It’s not easy to
wobble march into your first critique session, but with this handy how-to guide, you’ll shine like the writing star you are!
Earlier this month, Jennie led a fantastic roundtable discussion on writing groups. This week we continue that conversation by speaking to one particular facet of the writer’s group—the workshop. If you’re new to all this, the thought of entering your first workshop might leave you wobbly-kneed. That’s common. In fact, I’m pretty certain my bad knees are a direct result of my being workshopped for the past two decades.
But at some point—and for you, dear reader, I suggest after you’ve completed a second full draft of a piece—the workshop process becomes necessary. It introduces you to feedback from beyond your immediate circle and often provides a necessary dose of reality that yes, there is plenty more work to be done. Being prepared to do your part and empower others to do theirs will ease your trepidation. To help, I propose this handful of dos and don’ts designed to create a productive workshop environment.
Start on a positive note
Begin a workshop by having a group member (who is not the writer) read a few passages of the story being workshopped. Then, have the rest of the group share some favorite moments, lines, relationships, etc. Once everyone is warmed up, begin a broader discussion that includes both the strengths and challenges of the piece.
Be appreciative & listen carefully
Show your appreciation for your group’s time and investment in your work by taking careful notes and being open-minded to their suggestions. Try to see workshops as an opportunity to measure reader response, both in enthusiasm and comprehension. For the latter, that means determining if your readers have interpreted the characters, plot, and connections the way you intended. You may need a few days (even weeks) to digest the feedback. That’s okay. With time, you’ll see whose comments resonate the most and know in which direction to proceed.
There may be moments during your workshop when you want to shout in frustration, “That’s not what’s happening in my plot! Why don’t you understand?” Rein in that impulse. If the group has misunderstood your work, chances are your work is not working in the way you envisioned. That happens, especially in early drafts, and is one of the reasons why workshops are so important. Write down those comments and think about them when you’re calm and alone. During your actual session, it’s considered a best practice to remain quiet. Along with your page for notes, set aside a second sheet of paper to jot down follow-up questions. At the end of your session, use those questions to clarify any confusing comments but not to defend your work.
Keep the discussion focused
The narrator and the author are not the same person. Early on in the workshop process, it’s easy to confuse the two, but if you stick to what’s on the page, you’ll avoid that initial pitfall. Instead, focus on pointing out sections that are unclear or disruptive to the story’s momentum. Deliver that information without personal judgment or preferences. For example, it’s not important if you don’t find the main character likable or if you disagree with her personal choices. It is important if you don’t find the MC believable in the context of her personal circumstances. Stick to helping the author realize his/her story as fully as possible by focusing on the larger issues—character arcs, connections, plot points, believability of the world—and leaving the smaller issues for later, like during line edit sessions made at the writer’s request.
Remember this is a wonderful opportunity to have others look at your work and for you to look at the work of others. A lot can be learned in the workshop environment. Not only will you find a group of writers willing to serve as mirrors to your WIP, you’ll also learn how to be a mirror—to them, and, in time, to yourself.
It’s helpful for a writing group to have a handy set of go-to guides. What are your favorites? I recommend Anne Lamont’s Bird By Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Share in the comments section your thoughts on this week’s post, tips for those entering their first workshop, and/or your favorite books on craft to automatically be entered to win Stephen King’s On Writing!