Workshop 101: Finding a Critique’s Focus

I have been thinking long and hard about what element of my current workshopping class bothers me so much. Is it the content of my fellow classmates? No, not especially. It makes for queasy nights, but all in all the writing isn’t that bad. Is it my professor? No. We don’t agree on our writing philosophies and we see difference means to reaching perfection and/or importance in a written piece, but none of my frustration is directed at him as a person. So sitting there tonight, writing the Act II climax scene for my thesis project, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: what is it about this class that bothers me?

And then it came to me: lack of focus.

Now, let me elaborate and see explain myself.

We read one piece tonight. It was a very nice, archaic sounding piece that felt very 19th century in its language and tone. It wasn’t perfectly polished yet, but overall the piece, I think, worked. Because hers was the only piece, we went on about her piece for the entire class period (rather than getting out early) and ended up reading and discussing for over two and a half hours. In a true writing group setting where the goal is to be scrupulous, perhaps that length of time can be appropriate. In a classroom where the discussion waxes philosophical with side trips to avant garde and linguistics, I fail to understand the usefulness.

This piece had a few strange grammar mistakes: commas and semicolons where it should have been colons, not taking a hard break between complete phrases, unpredictable run-ons, a few odd sentence fragments…you get the idea. They distracted me from following the actual meat of the story. Yet what did we spend our two and a half hours on? Talking about its marketability, choosing ways that aren’t the author’s intention to do so, and talking about the fact that she used some Spanish in her piece, not about helping her improve her piece.

This has become a recurring theme in this particular workshop. We rarely do anything to help the author, instead we throw things out there that have nothing to do with the author’s intentions. Sometimes that could be a good way to help with brainstorming. Sometimes that could help to show that you currently don’t have enough focus. However, I think any author is going to know if they need that, at least any author who is serious about wanting to get published and wanting outside help on their piece.

But that’s just it. An author should be given an opportunity to direct the discussion of their piece. If it’s an early draft, you may already know what the problem is, but you haven’t come up with the solution for yourself yet. Again, if it’s an early draft, what good is it to you to have them tell you to tighten it up? You know that, that’s not your initial concern. Now, by the final draft, of course you’re going to be worrying about that, of course you want people to tell you when you have a muddling paragraph.

But shouldn’t you have a say in that? Shouldn’t you be allowed to steer the workshop of your own piece? If you need help with something, shouldn’t be you allowed to ask for the help?

I think, for you people in writing groups and in critiquing environments that you have control over, that this is something to keep in mind. If the group isn’t helping you, figure out why. Is this maybe your problem? I know it’s mine at the moment.

Do any of you have other ideas on how to help bring focus and get the kind of help you need from a group of critics?

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This suddenly came to me as I read this: why not have a maximum of three questions the author can attach to the manuscript that will begin to lead the discussion without the author actually jumping in? For example, I might say about one of my pieces, “Was the dialogue realistic? How so or not?” “Did X part of the plot seem too contrived?” “I don’t like Y character’s name but I couldn’t come up with anything better. Any suggestions?”

Then my fellow writers have three things they know to keep in mind as they read and three things they can discuss to get the ball rolling — and they know these three things are what I want help with. If the discussion goes somewhere else as well, great. But at least it’s a step toward getting me the help I want and still providing me with feedback I might not have thought about.

Shannon: I’ve done this before in other workshops. In fact, I was in the habit of doing it as an undergrad. I’d list like 3-5 things that I was interested about or wanting opinions on, and I want to say I also did it in 503. I just haven’t been comfortable doing it in the two semesters of Nakell I’ve had because he’s so set on a pure “reader response” to the work, you know?

Wow, I think you totally described my byu screenwriting class. All they did for 2 hours 3 times a week was PHILOSOPHIZE over the story…usually talking about how mormons were close-minded or other stuff that had nothing to do with the script. I couldn’t believe what an incredible waste of time it was.

It’s sad but ultimately I think this kind of problem is the teacher’s fault for not steering the conversation and focus.

Heather: You know, I used to whine and gripe about the fact that they wouldn’t allow English majors to even TRY a screenwriting class to see whether or not they liked it. I don’t feel near as bad anymore, haha.

And we are not narrow-minded, omg. We just have the ability to limit ourselves, which is a GOOD thing. Holy crap, trust me.

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