Do you have a fitness coach? Well good on you. I don’t. Probably why a flight of stairs leaves me huffing and puffing.
But if I did, I imagine it would function for my health the way critique workshops function in my writing life.
A critique workshop is where a group of artists meet regularly to share their work with each other and give feedback. This group can consist of peers or might be facilitated by a teacher/leader. Groups can be as broad as a meeting of mixed artists, to something as specific as a group of speculative flash fiction writers wishing to publish in journals. I’ve experienced the full range and gotten benefit from every meeting. Melbourne Spoken Word’s free Sunday workshop, We Work This Shop, is a poetry/spoken word specific one to try.
Generally, a critique workshop has the following structure:
- Warmup: the purpose is to pull people out of their daily lives and get them in the mood for their art. In some groups, this is social, for example updating each other on recent progress. In others, this might be a free-write or specific writing exercise.
- Sharing & Critique: participants take turns to share their work, other group members take turns to provide feedback.
Now I don’t want to lecture you to join a critique workshop anymore than I want you to evangelise to me on fitness. But if you are interested in giving it a go here are some tips (not rules!) to getting the best out of a critique workshop.
- Don’t apologise for your work: Your co-participants are about to invest their time and consideration into helping improve and progress your work. Show this investment due respect. If you have to, provide information about what stage you’re at, “This is a first draft/ I haven’t written the ending” etc. But disparaging your work skews people’s evaluation before you’ve even started – you won’t get the objective feedback you’re seeking. It is understood that you are presenting a “work in progress,” if it was finished and perfect you probably wouldn’t be seeking feedback. You’re in this together. So don’t apologise or downgrade your efforts. It also has the unfortunate side-effect of making other people uncomfortable to share their own unfinished/unpolished/imperfect work.
- Do present it in the best light you can: Help your co-participants help you. If you’re reading a piece, do so clearly as you can, instead of mumbling into your page. If it’s a long piece or you want feedback on the writing, try to bring copies to share. Yes, it’s a work in progress, but we can help you progress it further if we can actually hear/see your words. If you are seeking specific direction or want to direct the critique, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. (e.g. “I will work on the grammar later, I don’t need grammar critique – can I please ask how the ending makes you feel?”
- Don’t take feedback as gospel: Take the critique you’ve received as a guide rather than as gospel. You are still the sole expert, the master and commander of your work – what you intend and how to achieve it is in your hands and nobody else’s. Whilst other people’s reactions can be useful, they aren’t always right. Not even when a bunch of them agree. It might simply be that the group is not the target audience for your specific work. For example, you might present a jazz poem up for critique to a group of excellent page poets and get the critique that more imagery is needed. A group of jazz poets may instead comment on tone and rhythm. The second group just happens to be more intimately familiar with the conventions of the form. Who is right? Both. Your poem may well benefit from more imagery or rhythm. In the end, you get to decide who your target audience is, and how you want to pitch or tune your work. It’s your call. But the range of feedback is a mirror of how a range of real-life readers and listeners will respond.
- Do respect the feedback when respectfully given: Having said everything in Tip #3, your feedback-buddies are trying to help. Respect the feedback given even when you disagree. Perhaps as an alternative to rolling your eyes into the back of your head and quoting the latest post-modernist darling’s refutation of the point, you could remember that the whole point of this exercise is to get a range of opinions – some other anonymous reader/listener is going to have the same reaction and this way you get a chance to consider it – whether you address it or not. And when a bunch of them do agree – you might want to swallow your denial – just a little and ask a few more questions.
- The symptom versus the solution: I’ve learned that feedback is often correct in identifying a symptom, but not necessarily correct about the solution. This is especially so in those confusing situations where a number of people are saying the same thing but I feel a lot of resistance to doing what they say. Feedback is often given in the form of a solution. For e.g. “Needs more backstory”, “The point needs to be clearer”, “There are too many arguments in this poem – needs to be cut back.” It may be that the symptom has been correctly identified, just not the cure. For example, demands for more backstory might just mean you haven’t given a clear enough motivation for your character to do something. When a bunch of people say your poem is too complex, it may be that you don’t have to cut it short or simplify it. It may be that your points need to be made clearer with imagery.
A useful structure to use in giving critique on a work of art is suggested as follows:
- “I think the writer/poet/artist is saying / trying to achieve / the meaning of the poem is …” Without judging the intention, let your critique-buddy know what messages you received from the piece. This is often the most important part of the critique – because you’ve given them an indication of how far they are from achieving their intention without imposing your own taste.
- “The things that work are…” Let them know some specific things you thought were positive.
- “The things that might work better are…” Specific feedback is usually more useful than general feedback. And suggestions for improvement are usually more useful than just pointing out what is wrong. So for example, “This is boring”, is feedback that doesn’t give much guidance on how to improve. If you want to be helpful, dig deeper. What did you experience as boring? How could that be remedied? So for example “There was too much repetition here, could you use different words and vary the images?” Or “This was confusing,” is less helpful than, “I found there were too many images juxtaposed in this stanza to keep track of, could you simplify the images but extend this one metaphor that felt like the strongest one to me?”
Some specific tips based on the suggested structure above:
- This is not about your taste: I’m sure your taste is impeccable. But you are assisting your co-participant in achieving their aims. If they are preparing for a limerick-battle and you hate limericks, the feedback, “I hate limericks and they should all be gathered up and emblazoned on the butts of leprechauns” is not helpful feedback. Despite your personal tastes, you can certainly try to understand the aim of an artwork. “I think this limerick is trying to express the sadness of being a pet.” It may be useful to clarify, “I don’t read limericks normally,” but somehow, I think the poet/writer/artist will have sensed this.
- Remember, it’s a work in progress: You wouldn’t judge a toddler’s suitability to be an engineer based on its grasp of blocks. (Well, you might but you probably shouldn’t.) So, don’t jump to conclusions about your co-participant’s art/poem/story-in-progress. Help it grow and improve. Don’t stifle it with excessive criticism. Which leads to…
- Keep your eye on the big picture: It can be overwhelming to hear fifty-six dot-pointed suggestions for improvements for your something you’ve lovingly produced. Don’t do this to your feedback-buddy. Often when the major problems are addressed, the minor problems magically disappear. If you find a lot to improve in a poem/story/art-work, focus on the big picture. What are the major points of feedback? Prioritise. Make your feedback clear on those points and then stop hogging the podium. My rule of thumb is to offer between 3 to 4 points. It may not be useful to hear everything on your mind. If you think it’s imperative, perhaps you can write down your feedback and offer to follow up if it isn’t clear.
- Try to offer solutions: I have said in the section on “receiving critiques” that the artist/poet/writer should figure out their own solutions. Still, as a feedback-giver, it is useful when you try to offer solutions instead of just saying what is wrong. Instead of “Too much exposition”, you could pick one of the expositions and suggest a specific image to use instead. This is sometimes useful in sparking thoughts and ideas for your feedback-buddy, offering an open door to a final solution instead of the closed windows of criticism.
- Don’t take feedback as gospel: No, this is not a typo. Yes, I mean your feedback is not gospel. You are offering an opinion, not a commandment. (Apologies to the many readers out there who are complete experts in poetry and have studied everything ever written alongside the relevant commentary. You’re exempted from this tip of course.) I’m grateful for your reaction. But remember the master and commander thing? It isn’t an insult if I didn’t take your feedback. I just decided on a different course.
Finally, these tips and points are about offering critiques in a workshop setting. They don’t apply when our feedback has not been sought or requested. Critique-workshops provide specific conditions where the group understands they are all subject to agreed rules and conditions. The vulnerability in sharing one’s work and hearing its merits and demerits is equal and reciprocal.
Oh, and don’t take my tips as gospel.
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