Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Get critiqued. Not too much. Mostly peers. by Ariella Papa

(Much credit given to Michael Pollan who writes in his book In Defense of Food: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.)

I stopped taking workshops because I think too many workshops can stop you from the task at hand--writing the effing book.
But before I ever got published, I took quite a few workshops through the New School here in NYC. In several classes I offered to be the teacher’s assistant. This meant that I picked up her mail from the main office so that I could get a tuition discount and afford the course.
Three people per session handed out physical copies of their work to be read over the week and then we all discussed it the following week and gave written notes.
The fact that the teacher was getting physical mail and we were making hard copies shows you how long ago this was.
I got a lot out of these classes, because there were so many different levels of writers and it was such a diverse group.  I love reading, so I loved reading other people’s work and in each class I quickly found authors whose work resonated with me. I enjoyed seeing what my favorite writers thought of my work, but I also learned quite a bit from the comments of people who I didn’t think were as talented.
There is always a question of personalities in a classroom. Some people just like to hear themselves talk, others won’t say a word unless pressed, but none of that really mattered when it came to the actual substance of writing. I learned when I was critiquing others to always start with something positive. And I learned to clarify any criticism that came my way if I didn’t understand it.
There is a lot to be learned from both good and bad writing. And I valued the democracy in those workshops. We weren’t all writing from the same genre, so we had to make our pieces as strong as possible for a general audience.
There is also something to be said for having a deadline to have something completed. It’s a fantastic motivator.
But the best thing about these workshops was the access to the teachers who were actual authors and the agents and industry professionals who came to the class. In a sense it demystified the whole publishing thing for me. I can do this, I thought. And I did.
Many of the people in those classes with me went on to be writers of different types. Some even surpassed the levels of those who taught us. Right now one of them is on the New York Times bestseller list and has been for a long time. While her talent was always there, I’m sure she gained some insights into her writing from the class and improved her rough drafts enough to secure a big deal.
I’ve been reading my Girlfriends write about their own critique groups with envy.  These small groups are a whole different animal than what I did. Someday maybe someday soon I would like to gather a smaller group together of like-minded (but not too similar) writers and work stuff out. These days I rely on the advice of a few trusted readers and people I know in the industry. But a devoted group with rules and goals sounds fantastic.
So if you are struggling with a work that you have never shared and you are serious about doing this find a workshop and get some feedback. And if you are a writer who is stuck on something or just wants some good ole fashioned camaraderie and critiques check out the previous posts from Wendy, Sheila, Laura and Lauren about how to get it. They have helped me think about how to go about my process in the future.
But whichever road you choose, keep your eyes on the prize. Get writing and write the effing book.

Ariella Papa started writing her most recently released novel A Semester Abroad in a workshop a long time ago. In the meantime, she wrote and published four other novels. Everything benefits from a good critique.


  1. Great post, Ariella! As for the Pollan, I'm more: "Drink beverages. Not too much. Mostly wine." I'm pretty good with two out of three of those.

    1. Thank you!
      I might have to embroider the two you're good at on a pillow. It's a great slogan.

  2. Ariella, your experience with the New School is quite interesting. And I do agree that there can be a danger in relying too much on workshops or critique groups, which will prevent some writers from finishing that effing book!

    1. Thank you.
      It really sounds like you have ideal situation.

  3. The best advice is always to just write! Great post, Ariella!!

  4. Love the post. I get paralyzed in workshops that focus more on publishing than on writing--it just feeds my anxiety that nothing I write will ever be good enough. That's why I became a big fan of Pat Schneider's "Writing Alone and With Others"--it takes into account the publishing angle, but it emphasizes generating writing.

    Most of all, I like her bottom line question: Ask yourself whether the group makes you want to write more or less. If the answer is "less," it's not the group for you.

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