David Puerner's picture
David Puerner from Sacramento, Ca is reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey April 3, 2014 - 4:36pm

So I'm wondering if this might be a good thread for new members. I've seen a couple new-member posts, and while there's good writing it's also a bit underdeveloped. I've seen you offer some really good feedback for these folks, but I've also seen that maybe a few of them are disheartened, because they're not getting the kind of reaction they'd maybe hoped for.

I think this has a lot to do with expectations. The seasoned members are wanting to critique more polished work rather than first drafts (I think), and the new members are so excited by the prospect of sharing their work with some new peers that they jump the gun and offer something up that is a little undercooked.

My question is, what do you think a piece ready to be critiqued looks like, and is it more or less polished? What's your preference? (I think this might be good so that new members don't rush into using those 15 points unwisely... I've certainly been there!)

So what do you think?

Matt A.'s picture
Matt A. April 4, 2014 - 10:45am

I think pieces should be crafted to a coherent story--a 75% solution, I guess. Finished enough that the reader understands at least the author's intent. If there's no clear beginning, middle, and end, and if there is a lot of confusion and plot holes, it's hard to know what to offer up.

Workshopping should be after you're relatively satisfied that you've hit most of the wickets as far as plot, structure, characters, adequate dialogue, etc. If you know there's a major issue with the story still, I guess it's okay to still post it and see if that is confirmed through feedback, but I know that I'm a little quick on the trigger when posting stories and I kick myself later knowing I had a major fault and feel like I've wasted peoples time (and my points).

I would say it shouldn't be the first draft, but "first drafts" may be completely different animals between different authors. I know my first draft would NOT be ready for a workshop. Too messy.

That's not to say you have to have a perfect story. If you think an ending is week or you're not sure if a certain aspect will bore a reader, you can note those issues in the "author's agenda" section so that you can get feedback on that particular issue.

One problem I think is that feedback focuses on the wrong things. One example is that recently I got a LBL back and every use of "is" "was" "were" etc were crossed out and one of the first and biggest points of feedback was too many "passive verbs." While I agree that those should be limited in use, I don't figure the purpose of a workshop is to focus on grammar (unless the grammar is so bad that it bogs down the story). I think editing is a completely different stage (maybe they overlap a little) from workshopping. When I submit a piece for workshopping, I want feedback on the star categories (concept, structure, character, and dialogue).

Anyway, I'm def not some writing rockstar--these are just my humble opinions.


Linda's picture
Linda from Sweden is reading Fearful Symmetries April 4, 2014 - 12:04pm

I generally don't mind commenting on language and grammar issues in my LBLs, and I certainly appreciate it when people take the time to comment on such issues in my own submissions. The reason it's so useful to me is that I make an effort to submit polished stories. If there's a grammatical error or awkward sentence in there, it's likely flying under my radar, and I need help detecting (and destroying!!!) it. The example you (Doug) bring up with the "passive verbs" LBL, I think that can be useful as well. Not saying a critique should focus solely on something like that, but chances are the writer has a bad habit that he or she isn't aware of (and may or may not recognize as such).

If you've done the best you can, I'm happy to read it and try to be as helpful as I can, regardless of the state of the thing. What I don't like is sloppy submissions. Submitting an early draft for feedback is ok, but calling something a 'first draft' doesn't make it ok to submit something that isn't tolerable to read because you haven't even bothered to go over it and fix basic issues. I should say I don't see a lot of these submissions here, especially compared to some other workshops I've been in, but it happens. 

In the end, the state of the story when you submit it will dictate to some degree the kind of feedback you're likely to get. If you don't want people to comment on language and grammar, make sure the language and grammar is as good as you can make it. Explicitly stating in the 'author's agenda' that you're not looking for comments on these issues because it's an early draft might be an option, but personally I find it hard to concentrate on broader issues if the language is in a bad state.

I want to stress that no one should feel they can't submit something out of fear that it's somehow not good enough. We're all in there to improve.

Edit: Damn, I sound antagonistic. I could find a happy song on YouTube and activate AutoPlay, but it probably wouldn't help my case.


Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books April 4, 2014 - 12:26pm

This is a difficult question. Everyone has different levels of what they feel is "good enough" or "polished" and everyone has different levels of what they feel is helpful criticism or nitpicking.

Whenever I submit, it's mainly to test the waters and see if I'm near enough to pub submission phase on a piece I'm questioning.

Plenty of others submit for their own reasons, though. Maybe someone wants to test the waters on an idea or maybe they've been rejected seven times and can't pinpoint what the problem is.

I'd say it's important for the author to express exactly what they want from a piece. If there's stipulations in place, the critic should focus on those.

If nothing is communicated by the writer, then it's a free for all.

Matt A.'s picture
Matt A. April 4, 2014 - 1:25pm

Well said, Angel and Linda.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 4, 2014 - 7:54pm

Most times I won't bother with someone new because they just don't get the workshop; it is intended to make the work better not heap priase on you.  So if you point out real issues (plot holes major and minor, way it could worded better, general guidelines it would be better to follow in their case, whatever) instead of saying some version of 'GRRRRRRRREAAAT!' the odds of them reacting poorly is high.  I've had this happen on several occasions when the over all rating of the story was (average) 4+ stars.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal April 5, 2014 - 9:18am


The ego is a funny thing, isn't it?  This is human nature for 95% of people, I'd estimate.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 5, 2014 - 12:05pm

Not during the first draft. Seriously, you might be surprised how many idiots don't get that.

Either they are wanting to bitch about your unwritten work, or flood you with their own un needed flights of ideas for your story.

Even in third draft, be leery about those that make whole sale plot changes. This is one reason I will absolutely never collaborate.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong April 8, 2014 - 10:21am

The Writers Workshop doesn't really set any expectations in terms or requirements. In contrast, a real workshop will provide guidelines for what kind of state a submission should be in. The way the Writers Workshop is set up is great in the sense that you can use it for seeking help at any stage of a story's development. This is where the Agenda box comes in, and it's underutilized and, as far as I can tell, sometimes ignored by readers.

Personally, I don't know that I'd ever bring one of my stories to a workshop if it wasn't the best I could make it, but depending on what kind of help you'd like, an early draft may be great to bring in. But make use of the Agenda. Specify what kind of help you're looking for. Don't be afraid to give people some direction. I could see many occasions where you might like to get some thoughts on your kitchen renovation even if the living room is still in shambles. What if what you do in the living room is dependent on what you do in the kitchen?

I think a piece that's ready to be critiqued can look like anything, but I agree egos and expectations need to be checked. For writers, remember we're offering feedback on your work, not you as a person. For readers, if they don't want you to look at the mess in the living room, focus on the kitchen.

justwords's picture
justwords from suburb of Birmingham, AL is reading The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson; A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby April 8, 2014 - 4:18pm


I haven't submitted anyting yet, but I think that is excellent advice TJ. I like the analogy you made.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 8, 2014 - 5:36pm

@Tim -

Personally, I don't know that I'd ever bring one of my stories to a workshop if it wasn't the best I could make it...

I have, when I thought would take me weeks to get to that improvement and workshoping it let me do that in a few days.

But make use of the Agenda.

I am of the mind set that if they won't do that it shouldn't even be reviewed.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong April 9, 2014 - 6:38am

@Dwayne, sure, I totally see value in bringing a story to the workshop even if it's not the best you can make it, and I'd encourage people to do so just for the reason you've given. It's just not how I work, though. Maybe that's a personal fault. I also tend to get attached to things, so changing them after getting some feedback can be hard, even when I agree about their flaws. Maybe I should force myself to bring an early draft of something in there.

As for ignoring people who don't use the agenda, I'm not sure. I mean, if someone's gotten a story as polished as they can make it and just want to see what readers react to without influencing their experience, including any kind of agenda could be a detriment.

Your use of the word "reviewed" is interesting, too. There's a whole other component of the workshop we're not even touching on here, and it's that the workshop sort of fosters this sense that we're "reviewing" work, which might give people the impression that this should be 100% final drafts. For instance, the star rating system. While I think it's great that it serves a function to let readers know what they're getting into, it also has this natural effect of promoting a kind of "achievement hunting." We want those five stars on our work, so we can feel good about ourselves. Applying this to a real workshop, for instance, in a classroom setting, the star rating system would be like grading students on the quality of their rough drafts.

I'm really not a fan of this. We're not reviewing work in the workshop. We're reading critically and offering constructive feedback.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 9, 2014 - 12:06pm

I'm not doing workshop stuff at the moment because I'm simply not making time for it, but when I am doing it I'll look at just about anything any anyone. If beginners don't really get that it's about improvement and not praise then they've got to learn it from someone, so a seasoned cynic like me might as well contribute to their learning curve. 

I don't think it matters what stage a submission is at as long as the person submitting makes a reviewer aware so they can see it for what it is. I try to review according to what stage someone says a story is at (from first draft to ready for submission) and I look at what's in the agenda and try to answer it as best I can. I actually like it when people don't really put much in there and say words to the effect of 'I'm not going to guide you, just give me any response.' It means I have to think for myself rather than within someone else's guidelines, and that can be a challenge to me as the reviewer.

One problem with workshops can often be that reviewers can be as touchy as the writer submitting their work. I try to remember that my advice won't always be taken, however good I think it is and however many problems I think I've spotted in someone else's work. It's always tempting to review a piece and think that because I'm picking someone else up on a particular problem I surely can't be making it, but this simply isn't true. Since I started this 18 months ago I've learned that I might as well take my ego out of the equation when reviewing as well. I don't always get the 3 points despite all efforts and sometimes I piss people off. It simply doesn't matter. Just like the star rating system (which frankly is pretty useless and I'm all for removing it -  it's the feedback that's important and not the grade; we're not in school anymore), review points have a way of clouding judgement (Yeah I see why they're needed in terms of reviewing other people's work before you can submit your own, and  I do like ringing them up as a personal achievement and I'm all for keeping them, even though they mean very little.)




Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 10, 2014 - 7:01pm


...if someone's gotten a story as polished as they can make it and just want to see what readers react to without influencing their experience...

The goal is fine, but tell me that.  Literally, just cut and paste those words with appropriate grammar and we're good. 

Your use of the word "reviewed" is interesting, too. There's a whole other component of the workshop

I'm just using the word 'reviewed' to mean 'read and replied to'. 

For instance, the star rating system.

Which I for one hate, as is.  I've gave people average ratings that came out to a little over a one or two to stories I loved because I felt the story worked great despite flaws in those areas and gave almost 5s to stories I didn't care for because it was strong in those areas.  I'd love if there was 'overall' and 'other' category.