads & other media
I marked up so much of Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses and have started to try out some of his revision techniques. This is one of the best craft books I’ve ever read and will definitely be referring back to it in the future. I also finished Jami Attenberg’s memoir I Came All This Way to Meet You. I loved its explorations of ambition and dedication to writing, traveling and moving through the world as a woman, and building home and community. “A Trip to the End of the World” was my favorite essay/chapter.
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