Literary Sweatshops, Part II: FAQ about High School Creative Writing Workshops

What are my responsibilities as a workshop reader?

    • Be a receptive reader, and let the writer know her manuscript affected you. For example:“I laughed here . . .”  “I almost cried when. . . ” “I could just see this . . .” “You made this place come alive” “I identified completely with this person”  are all phrases that are appropriate responses to written work.
    • Be an interpretative reader, and let the writer know how you “read” his manuscript — “This is what I saw happening here — ” “You made me hate this person when he said –”
    • Be a specific reader, and let the writer know precisely where the writing is effective or ineffective, where it achieves its purpose, and where the writer might improve it or try something else These are not helpful comments:  “It was great — I wouldn’t change a thing” or “I don’t like stories about puppies” or “I think you should set this story in 1920 instead of the future.”
    • Always, in both spoken and written comments, be kind, understanding, and supportive. We are all on this creative road together.         

What if I hate the manuscript?

Find something to like – – the subject matter, a metaphor on page five, the description of the setting, an image.  In your written comments, try to begin with something positive and then move on to problems you see in the manuscript.  As a reader, focus on the writing and the craft; do not judge the rightness or wrongness of the characters themselves or the morality of their choices.

What if the author is such a good writer that I can’t find anything to criticize?

Telling an author what she did that worked is as beneficial than telling her what did not work.  Focus on responding as a reader, telling the author the effect the manuscript had on you as you read it, maybe giving an interpretation or summary of what is going on. Point out sentences or sections you especially liked, telling why specifically.

What if I don’t know what to say when it comes my time to talk about an essay?

    • Try to understand what kind of story the author is trying to tell. Make notes on the manuscript as you go, and tell the author what you understood about the story she is trying to tell.
    • Refer to the notes you have prepared to give to the author when the time comes to discuss the piece. It is up to the author to do with those notes as she will.
    • Give the author the kinds of practical comments you wouldliketo receive in a tone and manner in which you would like to receive them.  Learn to communicate constructively without being rude, sarcastic, or overly funny.
    • Say what you think about the piece even if it might sound silly or wrong. You have to practice to get better at this. Listen to others in the workshop who seemed to have a handle on this, and learn from them.

When the time comes for my piece to be workshopped, I’m afraid they will attack my “baby”?

It is not easy to have something as personal as writing criticized by a group of people. I’m not sure what advice to give here, other than it gets easier with practice.  One thing that can help is if we are all gentle with one another — not in the sense that we withhold criticism, but that the tone and manner we use to criticize makes it clear we are FOR the writer’s success.

 Do I have to take everyone’s advice?

No. As the author, you are the final judge of your manuscript.  You decide whether to revise or edit, whether to take any of the advice your classmates or teacher give you.  It is recommended, in any case, that you put your manuscript aside for a while, then go through it and see which of the suggestions feel “right” to you.  You may end up not using any of our suggestions, but perhaps we have shown you something about your manuscript that you may not have considered before.

Remember, have faith in yourself and trust your own voice. Writing takes a lifetime, not one year.


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