Say No to Negativity

Several years ago I had the great fortune to participate in a writing workshop called "Zen Writing" at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education from a marvelous woman named Brina Cohen.  The workshop had only one ironclad rule.  Participants were not allowed to criticize each other's work.

To be perfectly honest, I probably never would have signed up for the class if I'd understood this ahead of time.  I'd been in writing workshops before, and I knew they weren't suppose to be pleasant.  They were the place I came to have my work torn apart. They were a place where I would somehow grow my craft by being made to feel ashamed and/or defensive about my work.

But I stayed through that first class and listened as the established members of the group began to read their work.  And the work I listened to that day was amazing--by far the best writing in any workshop I'd ever been in.  And when the workshop was over, I'd given up any ideas I might have had about dropping out of the class and asking for a refund.

Brina's philosophy was that as writers, we are often already sure that everything we've written is bad--and that sometimes, there is more to learn by hearing what people like about our work instead of what they hated.  And negative criticism is often meaningless anyway--it is easy to nitpick minor points, espouse a theory about where the story should go (which is often not at all what the writer is thinking), or use the critique as an opportunity to grandstand about one's own brilliance.  But talking about what we like in each other's stories requires a completely different set of skills.  I found that it instantly forced me to really think about what the writer was trying to achieve, and then I found that my comments were geared toward helping him/her actually achieve it--which is a lot more fun.

There wasn't a single person who came into that workshop who didn't become a much better writer within weeks.  It's amazing what a little positivity can do for craft.

As for myself, I see this workshop as the starting place on the road to being a professional writer.  It was there I learned where my strengths were.  It was there I developed confidence in what I was doing, and it was there that I learned that the best workshops don't involved tears, or hot seats, or cruelty, or one-upmanship--or any of the other silliness we put ourselves through in the name of self-improvement.

So this November, I say no to negativity.  Be kind to those you critique.  Insist they be kind to you.  Then see what happens.


  1. Yes! What is the saying? "Teaching is 90% encouragement." I am all for the positive approach and would love to take a Zen Writing class. Thanks!

  2. My critique group recently switched to a more positive format, and the energy is completely different. Highly recommended.

  3. Yes! It can be so easy to pick out what is not working in our own and other's writing, but being able to articulate what is working -- and find a way to keep doing it -- that is a worthy challenge.

  4. So sorry your critique group made you feel ashamed and defensive! Sounds like an example out of Irene's Dec. 3 post. My group is great; even comments that might be seen as "negative" are usually so spot-on that they get me excited about revising.

  5. I have always loved this wonderful line from John Masefield: "Great art does not proceed from great criticism, but from great encouragement."


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