The Spectrum of Opinion: How to Critique in Workshop

Eventually, we all find ourselves sitting at a table reviewing another writer’s work, and first and foremost, you need to realize that you’re not out for blood. Everyone has their own style of writing, if you weren’t aware of this by now. Not everyone’s going to write a short story the same way you are, and they won’t write about the same things that you will. And so arises the most difficult thing to overcome when critiquing—opinion. Opinion is what makes us feel the way we do about a piece. Without it, critique is impossible. But too much opinion can turn that simple table into a cutting board where a stories are torn apart and cover with bloody streak marks of red ink. Maybe I took that metaphor a little too far. I apologize for sounding harsh, but the severity of workshop must be recognized. I’ve seen too many stories die at the hands of overwhelming opinions during a critique. The reason opinions are so hard to overcome is because it is easier to articulate negative criticism, and much more difficult to elaborate on constructive feedback. The two are very different, but opinions required for both. In order to successfully workshop without losing a fellow writer’s friendship in the process, one must comprehend and analyze their own interpretations (also known as opinion).

Before I jump into the how to process, I’d just like to explain the idea behind the spectrum of one’s opinion. To be frank, it’s very unbalanced and easily agitated. It’s human nature to defend our own thoughts. Perspective is one of the many tools to help even the scale. When one considers someone else’s opinion, they might be more willing to accept it, and less likely to tear it down. But looking back at that spectrum, there are of course two sides: the positive and the negative. The positive is our positive response to what we read or hear. The negative is just the opposite. Very simple. The reason this applies to workshopping is because it’s important not to tip the scale too much. You should not bombard the writer with negative criticism. Sooner or later, the writer’s going to hit their breaking point where they feel too hurt or too self-conscious to keep working on their piece. Remember to maintain balance. Somewhere across your spectrum there has to be something positive to say, or something interesting you found, or something you connected to. Comprehending your opinion begins by sorting out what you liked, and what you didn’t. Analyzing is understanding why.

The most repeated phrases I’ve heard throughout all of my workshops are, “I liked it,” and, “I thought it was good.” I just spent over two hundred words trying to convince you why you should use positive feedback to fully elaborate on your opinion. After you find something worth mentioning, the next step is being able to explain why you felt the way you did. Those two phrases I mentioned are NOT sufficient positive critiques, and this applies to negative as well. The reply to those and all generic writing responses is, ‘Why?’ Why do you feel that a piece is good or bad—interesting or boring—confusing or relatable? Those statements are all opinions, but they had to have come from somewhere for some reason. The basics to a successful workshop are all centered on the explanation of opinions.

Now that we all know to constructively articulate our opinions, are you truly ready to take a seat at that table? Whether you are or are not, I still need to draw a line here. There is a limit to how much feedback one can give. First and foremost, it’s a whole lot harder to start from scratch than it is to just make a few revisions and come back sooner rather than later. If one offers too much feedback, the writer may become overwhelmed. They’ll be left with a ton of comments and only one brain to process them all, good and bad. The question changes from, ‘What do I need to fix?’ and it becomes, ‘What do I fix first?’ But even setting all negative criticism aside, too much positive can also work against the point of workshop. We end up with a piece that is absolutely perfect. I don’t believe in perfect. Therefore, workshops are not workshops if there isn’t some form of constructive criticism.

My final suggestion is to remember whose story it is. But hijack a piece and begin an extensive counter-story that you feel would be better. The writer wrote it for a reason, and they came for a response on their story, not a version of your own. Once again, that’s another form of opinion, and while some people enjoy that kind of feedback, keep it to a minimum. Everyone is different, so feel the workshopping waters as you begin the writing process. Find people that you work well with and offer suggestions to those that you know see eye to eye with you. If a friend of yours loves getting tons of new ideas and versions of stories during workshop, have at it. Just remember to balance your thoughts and understand where they’re coming from.

Believe me, there are going to be times where that table is surrounded by hungry sharks ready to feed off of what a story lacks. The reason we should consider our opinions in a more balanced way is because sooner or later our work is going to be sitting under the microscope. We wouldn’t workshop if we weren’t writers ourselves, and it always feels easier to walk away knowing there is still hope for another draft, and perhaps even another. So long as there are opinions to be shared, there is a story to be told.


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