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give a little, get a lot
how to benefit from workshopping and others’ opinions
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

I’m not a know-it-all, but what I know, I know.

For example, I know that I’m one of the few who not only gives good constructive criticism, but also accepts it well. This skill has developed through years of practice and observation.

The keyword here is constructive. If you’re any kind of Artist, you’re constantly building something. Ideas are always in motion. Inspiration is a mere beat of a gnat’s wing away.

When the time comes to present your current development to others -– and you’ll know it’s the right time, because you’re either

1) tired of it to some degree and/or
2) tingly about it --

that’s when the toothpick walls come tumbling down. Because many Artists build something for the first time, wave a hand and say, "Brilliant!"

And then turn to someone else and ask what s/he thinks, while handing her/him a form which reads:

Please Check One:
-Unbleepinbelievable. This replaces sex.

So when the other person doesn't check one and actually has a different opinion, The Artist flips out.

Frankly, you shouldn’t request the opinions of others if you’re not welcoming feedback. This isn't a “Mom! Mom! Look! Moooom! Hey mom! Look!” moment, as you’re no longer “this many” and fingerpainting the basset hound: no one is required to pay attention.

But part of the problem lies with the fact that we rarely hear constructive criticism anyway. Be it a bad boss (of which there are many) or someone not caring enough about the process, the wrong people have a tendency to dole out noxious negativity and that's what sticks to us, so our natural inclination is to wipe it on someone else.

Using what I know, I aim to put the constructive back into criticism, both the giving and the getting. This is a little primer on how to make the most of your writing workshop, artist’s retreat, group songwriting session, film seminar or quilt block review at the St. Luigi of Our Holy Creation Baptist Revival and Candlelight Vigil.

Speak of the work as its own entity. We all know it’s not personal and we’re not to take it personally but hey, you know what? Creation is personal. Don’t address the creator if at all possible, but do speak of the work as you make your comments.

Yes: I felt this piece was very vibrant –- the colors are vivid and it seems The Artist was going for a feeling of excitement.
No: Nice way to empty out your paint tubes, Jackson.

Find something, anything, positive first. Mean people suck. So as a reviewer, if you step out of yourself for a moment, you will find something positive about the work. Maybe it’s the language, the bold strokes, the lighting, the variance of drum strikes. Give it sincere thought so you can present it the same way.

Yes: I really liked the way the bass holds up the bottom end –- no holes there.
No: The bass on the fourth measure was nice. Otherwise…

A note about the word nice. Nice is not acceptable unless you really emphasize it with the right tone and inflection. Your Aunt Mabel is nice, mainly because she put one of your fingerpainted drawings on her 'fridge. Other people’s creations deserve more than nice.

Give detailed feedback. This follows the rule about nice. Without the details, it's obvious you didn't invest the time to review the material seriously. This will scorch you raw if someone does it to you, so keep that in mind.

Which brings us to:

You have to give to get. It’s karma -– the more dedication you give, the more you’ll get back. Last summer, there was a member of my weeklong workshop who rarely volunteered comments on anyone else’s work and then her responses were lame at best. She also spent all week writing her story, based on the critique she heard of others, so she could present a “masterpiece” at the end of the week.

Was it? Not quite. And most of us dreaded to comment on it.

In addition, I had a hard time separating the me-monkey author from the evil me-monkey character in the piece -– I thought them to be one and the same, based on the selfish, non-participatory behavior displayed by the author during the workshop.

Kind of like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. You don’t want to think of every character she portrays as a bunny boiler, but you just can’t shake that image.

You have to be willing to open up to the work of others if you’re going to learn anything. In a workshop situation, a non-contributor like this brings everyone down. And truly, if you respect the art form and participate for the common good, everybody wins: you, others in the workshop, Aunt Mabel. Everybody.

Don’t defend –- ask questions. If you’re constantly defending your work, especially in the early stages, you think you have it all figured out. And you know what? You probably do. You're chief of Artist Island, so why share anything with anyone and become a peninsula? If you don't care about the opinions of others, don't ask for them.

If the reader/listener/viewer doesn’t respond like you hoped, it’s your responsibility to figure out why. Maybe they have guano for brains and just don’t understand. There's always one person like that. But if there's consensus on an issue, there might be a communication link down. Listening to your tapped audience will help you find the connection.

And that’s why we create: to make a connection. Don’t spoonfeed me slivers of avant-garde under a black light and expound on the fact that you don't want to lessen your creation by exposing it to the masses. “This many.” Basset hound. You’ve always wanted attention, but what you crave is the connection. You want someone to “get it.”

It’s okay. Really.

Enough with the self-deprecation. It’s not attractive. Every person lacks confidence at some point. But to present your work with the intro “Oh, this really sucks” or “Well, everyone is so much better at this than me…” or “It’s apparent I have many, many more drafts to go” is like strapping twin mattresses to your body with a phone cord and duct tape while screaming “Please don’t hurt me as I am so fragile!” as you run willy-nilly down a crowded sidewalk.

There’s a wafer-thin line between that being endearing vs. annoying.

We are all in process. So it’s your first draft -– big deal. You’ve finished that much, didn’t you? So you’re working out the chord progression and only have this much on tape so far –- so what.

Point A: You’re done with phase one and now you’re ready for the next stage.
Point B: By being more accepting of the second and third stages, both as creators and reviewers, we continue to have forward motion.

So, when presenting something new:

Yes: This is the first phase, and I’m looking for feedback on X,Y and Z so I can move forward.
No: Oh my God, I know I’ll have to do this a million times -– I so suck at da–da –da…

Tell me again how much you suck and I just might believe you.

When reviewing something, ask what stage the work is in and what The Artist specifically wants from you. Dedicate yourself to the process of progress –- again, you might learn something about your own work.

A real current of passion passes through a room of creative types, whose focus that hour or day or week is to improve what they love to do, to challenge themselves to reach a little further for the right word, that perfect note, the ideal fade, that sensational color. Workshopping with like minds is a rare gift that fosters unity and fills the soul.

So use this handy pocket guide as a way to fill each soul with constructive, positive energy, because it will come back to you.

Just when you need it the most.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


greetings, past
living a moment of forgiveness and murder
by tracey l. kelley
topic: general
published: 12.29.06

fireflies in a jar
summertime, and the livin’ is easy
by tracey l. kelley
topic: general
published: 6.26.03


sandra thompson
5.29.06 @ 10:07a

That was enough to make me want to run out and sign up for the nearest workshop. Great advice, well expressed. You definitely don't suck, Tracey.

jael mchenry
5.30.06 @ 8:50a

This is awesome: particularly "give to get" and "don't defend." I've been in so many workshops where the author's response to a criticism is to argue about why it is the way it is. The whole idea of workshop is to have an open mind, and if your reader is questioning something, you should question it too. You don't necessarily have to change it, but you should be open to the possibility.

jason gilmore
5.30.06 @ 9:05p

Great job Tracey,

The only person whose constructive criticism I do argue with is my wife. Mostly because I know she'll let me get away with it. But most times, I'm just so thankful for honest, truthful criticism of my work that all I can say is "Thank you."

russ carr
6.1.06 @ 1:57p

Dovetailing with the "Don't Defend" section -- or specifically this paragraph:

If the reader/listener/viewer doesn’t respond like you hoped, it’s your responsibility to figure out why. Maybe they have guano for brains and just don’t understand. There's always one person like that. But if there's consensus on an issue, there might be a communication link down. Listening to your tapped audience will help you find the connection.

The second, understated thing here is, don't rely on just one voice when you're being critiqued. If you get said guano-for-brains guy, and let his words dwell on your soul too deeply, it's the writer's equivalent of a Jeff Gillooly knee-whack. One person can leave you hobbling, insecure and frustrated. It's crucial to get more than one opinion, and the more eyes you have on your work, the better. And if someone asks you to read her stuff, make sure you encourage her to farm it out to others as well so she can reap the benefits of more than one reader's perspective.

jael mchenry
6.1.06 @ 2:03p

Different voices at different points in the process are key. I was thinking about workshopping the opening chapter to the novel I'm working on... for a third time. A couple of my longtime readers smartly said, "Um, that's a stupid idea." It's too far along for new eyes on that particular bit to be useful.

But in the first days of a new piece, especially, 12 pairs of fresh eyes can do just incredible things.

russ carr
6.1.06 @ 2:47p

I would say, though, from experience in IC, particularly, that it can be tough to send out only a small portion of a new piece, particularly if it is just "Chapter One." This is something I continue to wrestle with myself, as I want to perfect things as I go, rather than getting it all out and then going back to fix it. If you're workshopping C1, trying to get it just right before moving on, you might find yourself stuck in a morass of your own devising.

Don't lose momentum. Write at least two chapters before sending out chapter one. That way you've got something to build on while everyone else is reading...you're not stuck waiting on their approval.


brian anderson
6.1.06 @ 2:54p

Tracey, your column is an excellent constructive criticism of people's criticism techniques.

Momentum is *always* a problem for me, Russ. If anything, something like workshopping *helps* because I know I'll have an audience, which is often what gives me the initiative to push the work. Knowing that it may never see the light of day is the best way for me to give up on something.

tracey kelley
6.1.06 @ 4:59p

Thanks, ya'll. I firmly believe in the positive motion of creativity - and it's incredible what an open door leads to.

If someone believes my opinion can make a difference to their work, I'm flattered and take it seriously. I can only hope people I choose to share stuff with considers it the same way.

A writer friend (shout out to Kali! Whoo-hoo! Everyone go buy The Space Between in September!) and I were talking about the "ideal reader" recently -the small group of trusteds that you can share your work with - and at what stages. I think that's a really important part of the process. I told her how I workshopped part of a first chapter with the IM Chat gang and what I needed to analyze (structure) before moving forward.

Now, with the sharp, insightful, dedicated critique I received, I can get it to full-on workshop stage for the workshop I'm about to attend in a couple of weeks.

Speaking of which, I think I might pimp this column in IC at the open mic that week.

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