Creative Writing student, Gemma Wynton, tells us about how she's developing as a writer through workshops and critiquing.
Beginning my first year as a Creative Writing student filled me with a mix of emotions; I was excited, ambitious and keen to show the world my talent.
A lot of writers, as confident as they might be in their creative work, are introverts at heart (myself included). Writing can be a very solitary activity, so opening up that process and letting people in is daunting at first.
Backtrack to October 2018, Welcome Week was over and we were all settling into our first official weeks as Creative Writing students. I remember sitting around a table with people who I recognised, but who were still strangers to me. Little did I know that (as students often do) I would sit on this same table for the entirety of the semester, and these people were to become my trusted critique partners.
Presenting your work for workshops
It's a requirement for Creative Writing courses that you present your work for workshops as often as possible, so that at the end of the semester your portfolio is polished, well-rounded and reflects who you are as a writer.
Complete strangers as we all were to the workshop process, the comments I made and received were often something along the lines of:
- 'I like it’
- 'I think how you have described X here is really good’
- ‘It really reflects the character well’
- 'It's really good'.
Now, as lovely as it is to hear that your work is good, it's not helpful in developing your pieces, or makes for a particularly well written critical reflection that goes alongside your portfolio. Aside from a confidence boost and reassurance that you're writing in the right direction, critique that is 100% 'this is A* material' is pretty much useless for a piece of creative work. But this is a completely unmarked territory for lots of first year undergraduates, so don't panic; the ability to pick out the nitty gritty, and to understand and help to develop the soul ⎼ for lack of a better term ⎼ is a skill you'll develop overtime as you get more familiar with studying the written word from a creative perspective.
There are specific rules to workshopping your work and critiquing others, and these are important because, as a critique partner, you have to set aside your individual tastes in favour of thoughtful comments that focus on strengthening the piece. A simple 'I don't like this' is just going to upset the writer and it doesn't leave room for any development.
Rule #1 - always give constructive criticism
If there's something you don't like about a piece, bring it up and explain why so that the author can take your views and decide whether they take it on board or not.
Rule #2 - always be respectful
This goes for both the author and for those critiquing work. You’re all in the same boat here, and you all want to improve your writing. Critique partners should understand that bringing a piece of work to a workshop is slightly daunting, and that writing can be very personal and emotional (even if it's about an alien from a galaxy far, far away, or a magical creature that doesn't exist). So, be thoughtful and mindful with your comments.
The same goes for the author; whilst you're being given feedback you're not allowed to speak; you should listen and take on board what people are saying about your work. Your critique partners should have your best interests at heart, so if a particular plot point doesn't quite fit, or something a character does doesn't suit the person you have set them up to be (and there's no character developmental reason for it), it's good to have a rethink.
This is where writing can get pretty tricky; you’re torn between what you want for your work and what others are saying about it. I still get hung up on this sometimes, especially when I'm particularly close to a piece that I have written.
'When you're a writer, you hear your internal critic, and that's really hard to get over. And then sometimes you hear critiques from classmates... you have to learn to separate out the ones you want to listen to.' Veronica Roth
Rule #3 - remember that YOU are the writer
You have the final decision in what you want to say with your work. You can take on board people's thoughts and disregard it if you don't agree that it'll make your story better (but try not to get defensive). You may even find that you didn't take that particular comment on board, but it prompted you to think about the area where that comment is focused. For example, maybe a comment about how an abusive relationship doesn't add to a particular situation is brought up and you don't agree with it, it might be that you need to go away and do some research and weave a back story into the forward thrust of the narrative. Tadaa! Now you've taken on board critique, disagreed, and still your work has turned out for the better. These kinds of scenarios can be extremely helpful when writing your reflection too, as it shows how you have developed as a writer.
Rule #4 - what happens in the workshop, stays in the workshop
Going back to being respectful, if someone's comment offends you, you shouldn't hold it against them in future workshops. If the person was respectful and your piece just wasn't their cup of tea, or if they didn't empathise with a particular experience, then that's their right. You can have a constructive conversation with them and talk about why you're offended or to help them understand where you are coming from, and maybe it can be resolved. If you as critique partners don't gel, then you don't have to ask them for critique; you can find people better suited to you, maybe that's friends from a different module, or means you sit on a different table. When you are in workshop everyone has to be respectful of everyone's opinions, and for the most part, critique comments are never meant to be malicious, or intended to damage your confidence in anyway. So, it's ok to step away from them. And you can always talk to your module tutor or another member of staff who can help you.
I hope this has helped the writers amongst you feel better about workshopping at degree level (it's really not that bad, I promise). Getting comments on your work is scary and, at first, you may not be good at giving or receiving them, but it's all in the learning.
Many of my critique partners I have had, have become friends of mine and we exchange work for critique whether we are taking the same modules or not. I definitely think that critique can only make you a better writer.
“Over the course of my two years at Bath Spa University, I have traded anxiety over sharing my work, for a hunger to do it.” - Gemma Wynton
There are still certain topic areas or pieces of work I may be a bit nervous to share, but I know that what I'll get out of it is far better then what I have going in. I urge you to trust your critique partners when you meet them, and the tutors leading your courses; the tutors are experienced, and brilliant writers in their own right. Your critique partners are just as scared and are wanting to do just as well as you are. I don't think there's much that could be more humbling to a writer than that.
Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.
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