like the story” “This is crap” “Stupid idea” came fast and furious from a
well-known writer’s group. I felt my shoulders slump and my mind go blank. In reviewing first draft work, the rules in
this group were: 1) the writer’s work being under review that week meant the
writer could say nothing; and 2) others could say whatever they wanted to say
however they wanted to say it.
pitched this same, uncompleted fiction manuscript later to two agents who
wanted it immediately – one wanted a rewrite, the other to read it. I had heard stories of other abusive writing
groups – even schools offering MFAs - that believe demolishing a writer builds
up skills and determination.
disagree with that approach. After all,
this is first draft work, and those opinions offered about it by others in the
group are just that: opinions. So what does work?
writer presenting a manuscript has authority to ask tell the writing group
the type of response they want to that manuscript.
responses include three types of responses: 1) reading work out loud, no
comments; 2) reading the work, comments only about what works or 3) asking
for both what works and where listeners and/or readers stumble.
to a writer’s work without arrogance, condescension or ridicule.
the writer asks for both what works and where the writing does not work: we
talk only about craft issues. We
say “the narrator is…” instead
of “here you say”; if we get confused about a scene we say “I am not sure where the characters are in this scene”,
where characters seem to not be
three-dimensional we can add “I am not sure of this character’s deeper motivation – what does this character really want?”
use kindness in responses of any kind to work presented for review.
In her book “Writing With
Others” Pat Schneider , the Founder and Director of Amherst Writers and Artists
in discussing “Five Essential Practices of a Healthy Workshop” says: “Absolutely no criticism, suggestion, or
question is directed toward the writer in response to first-draft, just written work. A thorough critique is offered only when the
writer asks for it and distributes work in manuscript form. Critique is
balanced; there is as much affirmation as suggestion for change.” She also stresses: confidentiality, serious
teaching of craft through exercises that invite experimentation, a
non-hierarchical spirit and the leader writing in the group and sharing their
work with the group.
Saunders PhD who is enrolled in my fall/winter/spring 10 week classes said “The only way my creative muse was able to appear was in a warm
and safe environment. When surrounded by criticism and shame the muse
When I began
teaching creative writing and poetry I decided to follow what I had learned at
the University of Chicago and it worked: in first draft work we look for what
is working. My philosophy is: first build
confidence and skill in what works in a manuscript. Later you strive for excellence through that
manuscript’s many revisions.