Guidelines and Advice for Workshops and Classes

Guidelines and Advice
for Writers’ Village University Workshops

by R.J. Hembree

  • Please do not post your work unless you plan on exchanging critiques with others. The most common complaint about on-line workshops is that they are often unfair by nature (this often happens in off-line workshops too). The reason they seem unfair is because some writers will post their work, receive critiques from others, but not return the favor. Another injustice occurs when the quality of the critiques are not reasonably equal in effort, regardless of experience.
  • Even a beginning writer has something valuable to say. Writers need to have an idea of how readers will react to their work, and, unless you’re writing for specific academics, it isn’t likely that the average reader will read your fiction with the same critical eye an experienced writer. Think of the critiques you receive as a public survey on your work. Some comments will be from writers less experienced than yourself and some will come from more experienced writers. You, as the author, are the final judge of a critique’s value.
  • Do not defend your work. If your work is not understood, then it either needs to be clarified or the person offering the critique wasn’t reading closely enough. Let it go. If one person misreads your work, don’t worry about it, but if several say the same thing, then it is worth reconsidering. Again, our readers will not always read as closely as we’d like. What is important is to understand what they are likely to miss and what parts leave the strongest impressions. Think of a scene from Don Quixote. Most of us will think of our chivalrous hero at battle with the windmill. We may have an equally memorable scene in our own works, and it won’t take an expert to call it to our attention. We want to know what jumps off the page, even in a misreading ... or rather, especially in a misreading. One of the best way to find the most powerful parts of your work is to have someone skim over it and report the results; then go back over it a second time for a closer reading.
  • Use tact in your critiques. We communicate entirely through text while on-line. We don’t have the benefit of vocal shifts, smiles or raised eyebrows to help communicate our thoughts, so we must choose our words very carefully. It is very easy to be misunderstood on the internet. One of the most useful words in a workshop is "consider." Rather than saying, "I think you should change this part because it is confusing,." you could say, "Consider changing this part for clarity." The later wording leaves the author with a better sense of control with additional options. The best critiques inspire the author to look for creative solutions and more effective alternatives.
  • Do not write the work for the author. It is very tempting to inflict our own ideas on an author in our critiques. It’s a natural impulse for writers, but one we should curb if we are to be helpful. So avoid comments that give specific story changes. If there is a characterization or plot problem, it is better to simply point it out and explain why you had a problem with it.
  • Be specific. It is of no value to simply say you like or dislike something. Saying "Awesome!" doesn’t help a writer grow. We need to know why it is awesome so we can do it again. If you don’t like something, try to determine why. For example, if the hero does something you don’t like, it is better to tell the author, "The hero seems to jump out of character at this point. Earlier, on the 14th paragraph, he said this and did that, then in the 30th paragraph this happened. Is this what you intended?" Also be specific about your favorite scenes, lines and descriptions. Especially the most memorable ones.
  • No pain, no gain. Criticism hurts. Anybody that says different needs to have their pulses checked. Some of us can deal with it better than others, but all of us would rather hear a compliment than a criticism. Writers are generally sensitive people; we have to be in order to write. My first workshops in college seemed vicious at the time. "How could these people be so cold and heartless? Don’t they know I’ve got feelings? I’ll show them! I’ll never write again!" I took everything as a personal attack in the big way. "Why can’t these people see what I meant? It’s plain as day to me!" Unfortunately and fortunately, everyone comes to a workshop with a different set of life experiences and can not read our minds. Writing is learning. It is important to know how our own life experiences compare with other’s. This is why we read and why we write: to find how we fit into the grand puzzle. So the pain we feel from the criticism is exactly what we need to find our differences and come closer to understanding our relationship to others, and this helps us to write so that others will understand us better.
  • Posting Limits.
    • Short Stories: No more than three (3) at a time.
    • Novels: No more than three (3) chapters at a time.
    • Poetry: No more than six (6) at a time.
  • Suggested length for critiques
    • Short stories: 500 to 1500 words
    • Novels (per chapter): 500 to 1500 words
    • Poems: 250 to 1000 words.
  • For the Novel in particular, an outline or synopsis should be posted with your chapters. This will help readers offer better quality critiques because they can read chapters with context awareness.
  • Proofread first!!!!! Don’t expect writers to proofread for you. Make sure your work is as error-free as possible before you post it. Of course, there will always be errors; most newspapers have several copy editors go over each story, and they still make mistakes. Do the best you can so readers won’t be distracted from your story or poem.


Things to consider when writing critiques:

  • Characterization - Can you identify with the characters?
  • Plot - Is there a continuous thread of suspense?
  • Setting - Are the sensory details effective?
  • Voice and Tone - Is the narrative voice consistent and unobtrusive (sometimes narrator intrusion is intentional and works)?
  • Rhythm and Pace (sentence structure variations for effect)
  • Theme - Are there identifiable themes, and which are the strongest?
  • Meaning - Find at least one meaning in the work (this could be different for everyone, but is helpful for the writer to know).
  • Conflict - Are the stakes and the conflicts surrounding them clear?
  • Resolutions - Does the story have a satisfying ending?
  • Dialogue - Is the dialogue natural sounding? Is it easy to read?
  • Suspension of disbelief - Are you carried into the story and willing to let it come to life as you read, or do to many things pop-up to remind you that it is only fiction. (some postmodern work plays with the suspension of disbelief)?
  • Clarity - Do the words seem invisible as you read, and do you have enough information to enjoy the story?
  • Opening lines - Does the beginning make you want to read more?
  • Most memorable scenes or moments
  • Best lines
  • Most confusing parts