“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” – John Steinbeck
As an advisor for the Writers’ Program, one of the main things I tell prospective students is that our classes are workshop-based. What does this mean? It means that nearly every class you take with us will involve sharing work with your peers and instructor. I strongly recommend work-shopping to both novice and experienced writers as a means to learn what’s working and what isn’t, as well as a way to get used to the fact that criticism is an unavoidable part of being a writer.
As a Writers’ Program student, I know the simultaneous terror and exhilaration of sitting in forced silence while a story you poured your heart and soul into is pulled apart and tested by an instructor and a group of ten or fifteen of your peers. Your palms sweat, your heart beats faster, and, for just a moment, you wish you’d done the responsible thing and flung your pages into the nearest body of water.
Getting feedback is hard. Whether you’re a new writer in a Writers’ Program workshop, submitting your screenplay to an agent, or obsessively checking your novel’s Amazon page for new reviews, you know that hearing what others think of your work is just as likely to be excruciatingly painful as it is affirming. As instructor Lisa Cron puts it, “While everyone says they want hard core feedback, what they’re really hoping is that the instructor/agent/editor will say: This is the best thing I’ve ever read; where do I send the check?”
Anyone who’s been through a workshop knows that the above is rarely the case. There’s always something to work on and every person participating has their own opinion and point of view. How, then, does a writer a deal with feedback? How do you listen and absorb without losing heart? How do you help your fellow writers do the same?
Respect Each Other
“What is crucial when offering feedback to fellow students is to show that one is treating their work with respect,” says online/onsite instructor Dan Jaffe. “Writers can usually take constructive criticism when they realize that the commenter respects the work and the writer’s efforts and objectives.”
“As far as receiving feedback goes,” says screenwriting instructor Cindy Davis, “I tell my students to do their best not to say much. Some students spend more time defending their work during their critique rather than listening. Then they end up with no notes. I find it’s best to listen, write it down, and take time to mull it over.”
Know Where They’re Coming From
So often, the instructor sets the tone for how feedback will be delivered by the entire class. As screenwriting instructor Laurence Rosenthal puts it, “My goal, as a workshop leader, is that of an advocate for the story. I try to coach my students in the way that a trainer coaches and pushes you to succeed to the extent of your capacities.”
Beginning creative writing instructors Harry Youtt and Judith Prager put it this way: “We point to what works in a student’s writing. It’s as simple as that. When you tell them what they do well, they lean into it and gain strength with their own style.”
Cindy Davis agrees: “When I give feedback to students, I try to do two things: 1) point out any moments in their story where I got lost or confused, and 2) point out what’s excellent about their story, so they know what they should definitely keep. When I receive feedback on my writing, I sometimes find it’s more helpful to know what to keep than what’s not working.”
As students progress, instructors often feel their role is to accentuate both what’s good and what needs work.
“Intermediate students are in the process of applying various techniques and approaches to their writing,” says Dan Jaffe. “Whereas advanced students might not feel the need to hear what’s working effectively in their drafts (they tend to know that already), intermediate students need confirmation of their successes and reminders of the strengths in a given piece so that they don’t edit out those strengths upon revision.”
By the time students reach advanced-level workshops, things get more succinct. As Lisa Cron — currently teaching Advanced Short Story online — puts it, “My approach is always complete, in-depth honesty in terms of pointing out what isn’t working, partnered with what can be done to correct it – otherwise what’s the point?”
Cindy offers another big tip: “When utilizing feedback, it’s up to the writer to decide which notes will help him or her and which notes won’t. Some students execute every note given to them and end up with a jumbled mess. Some students reject every note given to them and their work never improves. Writers need to do their best to find a happy medium.”
Trust the Process
“All else aside,” Lisa tells us, “the biggest indicator of who will succeed and who will not comes down to this: Those who embrace rewriting as a necessary – and often surprisingly enjoyable – part of the process have a real shot at making it.”
So, there have you it. Keep an open mind, listen, come to your own conclusions, and keep at it.
In the end, you’ll be glad you did.
Daniel Sanchez is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing (Onsite) and Screenwriting (Online).