Personal editing. Professional results.

Help for compassionate workshop readers

January 29, 2022
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

I like to say, "If we can't find anything to praise about a piece of writing, then it's not yet time to say what fell short." I don't mean artificial kindness, either. Published authors look down on workshop groups that are mutual atta-boy meetings, and with good reason. You must see what's working in a submission, however, right alongside your notes on what did not work for you.

Finding genuine praise can be difficult, sometimes. To help, I employed a set of encouraging comments from my manuscript-judging days for the Writers' League of Texas. As front-line readers, we knew we were going to see work of many levels of skill—and the WLT didn't want us to condescend or haul off on a writer. If you're in a workshop or writing group, have a look and apply as needed.

It's okay to be more experienced than other writers in your group or workshop. Everybody wants to be in a group with a writer who's more advanced—so they might improve their own work. Your responses and comments can only be genuinely useful when you can be specific about the points both high and low.

Group members are perhaps the first people ever to see an author's submission. Consider how scary that might be. This is the moment for your compassion extended to another artist.

My 4 rules for every group I've run:

1. Be specific
2. Be kind
3. Be honest
4. Be helpful

Number 1 is why you're getting to read anybody's story. Number 2 is at the heart of Numbers 3 and 4.

Awkward is not a useful word to apply in a writing critique. You don't say, "this is awkward." Instead, "I felt awkward," because that exposes what you felt, and also makes it clear it's your opinion. The latter part is very important. Nobody gets to say any bit of writing IS this or that. It's all subjective. Empirical statements are for the copy editors and proofreaders. That's not us.

So, in groups or workshops, be ready to say what in specific "pulled you away" (and that's the term you want to use; anything sharper is needlessly critical). In an hour of honest work with the writing as you read, you'll be able to identify specifics. If you recall the bravest and most daring thing you wrote, I know you'd want us to be kind. Focus on the bravery of the revelation.

Dig in. Try to see what that writer is trying to say. It's serious work we do for one another.

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