Poetry with Doug’s Rules for Constructive Criticism

Disclaimer: I don’t remember the actual rules from my first official writing workshop. I do distinctly remember putting them all up on a sheet of paper the afternoon before meeting our poetry instructor, Doug, at the Young Writer’s Workshop. Almost ten years ago… 

I’m putting up my “new” rules because training at my new job and interacting with my various Toronto housemates and other peers has recently highlighted to me this is a skill that not many other people seem to possess–giving and receiving criticism.

So without further ado:

  1. No disclaimers.

    You show your work, you don’t speak your biased opinions about all of it before its read/performed/etc. Why? Because if it’s not on the page, it won’t be conveyed to the readers, actors, directors, editors, designers, illustrators, etc who will be working with your writing. Learn what they know and they see first–their perspective is invaluable.

  2. Positive feedback first.

    It’s easier to listen to negative feedback when you’ve heard the good stuff first. Who wants to put more work into reworking and overhauling a piece that was no good to begin with? No one. This is how you motivate the people around you.

  3. Attribute criticism to the writing, not the author.

    Writing may be deeply personal, but what someone has written in his or her shitty first or second draft is not them. Period. Even in a final draft, it’s best not to conflate author with writing–communication is limited and faulty no matter how much it’s been polished. There’s no way to perfectly convey meaning in words.

  4. Don’t speak while the criticism is being given.

    What’s the reader going to do when something doesn’t make sense or they read a weak point? Will you be there to defend it in the moment? No! Wait until the end and then ask questions to clarify. Leave and take all the criticism with you to parse through on your own. No one has to know which pieces you take to heart and which go back into the waste bin. That’s the real journey.

  5. Listen.

    It goes hand in hand with the above point. While you are silently sitting there, let yourself hear the criticisms. Your critics, if they have also agreed to abide by these rules or similar ethics, are not there to rip you and your work to shreds. They are giving you the gift of their time, wisdom, and outsider perspective. You cannot get this from any other source in such a loving way so take it as such. You never know what gems they will offer, even if they seem like heart-wrenching demands. Kill your darlings…

  6. Come to the table with your own questions.

    If you are self-aware as much as you can be of the weak moments, the strengths, the themes and pieces you want to keep–and the places you know you want to improve–you can take charge. While you are actively listening, you can see who picks up on your questions before you share them. You can search through the criticism and determine what matches up with your point of view and what doesn’t. It’ll help you actively listen during the critique and follow up more effectively–so you’ll know exactly how to confront the next draft.

  7. Give what you want to receive.

    Yes, in workshops and critiques the golden rule also applies. Think someone’s piece was pure crap? I’m sure someone thinks that about your’s as well, that’s the nature of art and taste that your brilliance is someone else’s idea of pointless garbage. Respect that–and make sure that you give your attention and honest feedback to everyone fairly. If you can’t (sometimes workshops get poisoned with ex’s, foes, competitors, etc), be honest about why and take yourself out of the picture for a while. Good critics are hard to come by, but they are worth the effort to find and protect.

*I wanted to have 8 rules (my favorite number), or 10 (traditional for lists), but 7 does seem lucky in this case.

The more I write about these rules of good criticism and writing, the more I see how they apply to other areas of life. You couldn’t reach someone on the phone? Not your fault. You did, but they were angry? Not necessarily personal, don’t attribute it to the possibly “mean” tone of your “Hello.” And that’s just how it applies to one aspect of my day job…

And that’s what it’s really about: everything that makes me a good writer comes from what I’ve learned about the discipline of putting my words on the page and about the courage it takes to ask for feedback.

This post also commemorates my three formative summers at Session 2 of the Young Writer’s Workshop.

Chalkboard with Welcome to Young Writers Workshop!

I am heartbroken to miss the reunion this summer marking the 35th anniversary of YWW or YDubz as we so fondly called it. I heartily with everyone will have an extra pint for me, and help give me another reason to come back to teach at YWW, speak as a guest artist, or attend the next reunion.

If it weren’t for YWW, I would not be a $criptwriter today. At least that’s why I’m missing the reunion; the staged reading of my horror play Raggedy’s Kingdom is happening at Storefront Theatre on May 30th. Check it out if you’re in Toronto! (I promise it won’t be too scary)

$criptwriters for ever, cha ching!


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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