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Member Dispatch: A little kindness in the writing workshop

by Maggie Ferguson

FakeKindPosterIn the film Shut Up & Play the Hits, James Murphy’s manager, Keith Wood, has a neon green poster with blue print in his office. It reads, “Be Kind. Be Kind. Be Kind.”

I learned of a similar sort of generosity in Julia Fierro’s weeklong workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Julia, author of the novel Cutting Teeth and founder and director of Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in Brooklyn, instructed us in her method of giving critiques.

Here’s what she advocated: examining each successful line in a submission and describing what specific craft choices made this work, and then doing the same with weaker lines, suggesting what the writing might need. This approach demanded that we undertake a detective-like investigation of all writing, regardless of our own personal stylistic preferences, for moments of mineable potential.

A reading that close requires a lot of work, which is where kindness comes into play. The reader has to dedicate a lot of time, effort, and thought to their critiques.

But this dedication yields rewards. In return for this close reading, she argues, you will:

  • Teach yourself to recognize specific craft choices and their effects
  • Force yourself to think in specifics and details
  • Improve your own understanding of technical choices
  • Learn to find potential in every piece you see
  • Capitalize on strengths
  • Brainstorm fixes for weaknesses
  • Connect with the other writers in workshop by giving as much information and feedback for the writer as possible
  • Experience symbiotic benefits, improving your craft skill by careful critique

Good, detailed feedback is invaluable to a writer trying to grow.  This approach both encourages writers to come prepared to workshop and creates a workshop space of Julia-like welcome and warmth. 


Maggie Ferguson is a long-time Lighthouse member and the official Tweeter ™ of Lighthouse. Her fiction has appeared in Stone Crown’s Magazine and elsewhere.

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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