I’ve been writing and editing for decades, starting in my college years when I signed up for poetry classes that often “workshopped” assignments.
Writing and Editing Workshops
We’d turn in a poem to the teacher, who collected them all and passed out copies for us to read and annotate so we could offer our peers helpful input. On the day of the workshop, we critiqued the poems out loud, pointing out what worked (and what didn’t), trying to explain why it worked (or didn’t).
In a poorly managed class where the professor allowed negative, disrespectful remarks to dominate, the workshop process disheartened many young, inexperienced writers. Too much negativity discourages a person taking creative risks—all too often that new author will conclude she must not have what it takes and years may pass before she picks up a pen or sits at the keyboard to try writing again.
If handled well by the instructor, however, the workshop offered invaluable input, making us (and our work) stronger, helping students identify their strengths while pointing to areas in need of tweaking.
A few years ago, Professor J.C. Schaap announced to his creative writing students that their stories would undergo a writing workshop. As their work rolled in, several students included e-mails telling him that they were scared, witless. To prepare them, he set up a trial run using an anonymous piece from his files. At first, the students were reluctant to say anything negative. But someone spotted a scene in the story that seemed unrealistic and hesitantly pointed it out. That first comment opened up the rest of the class, and Schaap reported that “condemnation starting rolling down like justice is supposed to. Right before my eyes, a bandwagon appeared.” He continued:
There was a hangin’ coming, I knew, so I told the madding crowd that next week—when their own workshopping begins—the same darn thing is likely to happen, only they’ll be looking at the actual writer, not thinking of her in the abstract, because next week the writers R US or whatever.
That quieted the mob into stony silence.
Teaching can be fun. If it wasn’t, I’d quit in a minute.
“So,” one of them says, meekly, “when we’re done, can we have a hug line?”
Positive, Constructive Critique
Anyone involved in writing and editing should remember we’re helping people become stronger writers. Our critique should be constructive, followed up by specific encouragement…and perhaps, when appropriate, a hug.
When evaluating and editing someone’s work, I focus on the positive as much as possible. Staying upbeat and honest throughout the process, I hope to earn the writer’s trust. Then, when I find spots where writers can tighten their work, they will take the risk to strip away excess, like sections that slow the pace so much that the reader’s eyes glaze over. When the excess disappears, the heart of the story, essay or poem emerges. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? The heart? The life? The pulse of a piece?
Welcome Editorial Input
I’m not just an editor handing out suggestions to artists; I’m also a writer. I’ve held red pens in my hand to mark papers and I’ve stared at the red marks of others covering my own submissions, so I know both sides. I try to receive input with grace and humility from the editor evaluating my work, just as I try to offer it with kindness and respect when editing others. Sometimes the input hits hard; sometimes it hurts. I prefer a gentler approach, but I need the input any way it comes, so I’ve developed a thick skin and dig in to improve the work.
Though we may cringe in fear during the editorial or workshop process, deep down I think we welcome critique—especially specific, insightful, kind suggestions—because we yearn to improve. We hold out our ideas, stories, poetry—our very heart—to peers or editors to find out what they think. We do so trembling sometimes, scared witless. But we do it so that our writing comes to life, accepting the critique in order to grow.
Handle Writers with Respect
Teachers, editors, and peers will do well to remember that this feels risky to every writer, but they have the honor of participating in another person’s growth as that writer reaches out with his art to readers…to the world.
I’m reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem:
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,
–The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
Writers have to develop a thick skin and deal with critique, even criticism. But when handling the words of others, whether in the form of a poem, post or story, we would do well to assume that they would like our input followed up by a “hug line” and that their heart’s cry is: “Judge tenderly of me!”
Modified post from the archives.