Pub Rants

Critique Workshopped The Voice Right Out Of There

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STATUS: I’ve had many rounds of civilized tea this morning.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? BEDS ARE BURNING by Midnight Oil

The worst thing you an do when traveling abroad is to succumb to the desire to go to sleep right away on arrival.

The trick to acclimating is to suck it up, stay awake, and try not to hit the pillow until about 7:30 or 8 pm. Then go to sleep and you are, more or less, on schedule for the rest of the trip.

Easier said than done really.

So I rang up Kelley Armstrong who had been on our same flight down. I figured she was valiantly doing the same thing and we could combine forces by going out to dinner.

Can’t say I was the liveliest conversationalist but I think she’ll forgive me. We talked about giving workshops. I’m doing the Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop tomorrow. As you blog readers know, I always start with a big disclaimer. That 99.9% of what I see during the workshop will not be ready for an agent to see.

Never stops folks though. I think deep down in writers’ hearts, they are hoping to be discovered.

Kelley mentioned the same happens to her when she gives writing workshops. She always begins with her disclaimer that she can’t get any of her writer students published. They are hopeful all the same.

She also mentioned that beginning writers will often suppress their natural voices as they become so focused on the mechanics of writing. In short, one’s voice can be critique workshopped out of them if the writer has a quirky style etc. Often times her job is to allow new writers permission to discover their voice again. (Now it’s not to say you ignore craft mechanics, any good writer is going to figure out how to manage both.)

But since I don’t ever teach writing per se, I thought that was pretty interesting and something new writers need to be aware of.

36 Responses

  1. Ted Cross said:

    That is something I worry about a bit. Do I focus so intently on getting everything write in the mechanics that I lose my own voice? I don’t have an answer to that yet.

  2. Mike Koch - Protect The Risen said:

    I work odd hours so I can definitely relate to the ‘jet lag’ feeling and yes pushing through it is sage advice. For me, the hardest part of traveling is finding time to write. It feels odd doing it on the plane with a pair of eyes hanging over your shoulder. Then the late night dinners cramp the hotel time as well, so alas when does one blog, edit, or write. As for finding the balance with voice and mechanics, yep, I would again agree. I wish there was a magic button I could press at the end of a chapter that took care of all my grammatical short comings. As with your previous advice, the trick I’ve found is to ‘suck it up’ and push through the editing process.

  3. Jess Anastasi said:

    I’m at the conference but missed out on getting into this workshop, places filled up quickly! Sounds like its going to be very insightful. Though I imagine some of the feedback will be hard for people to hear. Good luck!

  4. Anne A said:

    Yeah, I’ve seen the voice be critiqued out. I recall recently noticing in an online writers’ site how several new writers diligently followed every piece of advice from their critiquers, and the revisions got progressively more boring. The ‘spark’ of the writers’ individuality vanished, and at the same time, they were praised by each person who saw their fix completed.

    I was once told to stop using a particular sentence construction because, while grammatical, it seemed “consciously affected”. I scrubbed the offending construction from that piece. I noticed it in other pieces, removed it, and halted myself each time I started writing it. Then, I caught myself typing it in emails and found it in documents I had written for work years ago. At that point I decided that it was not “consciously affected” but in fact just the way I write. Not using it was taking a whole lot more conscious effort than just letting my voice out.

    It’s hard to know when to stick to your individual quirks and when to conform — I wonder if writers need to go through a conforming stage in order to find what elements most rankle them, and then let those bits out again as their voice.

  5. June G said:

    How timely. I often feel constrained in my efforts to write “properly” that I’m not staying true to my voice. I’m a little nervous to let the characters be who I instinctively believe they should be. Writing well is a real art and craft that must be honed.

  6. Cindy Little said:

    Great post! I worry a lot about the mechanics of my writing mainly because I DON’T have a background in English–unlike just about every other writer I’ve met! I know the importance of good grammar, but I’ve also run into what I call “grammar snobs” that favor mechanics over all else. Maybe I’m way off here, but I don’t see a problem with taking mechanical liberties from time to time–especially if doing so enhances the story.

  7. Lehcarjt said:

    I’ve seen writer’s get their voiced washed out. It’s usually because they don’t know how to evaluate the advice they are being given so they do everything that everyone is telling them.

    Nine times out of ten, a writer needs to evaluate the advice, figure the heart of the problem themselves (if there really is one) , and solve it their own way.

    IMO, it’s also worth it to spend several months following other people’s critique process (especially online), before posting something of one’s own. That way the poster gets a good feel for the personalities and which ones they regularly agree/disagree with.

    This is also a confidence issue involved.

  8. Sophie Perinot said:

    I think this is SO true and not just of manuscripts. As someone who has participated in an on-line writers community for years and watched people post their query letters for comment, I’ve seen queries made bland by committee. Since voice is, imo, a deal-breaker I think writers have to be very careful not to lose theirs in an avalance of well-intentioned suggestions. In fact I actually blogged about this myself:

  9. Angela Brown said:

    Interesting blog. When I do critiques with my online buddies, I provide the disclaimer that anything I mention is meant to help but that if it doesn’t jive with their voice, they should toss it. Writers have their own voices…and I suppose the best thing is do as mentioned near the end of your blog…find the balance between voice and mechanics.

    And yes, we new writers are slightly hopeful of discovery…hopeful of being that .01%.

  10. Kristin Laughtin said:

    It’s true, and it doesn’t even have to happen in a workshop. My writing was fine grammatically before, but when I really started paying attention to the “rules of writing”, it got pretty dry and boring for a while. It didn’t have the same voice or obvious passion behind it because I was trying to adhere too strictly to guidelines. It takes a while to figure out how to balance voice with craft.

  11. Lucy Woodhull said:

    This happened to me – the “rules” passed from one writer to another, doing their best to cure what wasn’t sick. Once I began trusting in my voice like my gut told me to, I began to have success.

  12. P.N. "Pat" Elrod said:

    Having one’s voice critiqued out of you happened to me in a crit group I anonymously attended a year back. The others in the group read the first pages of a book my agent sold to a major house, and found it to be full of fail.

    Every line that was not Strunk and White perfect got the chop and one even asked me “Who’s your target market?”

  13. Becky Taylor said:

    So true about the staying up to adjust. In another life I was an international flight attendant for United…I lived in a perpetual state of jet lag.

    As to voice, critiques, mechanics…I think very seasoned writers eventually get to the place where they can feel what feedback is either
    1.dead on
    2.somewhat helpful in a modified form
    3.coming from someone who just doesn’t get it

    I think it’s a matter of having enough confidence and insight into what you are doing to not just get blown away by every strong winded opinion.

    And, for the record, I’m not there yet.

  14. Anonymous said:

    Yes, on the voice getting critiqued out of you – I wouldn’t stop using critique groups, but I’ve learned I don’t have to take every comment into account – only if what is said resonates with me or shows that what’s in my head isn’t making it onto the page.

    As for hoping to be discovered in workshops, well, yes, there’s that secret hope that beats in everyone’s heart, but realistically, I’ve always done workshops for professional feedback – finding out what I’m doing that isn’t hitting the mark. That’s priceless. (But I’ve also learned not to do too many workshops as well. They can become a false victory, a substitute for real achievement in writing, if that makes sense.)


  15. Lisa Hall-Wilson said:

    I learning to express your unique voice takes a lot of hard work, self-discipline and dedication to getting better at the craft of writing. I think slogging through a lot of good and bad critiques is all part of the process. It helped me learn to purposely choose every word and know why I used it. Voice developed from that after a lot more hard work.
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. Lucy said:

    Watching this happen–regularly–to queries under critique is one of the most aggravating parts of using a writing forum. I have been known to run counter to popular opinion, and urge the writer to keep the voice at the expense of so-called perfection. I have also said–repeatedly–that a writer needs to be able to evaluate the critics and their advice as well.

    Lehcarjt, I agree with you 100%. It IS a confidence issue, along with a mix of desperation/inexperience. But so help me, it drives me crazy to see it happen.

  17. Lucy said:

    Added to which, writers are invariably more critical of each other than anyone else, which may stem somewhat from insecurity (thus an excessive attachment to the “rule book.”)

  18. Nonny said:

    I’ve seen this happen a lot. I’ve seen crit groups get so focused on “rules” (like, literally, telling people to never use “was” in description) and technical “perfection” that they just sucked the life out of the stories. I’ve read so many that I can say don’t have errors but have no spark. It’s sad.

  19. Journal for My Daughters said:

    I USED to feel constrained by the mechanics of writing until I realised that I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I now view spelling, punctuation and grammar as an art form and not an exact science – it’s so much more fun ;0)

  20. Professor Oddcabinet said:

    I think this is something that does happen, with alarming frequency. I have taught creative writing, and participated in many many workshops, and I think the problem stems from the something in the structure of the workshop itself. My experience is that students/participants sometimes get too focused on “NOT having anything bad said about my story”,which makes sense in a way, given the context. So risks aren’t taken, voices aren’t explored. Part of it is that often there are people with several different levels of experience in the same workshop, part if it is that, a lot of the time, the participants are set up as “the teacher”. I do think a lot is gained from having your work critiqued, but I sometimes wonder if the traditional workshop setting is the way to do it. Too often you’re told what’s WRONG before people figure out what it IS. But I don’t know of a better way, at least at first, at least in some circumstances. But I don’t think mechanics get in the way of your voice. Without the mechanics, we can’t understand enough of the writing to *hear* the voice. It’s not the mechanics, I think. I think The Traditional Workshop needs a revolutionary model

  21. Peta said:

    Kristen, your workshop was fantastic and you did not seem jetlagged at all. We all appreciated your honest and direct comments on our work. Even those whose work did not get read out raved about the worshop. So from all of us down under, thankyou.

  22. Imelda said:

    What Peta said! Also, re the wanting to be discovered thing, I’m sure there was an element of that, or at least of hoping to hear that ‘mine is the one she won’t stop reading!’ But I think most people who submitted their pages probably felt as I did that, tough though it would be to hear, they Needed To Know. If you feel your work is ready, or nearly ready, and it isn’t you need to know, so you can fix it. For me, many of the things you highlighted I understood and hope I don’t do, but there were some that were a little startling. It was a case of ‘Really? That’s a deal breaker? I would have let that go. Man, back to the red pen for me!’

    I know it must be a bit confronting for you too, to do these workshops, because you are such a nice person and don’t want to upset anyone, but we really, really appreciate the insight. It’s invaluable. Thank you.

  23. Jeff Seymour said:

    Regarding getting your voice critiqued out of you: In many cases I think it stems from writers getting feedback that works well for them and then passing it on without concern for whether it’s appropriate to the writer receiving it. A good critiquer, like a good editor, needs to steer lightly and leave space in his or her advice for the writer to improvise and experiment.

    …as for passive voice, I fell asleep two nights ago dreaming a defense of it, and I intend to go and write it down right–about–now.

  24. Ebony McKenna. said:

    I was lucky enough to attend the workshop.
    Kristin, you rocked it.

    There was only one submission you read right through, and hands down it had the strongest voice. I felt it slipped into past tense and back story too much, but man, the voice jumped off the page.

    Hope you had a great time at the ‘footy’ and that your body clock returns to normal. Thank you for some fabulous workshops and panel sessions and for being amazing.

  25. Lillian Grant said:

    I attended all of your sessions and they were all brilliant. I learnt so much from your comments on people’s works and, like many, I was disappointed I stayed in the slush pile. I also attended your session on writing query letters and you made it seem so easy. Thank you so much it was a joy to meet you and to have a chance to pitch to you. I hope you have a great time in Oz.

  26. Anonymous said:

    The slush pile workshop was fabulous! I envy how Kristin has mastered the art of being both compassionate and frank. It was a highlight of the weekend.

  27. seilann said:

    I actually used to do this to myself. By the time I shelved my first novel, I’d spent eight years sterilizing it based on what I “knew” other people would say. Now I’ve got a few new projects and am not being such a perfectionist, I’m actually enjoying my work more than I have in a long time.

  28. Tegan (writing as Danielle Lisle) said:

    I was sitting in the front row of this workshop, and I can see your words were nothing but the truth. It was very encouraging to see that agents are not bad boggy-monsters, just honest. They need you to make money in order to make their own. There is no crime in that.
    I gained a truckload of knowledge out of both your workshops and hope you visit us again soon. Thanks!

  29. Chris the author said:

    My toughest thing is judging just what to expect from individual agents and publishing houses. There are any number of posts about the do’s and don’ts, then there will be posts about forgetting the do’s and don’ts. The thing I have learned is to relax when I write and trust my ability. Now, of course, I’m still searching for that agent who will trust my ability as well. I wrote about that, and other things, on my blog: I welcome feedback!!!

  30. Jacqueline Snider said:

    I just found your blog and I think it’s really great! I don’t know much about agents and being one, but I know a lot about writing and editing so it’s really interesting to hear the flip side–so to speak.

  31. Bec Skrabl said:

    Yes, but if you point out the things we’re doing wrong we can fix them (: And learn from it.
    Thanks so much for attending the conference Kristin! I loved all your sessions – esp. the Author Day ‘grilling’ (: You and Bob Mayer were definitely the highlights for me.

  32. Ian D Smith said:

    Thanks for this interesting post. I used to attend writing workshops, for over ten years, but then human nature kicked in, or should I say my better understanding kicked in. I became sensitive to others, paranoid even. At the same time confidence led to publication, which led to more confidence, and more publication, and the workshops started to become about what other people wanted me to be for themselves, and nothing to do with what I wanted to be. I went as far as enduring a few panic attacks in workshops, and feeling attacked, before I quit and concentrated on my writing—I never looked back.

  33. Melinda Brasher said:

    I’ve done a lot of work with critique groups–in person and online. I think they’re great. I’ve learned a lot, and written a lot, because I need something to turn in every two weeks.

    However, I recently had a short story accepted for publication–only my third creative work someone’s paid me for–and I realized that the one quality these three pieces share is that none of my critique groups have ever touched them. The dozens of short stories and articles they’ve edited? The novel? None of those have found homes. I’ve sold several travel articles, too, and none of those went through my critique groups first. And it occurs to me that perhaps critique groups do pose the danger of diluting your voice. Something to think about.