Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Killing Even More Sacred Cows of Publishing: #2… Getting a Critique is a Good Way to Learn

Book three in this series.



Both books are available everywhere in electronic, paper, and audio.

What I call a “Sacred Cow” is basically a myth spread around publishing like the truth. Myths such as “rewriting must be done for every story.” Myths such as “you need an agent to sell a book,” or “sell a book to a different country.” And so on.

You can either buy the first two books to get all twenty of the Sacred Cows, or just click on the tab above and read them here in their original blog posts for free.

And Myth #1 in this book is under that tab as well.

Myth #2: Getting a Critique from a Workshop is a Good Way to Learn Writing.

Oh, no, no, No!!!

This is so wrong and dangerous to new writers, it scares me to death. Yet over the last few decades this has become a major accepted and believed myth. So let me see if I can make a small dent with my little sword from the back of my donkey on this one.


Workshops, in their modern form, started back in the 1930s, mostly credited to the Iowa Writer’s Workshops which started in the mid-1930s. And this form of critical critique held true for decades, pushed by university programs where instructors believed that learning how to tear a story apart helped a writer learn how to construct a story.

The constructing a story part was mostly dropped along the way and the critical part came to the front. Being critical is so much easier to talk about then trying to figure out how to actually construct something. Anyone with a hammer can tear down a building. Very few people can build fine construction.

Many, many writers decided to copy the basic format of critical workshops for smaller meeting groups as time went on, with the 1960s starting the explosion of these things, especially in university programs.

In the science fiction genre, for example, a conference called Milford was started by Damon Knight. It was the standard everyone attending critique a submitted manuscript, looking to be more and more clever in how they could tear the story apart.

Damon Knight and Robin Scott Wilson started the Clarion workshops for beginners in this same form in the late 1960s. And the writers attending there went home after six weeks of daily critique and started their own workshops.

By the 1980s, this form of critique by peer groups had become standard. And since then it has stopped more thousands of great writers than I care to think about.


I came out of this kind of workshop, actually. I helped start a peer critique workshop among a bunch of beginning writers in 1982. And then in 1987, Kris and I started yet another one in Eugene. And for a time here at the coast we ran some as well.

But during all that time I was bothered by the writers who turned in a story to try to get it “fixed” and find out how to “polish” it for submission.

And Kris and I had to constantly badger people to say positive things about a story they were tearing apart.

In all those workshop years, I never once turned in a story to a workshop that wasn’t already in the mail to an editor. I  turned in a story for audience reaction, not to fix something. Many of you who have read my blog know how I feel about going back and fixing a story instead of writing a new one.

And when those people who wanted to change my commas on page ten learned I was never going to touch the story or use their precious advice, they always got angry at me. I would just shrug.

So I used peer workshops and others to learn, but not on my own story, but from networking with other writers and listening to other people’s ideas about story in general.

To be honest, I am not sure why I had that attitude from day one in the very first workshop. I think it was the seven years I had lost rewriting everything to dust that caused me to not want to even think rewriting ever again.  I was following rule #3 of Heinlein’s Rules. Period.

So I used workshops to learn in audience reaction to a type of story and networking. And that has served me well for years now.


Losing faith and belief in your own writing skills can be destructive at best, deadly to your writing at worst.

Having a dozen people beat on your story, ALL LOOKING FOR WHAT IS WRONG, is destructive. It is impossible to learn about your own writing from that situation. That’s not how our minds work in writing and in learning how to write.

When having negativity coming at you, it is impossible to hear or learn. The brain just shuts down.

I will wager that a lot of people reading this article, this chapter, will admit to being stopped by the peer workshop process.

And I will wager a few younger professionals will say it helped them. A workshop here and there can help at times, but not because of the pounding your story will take, but because of networking and general learning.

I can see no reason for an artist to submit his or her work to a purposeful beating week after week.

Negative Impacts…

1… Turns up the critical voice. Gives it more reasons to stop you.

2… Kills confidence

3… Hurts your own belief system and you start doubting yourself.

4… Makes writing no fun.

5… Often you end up writing for the others in a workshop instead of yourself.

6… If you are stupid enough to turn in a work-in-progress, you can be stopped cold.

7… Fixing a workshopped manuscript is writing by committee and I have seldom seen that work.


Writers learn in the same way as all artists learn.

First, we soak in information into the front of our minds, the critical thinking part of our minds. We feed that process from every direction, and long-term writers are people who developed a hunger for knowledge and learning and that never stopped.

Second, we write a lot. We give our subconscious the ability to practice what we have learned. We focus on producing the next story, the next project, because it might be in the next project that the learning will come out through our fingers.

Third, we always move forward to the next story or novel. Only if some publishing things comes up (such as looking over copyedits) are we forced to look back. Forward, always forward.


Having one of your stories looked at by a professional writer or an editor once-in-a-while can be a learning experience. Of that, I have no doubt. And maybe humbling.

But the myth that you can go to a weekly critique peer workshop and learn by having your stories beat on by others is false and deadly.

You need to pick and choose how you learn. Carefully. Find what works for you.

We do an anthology workshop here on the coast. We don’t allow the writers attending to ever talk about the stories. Ever. Not even at dinners. But seven professional editors working to buy stories do talk about them. And mostly we talk about how good a story was. And we talk about our tastes as editors. And we say why we are buying or not buying.

I listened to 250 plus stories be talked about like that over the last week and I learned a bunch from my fellow editors. But I doubt the writers learned anything from any critique of their own stories. They learned from listening to others.

There is a vast danger in the myth of learning through distraction.  The ongoing pounding you take at the hands of a weekly or even monthly peer workshop can be deadly. Especially if you have a thin skin or are prone to not have much confidence.

And even if you think you can handle it, you are just training your critical voice to be more and more powerful, and eventually that will stop you cold and you won’t even know why. (You can usually tell because everything you try to write you believe is bad, so what’s the point?)

A Suggestion for a Way to Learn

If you want to set up a gathering, a “workshop,” don’t make it a writing critique workshop. Make it a networking workshop. Move to this new century.

Meet regularly. Each week or every other week do things like the following.

— Bring publishing news and talk about it.

— Set writing goals and make the group meeting a deadline and report the progress. (Don’t show manuscripts ever.)

— Support group for when things go south, when you are stuck, when you just need to talk about something in the writing. (No brainstorming of ideas, however.)

— Have a different writing book to study each meeting and have people read it and go over it. (I have been in groups where we spent a lot of time on the Zuckerman book alone.) Discussions about these sorts of things are learning experiences.

— Share book promotion and sales ideas.

And so on and so on… you get the idea.

(Oh, wait, we do that here in two forms. Our Sunday lunches and our monthly Friday business meetings.)

Keep your writing to yourself and your readers.

Don’t allow anyone to tear down your writing. Ever.

Never read reviews.

Trust your own creative voice while at the same time keep learning and practicing.

And remember to keep having fun with the writing and publishing. That really is the key.


  • Vera Soroka

    I remember having my work critiqued by two professional writers. They were actually quite good. They didn’t tear down the work but just said a few things that I was doing. I had verb tense issues then. I also had an editor look at the novel I am working on now to get it out. But she wasn’t a professional. She did point some stuff out which was helpful but we never did get through the novel. I finished it off on my own. I think I’ve learned enough now that I can move forward with confidence. I have ten novels waiting for me to get them out. I will clean the mistakes up in them and publish them. As you say, have confidence in your work and send it out to the readers.
    I’m going to have to go back and read the first one. Look forward to more of these.

  • Vera Soroka

    LOL, I went back and read the first one. I just the other day went and asked the internet how long a middle grade novel should be. I should have known better. Some of the middle grade authors of today that are hugely successful write in all lengths. In fact their series that made them famous were tombs. My first novel was middle grade but I think now it should be for YA. Not sure as these lines between middle grade and YA and now into NA blur.
    Write to the story length.

  • J.R. Murdock

    OMG! This, this, and so much more of this.

    Constructive criticism is so much more important than destructive criticism.

    Start a writers workshop to build each other up, not a critique group to tear each other down.

    It is easier to destroy than it is to create.

    Every day you make my head explode. Thank you 🙂

  • Robin Brande

    HALLELUJAH. Agree with this one thousand percent. The damage, the pain, the wasted time, the injury to your soul–no exaggeration there.

    That’s why your constant reminders are so important, Dean: this is PLAY. This is FUN. Creative work is the human soul at play. It’s so easy to get caught up in wanting to be perfect, praised, appreciated, etc. To get distracted by all the noise about increasing sales and being as successful as this writer or that. To be about comparison and competition, when really the point is to write from our own unique creative minds and add to the storytelling of the world.

    Thanks for this post. What an awesome public service.

  • Dane Tyler

    This is awesome. These are such incredible learning tools. I know what my next purchases for writing books are going to be.

    I have so many writing friends who are part of writing groups that do just this, and the results are always a lot of manuscripts not being sold. Those same folks won’t indie publish either, because of the dream of being a traditionally published author. So. Ah, well. What can I do?

    As for me, I’ll just keep taking your advice.

    Thanks Dean!

  • Leah Cutter

    Up here in Seattle I’m part of a WRITER’S group. Note the emphasis on writing. The group is really active, they meet three times a week at different coffee shops around Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Each meeting is two hours long. You might spend a few minutes at the start saying hi to people. Then you sit down, shut up, and write for two hours. Period. No sharing of manuscripts. No critique. Just writing.

    Afterward, we sometimes go to a bar and sit around and talk industry and publishing and books, etc. It’s been a really nice group for me.

    I have had to fuss at people on occasion, to remind them that this is a *writing* group. If they want to just chat, they need to go sit someplace else.

    The group has been active for a few years now, and I still really like it. I go once a week or so. But again, no critique. Just writing and support.

    It’s the Capitol Hill Writing Meetup for anyone who’s interested.

  • Tim Tresslar

    Awesome post, Dean, and so true. My experience with such workshops (and many creative writing classes) is the feedback consists of people telling you how THEY would write your story.
    Such advice, even when well-intentioned, is damn near useless.
    It’s especially meaningless when the others in your group don’t understand your genre or intended audience.
    At that point you may as well ask for story advice from random passersby in a mall food court.
    One benefit of workshops and writers groups: I met a couple of good first readers along the way.

  • Anita Cooper

    “I turned in a story for audience reaction, not to fix something.” – Love this!

    I’m so glad I found you and Kris before jumping into any critique groups – lol.

    Thank you also for talking about writing into the dark. Outlining made the writing so much WORK! Writing into the dark is so much FUN! I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty and know that right around the corner my mind will go “aha”, so that’s what I was thinking. 😀

    Thanks again for all you and Kris do.

  • Veronika

    That reminded me of a painting workshop I took years ago with a wonderful artist, who happens to be a great teacher as well. The line I remember most from him was “Do not fiddle [with it].” You see, when you lay down a watercolour wash, you have a very limited window of opportunity to manipulate it (while it’s still wet enough), which you can do if you know what you are doing. But if, as it’s drying, you think you can improve it by doing anything with it… well, just forget it. It will end up a complete mess, with blotches and marks visible where you tried to “correct” it. (Plus the wash will often look much better when it dries than you thought it would.)

    With watercolour you need to learn the way the paper, colour, and brush interact, and then nudge things towards what you want and let them do their own thing. Know your tools. If you fiddle and try to correct the painting, you’ll end up with a mess. You don’t learn watercolour by reworking your old paintings, you learn it by learning from your mistakes (and successes) in the next painting you do.

  • Teri Babcock

    Glad to see you addressing workshops again, Dean. I wince when I see peer-review workshops being touted as essential to craft improvement.

    Giving feedback on art that is actually helpful and supports the creative process of the artist is a very high-level skill. You need a lot of mature skills in the art yourself, and need to be a long ways in with your own emotional/psychological relationship with the creative process, in order to facilitate anyone else. If you aren’t there yet, you’re going to end up 1) imposing your own ideas/beliefs/opinions on them 2) invalidating their ideas and their process 3) making an ass of yourself.

    A number of years ago I took a teaching course. A lot of writing was involved, and a lot of giving other students feedback about the effect and effectiveness of their work. We spent a lot of time just learning to give feedback that was helpful, and actually appropriate to the level we were at. Our instructor had zero tolerance for feedback that was just being nice, or if you sounded like you thought you knew better, or was just flapping gums, because you had to say something. After each presentation, the other students gave feedback, the instructor gave feedback on *their* feedback, and then feedback on the student presentation.

    I don’t know what goes on in the big name writing workshops, but given how much they try to cover, I very much doubt if they are giving the kind of instruction they need to on student feedback. I can’t see how they would have the time to do it properly. Yet attendees are expected to give and receive critique, with whatever limited skills and misconceptions they possess. Scary.

  • Frank Powers

    As part of trying to learn the craft, I’ve read a lot of the rules of writing. Do this, don’t do that, a lot of it contradictory. I had just finished a piece about how important a hook is, a pretty standard essay about how you have to grab your reader from the very first line. I went to Amazon and used the look inside feature to examine the hooks used in the best sellers in a few categories, sci-fi, fantasy, and romance. 1 out of the 20 or so examples I looked at had any kind of hook. This is when I really began questioning the wisdom of the writing rules.

    Then I read Kris’ blog on how voice is lost when everyone tries to follow these made up rules. It was at this point that so many things came together in my mind and prompted my question to you.

    The worst example came when someone in the writer group I’m in linked an article that told of character traits you should never use. The author gave 5 traits and he used examples from hugely successful works. His first example was Edward from the Twilight. Could the character have been written better? I’d say no. He could have been written to suit other tastes better but he was perfectly written for the readers who love those books.

    From my experience, beta readers and critique groups are zealots in following the rules of writing. And the rules are entirely made up and I’ve had a hard time finding examples of these rules working anywhere outside of critique groups. Going back to the hook, it’s great if you can hook the reader from the first sentence but it’s not necessary. Readers aren’t going to close the book if that first sentence doesn’t yank them out of their chair.

    Sorry, I’m ranting now. But it just makes me nuts how these groups try to beat everyone into sameness, especially given that they are doing it based on arbitrary rules that have so often been ignored by successful writers.

    • Devin Harnois

      Frank, the hook stuff, like so many “rules” has a good basis but is taken too far. What an opening should do is draw the reader into the story. That’s it. It doesn’t have to start with an explosion or a major crisis in the first line like some advice seems to suggest.

      Just like that silly “take out all adverbs!” advice, which really should be to watch out for overusing adverbs (and even then, some people make it work well with their style).

      I think a lot of this advice comes from frustrated agents and editors. They read a thousand stories and think “I never want to see X again!” Where as most readers wouldn’t even notice X.

  • Maree

    I’m so glad you decided to elaborate on this, I was left confused after that post a few days back about the importance of writer workshops and conferences, since it felt counter to all of your other advice.

    I recently joined a critique group, and the whole thing felt off to me. People giving opinions on a single chapter, separated from the entire work seemed pointless and the strongest opinions were held by those who I felt to be the weakest writers. Plus the mental and emotional energy I had to muster to critique work that I wouldn’t ever read for pleasure. And when you read to critique it takes away a lot of the joy. All I see is the flaws.

    I only lasted a couple of months. I felt like an exercise in procrastination on my own work, and I have enough of that. But I can’t imagine being able to convince any group of writers at my own level to ditch the crit and have a more of a social group instead.

    The experience with all that has produced one great side effect. I now appreciate my first reader so much more. She generally restrains herself to copy editing and moral support, with and I didn’t know what a gem I had in her.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for this, Dean. I particularly like the idea of audience reaction rather than critique. It makes perfect sense and goes perfectly with what I’ve been seeing in The Voice the past few years.

    I’ve always wondered why writers were masochists, wanting to be torn apart or secretly wanting to be put on a pedestal for their brilliance. Every post and book I read from you and Kris have changed my view of writers to that of entertainers and it’s remarkably liberating.

    One question, however. What are your views on workshops that focus on teaching writing styles or techniques? I can see the dangers in getting too “English lit professor-y” with that format. But sometimes it’s fun to pick someone’s brain.

    • dwsmith

      That would depend on the instructor, Kevin. If they have thirty plus novels under the belt, then listen to them. Otherwise, they are just making it up and don’t have a clue and those folks are damned dangerous.

  • Dave S.

    Count me as another “critique workshop survivor” but it took me a while to undo the damage I suffered there in the early 90’s. I didn’t know any better then, of course, or I’d never have enrolled–and this was a university Creative Writing Program course that cost a lot of money to have other student writers tear my work up! It was ridiculous! The instructors couldn’t have been much good if they allowed that to go on, I can see now. I’m proud of myself that I didn’t stick around in that hell hole for long and believed in myself and my creative voice enough to walk away before the point of no return.

    Thanks for the networking group tips – that’s exactly what I’m going to do: make a group about networking and buisness only. I need to check my email and see if I’ve gotten any interest yet for the group I’m starting. Exciting!

  • Nicki Ivey

    I lead such a writer’s group as you mention here, where we bring writing samples for the rest of the group to read over and point out errors. But as I read more of your posts on the topic, I am starting to agree with you. It’s not helpful, and none of us are publishing. It’s worth trying something different.

    I’m not sure how to help us switch gears, though. We are all friends, and all immersed in our belief that we need to help each other be better writers. I don’t have a lot of hope that everyone is willing to change, and I don’t want to ostracize anyone. I’m going to have to work on that one slowly.

    Thank you for offering up this information for us to learn from, by the way. It is insanely helpful material to think on and adopt into my writing habits.

    • dwsmith

      Start adding in a time when people talk only business and news and such. Then slowly move to more and more of that. Start talking about writing books and other discussions that really will help you all learn. Tearing a story down to learn is a myth. But discussions and networking on all sorts of things is very, very valuable and worth the time. And if they won’t change, walk away. Good luck and remember to keep having fun.

  • Devin Harnois

    Dean, you mentioned the Zuckerman book. Do you mean Writing the Blockbuster Novel? I’m in the middle of this now and I’m very curious what your thoughts on it might be. 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Devin, outside of all the outlining crap that he does with Follett, the book is the bible for big book and most book structure. I have worked with other authors entire weekends just studying that book and read parts of it dozens of times. No better book. (Ignore the outlining crap, though. That’s a really dumb way of collaborative writing.)

      • Devin Harnois

        Thanks Dean. I almost put the book down when I got to the outlining section. Actually yelled, “Why don’t you just pay him [Follett] to ghost write for you?”

        After that, I skipped every part where he discussed the Follett book because it annoyed me too much. But he did have interesting breakdowns for The Godfather and Gone With the Wind.

  • J. D. Brink

    I think your suggestions for a non-critique writers’ gathering are AWESOME. I love all those points and I think it would be way more encouraging than the “traditional” tear-down sessions. I especially like the idea of never sharing manuscripts, just sharing issues you’re having for general impressions and ideas.
    Now I just need to find other writers… And quit my job so I have time to do it. 🙂

  • Becca

    I love this! I almost walked away from writing after a particularly nasty critique session and have always felt guilty because the critiquer kept saying I just needed to have a thicker skin.

    I do have a question, though. How do you reconcile the always-move-forward attitude (which I love) with the conventional wisdom that the best writers are good rewriters? Do you still revise? When do you call it done?

    • dwsmith

      Oh, heavens, no. Read my posts on writing into the dark or grab the book. Or the posts on Heinlein’s Rules. I stopped rewriting in 1982 and started selling. That myth of rewriting is in one of the first books on Sacred Cows and you can read that under the tab at the top of this page. Rewriting is a huge myth. Stop writing sloppy and tell a story. It really is that simple.

      • Becca

        Thank you! I picked up the first Killing the Sacred Cows book and am a few chapters in. Already I feel like I can breathe again. I didn’t realize how constricting these myths until I let them go. Writing CAN be fun and I shouldn’t be afraid to put my work in front of readers; THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT.

        Thank you for writing these! I really do feel lighter, even liberated. This is a game changer.

      • Becca

        I binge read the first Sacred Cows last night. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This has changed everything. EVERYTHING! I’m so excited to have fun again with writing.

        I will read many more of your books. I intend to make you and Kris my shoulder angels that beat down all the garbage I paid for in an English degree. 😉

        • dwsmith


          Think of it this way, the English degree gave you the basics of the language. Now you are learning the art of using those basics to combine them into stories people will be entertained reading.

          Sort of like learning how to make paint and color won’t help you paint a beautiful picture. But knowing how, if you release the silliness of rewriting and other English class details, will help you build beautiful stories.

          Have fun.

  • JayB

    There is tension when beginning or in the midst of a project. It’s an internal thing, a creative mindset that allows for the free flow in the “zone,” a very private place where ideas pop up in the space between thoughts. When you prematurely open that space to opinions you dilute the bubble and it can and will burst. It’s gone. Keep your work to yourself until you are ready to publish, whether to a critical audience or the public. There will be plenty of time to edit and sand off the rough edges. But wait until your creative flow has squeezed the last drop from your creation’s last word, sentence, paragraph, page. We writer’s are solitary creatures. Companionship in the middle of a project doesn’t add anything. It will only take away. Keep your work to yourself until you are done. Amen.