Creative Writing Rant: How to Read (My) Workshop Critiques
If you ever work with me in the workshop, you will have to process my critical responses to your writing. Some students feel overwhelmed by my responses, find them incredibly negative, but please understand that I live for the moments when I may unabashedly praise my students! However, I shall never praise you unless praise is truly warranted; more importantly, I’ll never level negative criticism unless it, too, is truly warranted.
Allow me to try to contextualize my critical responses, positive and negative:
Writers, all artists but I think writers in particular, must, with rare exceptions, process much negative criticism. Every writer has received rejection letters from literary journals. When one begins a writing career, those letters—just slips of paper, in most instances (though, alas, over the past few years they’ve arrived through the Internet ether)—pile up rapidly! And it is very rare indeed that an editor will give any explanation at all as to why they rejected your story, essay, or poem. To say that a writer must have, figuratively speaking, thick skin is an understatement.
I feel that it is my job, in part, to prepare you for the world of writers as that world, that complex social network, actually exists, at least as I understand it to exist from my more than forty years of living among writers and the books they produce. It is certainly not my job to discourage anyone from being a writer! It is simply my duty to be honest and compassionate.
Okay, that’s the overview; now let’s get practical. Here are some of the comments I interpolate into student drafts and what they mean (you will find they are similar to those of many creative writing instructors):
When I interpolate “fragment” into your text it is because at that precise point you have given the reader a linguistic unit that is not an independent clause, which means that it is not a complete sentence. Yes, some very good writers make a virtue of positing the occasional sentence fragment for dramatic effect; I strongly recommend that you avoid such constructions.
When I interpolate “comma splice” into your writing, it’s because you have placed a comma where a period or a semicolon should be. Again, there are some very fine writers who make a virtue of this usage error; but you should avoid making this mistake.
Muddled, or muddled construction:
This one’s not as obvious, or as easy to explain, as the first two above. Usually it means simply that there is something fundamentally wrong with a sentence construction, and that can be anything from a lack of subject-verb agreement to one or more pronoun-agreement ambiguities. “Muddled” is simply a catch word for “Something is terribly wrong here!” Often, explaining the mechanics of what may be wrong with a muddled construction will simply take too long; all I can do is point at the problem and insist that you read it over numerous times until you begin to “hear” what is wrong, or at least that something is indeed wrong. I’ve likened this to jazz musicians who can’t read music but can “hear” complex aural structures and so are able to “fix” infelicities in extemporaneous compositions. You must learn to be like jazz musicians who can’t read music (reading it being the equivalent, I guess, of knowing grammar really, really well!), but who can correct performance errors.
Awkward, or awkward construction:
An awkward construction is one that may not be technically ungrammatical, but that is clearly not as economically and/or as clearly phrased as it could have been. Yes, this is a judgment call, but I’m rarely wrong when I offer this judgment; usually, a student may cut and/or rearrange words to communicate more clearly, succinctly. Sometimes simply shifting a sentence from the passive to the active voice will render it less awkward.
When I place a word or phrase in brackets and write “cut” I mean, quite literally, that that unit can be, should be, taken out. Getting in the habit of cutting superfluous verbiage will improve your writing by fifty percent (well, a lot, anyway).
Those of you composing fiction are most susceptible to this fundamental problem, though writers of personal essays are also known to commit this sin. So, what is melodrama? It’s an expression of emotion that seems incommensurate with its occasion, or that seems, in anyway, dishonest.
Some of you, for example, began your stories or essays describing in great detail (actually, in a couple of cases, excruciating detail) someone moving from point A to point B. There is obviously something wrong/threatening regarding the character’s circumstance, but we, the readers, simply can’t tell what that may be. Or, we do have some idea of what is wrong/threatening regarding the character’s predicament, but whatever that may be simply doesn’t seem to warrant the expressions of dread/fear/disgust by which that predicament is signified.
Well, if you don’t know what this means, you’re in trouble, but knowing what a cliché is does not mean that you will always avoid dropping one snack-dab in the middle of a paragraph. I mean, sometimes those little vermin will crawl into our sentences and build nests! They can be as tough as nails, and assume that the sun revolves around them. Some writers seem as though they’ve never met a cliché they didn’t like! There are four clichés in this paragraph. Can you spot them?