Should you or shouldn’t you? Offer critiques of other people’s work as part of a Christian writer’s conference, I mean — whether written comments on submissions or as part of a discussion.
On the one hand, this feature is often in great demand by attendees of a writer’s conference, which makes sense. Many attendees are unpublished or under-published, and they long for a chance to talk to a writer who has experienced more success in publishing – and to get his or her honest feedback. But, there is a definite risk in including critique sessions in your conference. I lost count, long ago, of how many people in conference/workshop-type venues have told someone else to be brutally honest, adding that he or she “can take it.” And then they crumble after hearing the most diplomatic of suggestions.
Let’s face it. No matter how delicately a person tries to point out areas of potential improvement in a piece of writing, hurt feelings are often lurking just below the surface in its creator. It’s just human nature. I remember facilitating a workshop, many years ago, where a woman read a children’s manuscript that she’d lovingly created. The protagonist was an exotic animal of some sort (I don’t remember which kind) and, in her text, she shared how he spent his day. When the writer finished reading her manuscript, I shared what I liked about the text – and then pointed out that I wanted to learn even more. What, for example, did this animal feel like if you touched one? What did the animal smell like? What did he eat?
At this point, the writer looked startled and said, “I have absolutely no idea. I’ve never been around one. I just made this up.” I then suggested that she spend some time around this animal to get more lifelike details in her text, as editors would typically be more interested in a manuscript that contained realism, even if the plot was fictional. I didn’t get a response to my comment from the writer, but I did hear another attendee lean over to reassure the writer that she didn’t need to listen to me, that what I offered was just one person’s opinion. And in one way, this comment was completely accurate; it was just my opinion – and the editor to whom she submitted might disagree with me totally. On the other hand, publishing is a competitive business and so it never hurts to brainstorm ways to strengthen what you’ve written – and that opportunity was lost.
Another time, during a group critique that I led, a young woman read her well-written poem that contained intriguing imagery. But the topic was quite controversial and it’s possible that the writer was being deliberately provocative. It didn’t take long for an older writer to retort that the poem was both “inappropriate” and “shameful” – to which the younger writer responded that she’d already figured out that “old people wouldn’t get it” (and that was just the start of the exchange!).
Critiquing is fraught with landmines and can be especially challenging when conference attendees range from the new and still timid (we’ve all been there!) to the polished and experienced. So, what do you do?
Only praise the good stuff?
During the first year of the NE Ohio Christian Writer’s Conference, we offered open mic time, where people could read either published or unpublished work. I commented briefly after each piece, as the facilitator of the open mic hour, but I provided only positive feedback. One participant, for example, had written about how embarrassed she had been by her stuttering as a child – and I let her know what a beautiful voice she had. A poet got lost in the rhythms of his poem as he read and I let him know that I could actually hear the beat of the drum as he spoke; the tempo was that enthralling.
So, how did this method of open mic interaction work out? Initially, it helped ease people’s nerves and made for an upbeat experience. There was no need to fear being blindsided or embarrassed by a comment made, since I was the only one giving them and they focused on the best of each piece of work. Afterwards, though, some people said they started wishing for more – with “more” meaning advice on what to improve.
What are your thoughts? What is most helpful to you? Please leave comments!