• October 20, 2014

Did We All Read the Same Manuscript?

It’s not unusual, when workshopping a piece of writing, to end up with lots of contradictory critiques

Careers Writing

Brian Taylor

At the end of a recent faculty meeting, I proudly proffered a box of my homemade fudge. My colleagues immediately questioned its provenance since I don’t cook. Ever. No, I insisted, I made it, but I need you to "workshop" it for me.

In writing programs, we use that word as a noun to name the courses where students read and evaluate one another’s unpublished (sometimes unpolished) essays, poems, and stories. But we also use it as a verb to describe the process of critique. Workshopping is the fat base of the food pyramid of writing programs.

As far as my fudge goes, I asked because I really wanted to know if it was any good. When I am invited to a potluck I break out in a cold sweat because I never know what to bring. When someone told me about a way to make fudge with three ingredients and a microwave, I thought it might provide an alternative to hyperventilating at the grocery store. To make the recipe my own, I added marshmallows and walnuts.

Here are my colleagues’ assessments of the fudge: One gushed about how good it was, ate six pieces, and asked for more. One said: "Lose the white stuff. What’s the white stuff? (Mini marshmallows.) Not enough nuts." One said: "Too many nuts." Another one said: "I’ll just take a tiny piece. It’s sweet. I would make it with darker chocolate."

I also offered some to graduate students. One of them passed on the fudge and seemed suspicious; I’m not her cup of tea. Another student took a bite and gave a thoughtful analysis of the composition: The walnuts were a little mushy; perhaps it could use some crunch. Maybe almonds. Or sprinkle sea salt on the top? Some dried fruit? What about pretzels? Would pretzels work in fudge? A number of other students just grabbed and scarfed. They’re in grad school, they have no money, so they wolfed it down without comment.

And there you have it: My fudge had been workshopped in spectacularly typical fashion. Those were exactly the kinds of varied responses I often see in our workshop classes.

And I, the fudge fabricator, was left with no clear idea of what to do to make it "better." I was going to have to decide whose opinion I most trusted. That is: Who said the things most like what I wanted to hear? Which critique was closest to my vision of what constitutes the Platonic ideal of fudge?

As writers, we do most of our workshopping in the plein air of the classroom where you eventually learn how each person is going to react. You get to know their prejudices and predilections. (I had suspected that the foodiest of my colleagues would object to the marshmallows, though I wouldn’t have predicted he would say he didn’t know what they were.)

Academic peer review, on the other hand, mostly works in veiled, anonymous, and sometimes mysterious ways. You are denied the pleasure of dismissing complaints based on what you know about the complainer.

When I was an editor of scholarly books, I would frequently be in the position of having in hand two reader’s reports that appeared to discuss two completely different works even though they were about the same manuscript. Where one reader saw only mounds of delightful marshmallows, the other focused on the nuts. I would tell the manuscript’s writer: You don’t have to agree with the critiques, but you do have to answer them, either in a response to the editorial board or in the manuscript itself—or sometimes, in both places.

It’s possible, though often rhetorically tricky, to nod toward the various and sometimes opposing camps and still craft the argument you want to make. Often simply acknowledging in the manuscript the roads you’re not taking, especially if the one you opt for is not as well trod, will make all the difference. Rather than being dismissed as an oversight, your choice will be viewed as a deliberate decision.

Of course, doing that on the page while not taking up too much valuable space and losing the thread (or the reader) requires careful work. How can you do it well? There’s no recipe, unfortunately, that works in all cases. The best approach: Study carefully the authors you admire and see how they handle it.

Responding to wrongheaded, ideological, or just plain silly suggestions is a delicate task. The editor and the editorial board may pay more attention to the letterhead of the reviewer than the comments he or she makes, especially if they’re not totally conversant with the schisms and political wrangling in your sub-sub-subfield.

So dealing with a recommendation that seems at face value trivial (Cite me! Cite my friends!) may necessitate taking some deep breaths, running a hard 10 miles, or ranting to someone far removed from the process. It’s a mistake to be pissy and flippant when faced with criticism. I told my authors that they didn’t have to agree with the reader’s reports, but they did have to engage in a serious way with the critiques. Doing so may require waiting long enough for the sting to fade.

In a dissertation defense it can be even trickier to balance the contradictory opinions, especially if the marshmallow advocates and the nut eaters can’t stand each other. If the nut people think those who like the white stuff are fluffy and unserious, and if there is a history of bitterness between the camps, things can get uncomfortable. Unsuspecting students who haven’t yet lost their intellectual innocence may not know how to take criticism that could have little to do with their own work; they might not be well versed enough in the hostile territory to see the dangers of wading into the fudge wars. At this point, you can only hope that your thesis adviser will be able to step in, though if she’s a sea-salt partisan and the other members of the committee don’t like savory with their sweet, that can present its own problems.

In my classroom, before I have students participate in the critique portion of the workshop process, I ask each person to say what he or she thinks the piece is about. (When I’m workshopping with fellow professors, I ask everyone in the group to recap the author’s argument.) That allows the writer to see the ways in which her intention is not coming through clearly enough, and also to know who can see her fudge as fudge, who wants it to be a truffle, and who thinks it seems like a piece of cake.

As a writer, having such insights about what to expect from readers is probably not enough to stave off unhelpful or even potentially hurtful comments, but can provide a framework to understand their suggestions.

Most people who teach the workshop process are, I think, ambivalent about it. They see its value as well as its potential for damage. When I teach it, I have rules. No one gets to say, "I want" about someone else’s work—as in "I want to hear more about the grandmother." It’s not about what you want, I tell them. It’s about what’s going on in the piece. Asking people to rephrase their critiques can help to keep them focused on what the writer is trying to do, rather than on how they would write the same piece.

Much depends on the composition of the group. Students who feel competitive with one another can reach deep to say nasty negative things about pieces that are, as far as I’m concerned, truly fine. Alternately, when there are really weak submissions, sometimes caring friends heap elaborate and unwarranted praise on them.

One of the best things you can hope to get out of graduate school is a cohort of readers—and it may be small—who get exactly what you’re trying to do and will be able to help you get there. Once you find those readers, hold onto them for life.

As much as I love editorial feedback, when it comes to fudge, I’m sticking with my three main ingredients plus marshmallows and walnuts. Some things are just a matter of taste.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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