Workshop or Organized Torture?
So it's that time of the year again in my life as a Creative Writing minor. Don't get me wrong, I love my Fiction classes, but after the writing comes the workshopping, and sometimes that's not so fun. Instead of having people critiquing your work, it can feel like your peers are critiquing you instead. I don't know about other writers out there, but I pour my heart and soul into everything I write and when people rip it apart, it can be just as if they'd lodged a knife in my chest.
However, I have learned that when they are well-done and comprised of people who really care about each other and about writing, workshops can be a very good thing. I'm always up for some helpful criticism from people who genuinely care about my story. It may take a while to get used to putting yourself out there, but the feedback you get can be helpful.
But since it is hard, here are are a few things that I have learned over the past four years in college that has been valuable for me surviving workshops:
1. It's better to have a group of acquaintances or strangers in your workshop instead of family or friends. Don't get me wrong, they should be nice people and obviously have experience writing. It's always good to get along with people who will be staring into your very soul and telling you what you can fix. But that's where the problem comes in when the people in your workshop are relatives or especially friends. The prior relationships that are there makes it extremely difficult to separate their critiques of your story from their critiques of you. That doesn't mean that mom and dad can't ever read your work, but I find that I usually reserve that for when I am done with a story and need some encouraging praise about how good it is so I can get up my courage to send it out into the world.
2. Always find something nice to say. Because, as I'm sure we've all heard, if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all. Before diving in directly into critiquing someone else's story, cushion the blow by praise. Tell them what they are doing well and what parts or sentences you really liked. I know, it can be hard to find something to compliment. I've read stories where the only thing I could really say that I liked was the main character's name. (Actually, there was one time where that didn't even work...but at least they had used a nice font. See? There's always something!) And trust me, starting off with the good things makes the person feel confident and more apt to listen to the critiques that you do have. Not to mention, you'll feel a lot better about it to. Most people don't like to feel like the bad guy in a workshop.
3. Don't focus on grammar errors. The point of a workshop isn't to be their personal proofreader, it's a time where people can get advice and quality feedback on their story. Notice that? Story. Not spelling, not formatting, story. They used "it's" instead of "its"? No biggie. They killed off a character on page two and the character is suddenly back on page four? Biggie. If you're like me, this can be a hard one to get past. I'm a natural editor of other people's writing but we all make mistakes. I'd bet you twenty bucks that I've made several in this blog post already. But the small errors aren't important and how useless would a workshop be if everyone just debated whether the writer correctly used "effect" and "affect"? If there's a reoccurring error that's driving you nuts, fix the first occurrence and then move on.
4. No talking. This may be the most excruciating, torturous part of workshopping. Not being able to say anything. Zip. Nada. Even when a peer mispronounces your main character's name. Even when another person doesn't get the joke you made on page five. And even when someone offers completely bogus advice. Until that workshop is over and you have everyone's feedback in your hands does that mouth open. Because when you bare your soul like you do in writing, the first reaction we have is to defend our work to the death against anyone who misunderstands or attacks it. When the writer is allowed to talk during workshop, they can get into meaningless debates about the small things. This is not the point of the workshop. No matter how frustrating, keep quiet and try to listen even to the things you disagree with. Especially to the things you disagree with. Because after the heat of the moment has passed, I often find that the suggestion I was most up in arms about is the one that is the most true and the thing that I need to consider. Maybe my main character's name doesn't read well. Maybe the joke on page five wasn't clear enough or was worded badly.
5. Take some time. After the workshop is over, you're feeling pretty strange. You've been playing everyone's critiques over and over in your head all day. Before you read your peers' comments, give it a couple of days. Let the hurt heal, let the suggestions sink in. Then you can come back to your story and the comments more confidently. Trust me, it will be a lot easier to read them once you've had a few days of recuperation.
There you have it. I'm not an expert, and this is not an exhaustive list nor is it very original. It's just what works. So get out there and workshop!
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Hi, I'm Jessica! I'm on a mission to make my writing better in hopes of becoming a published novelist. It's been a crazy journey so far as I learn the twists and turns of the publishing world, but it's been worth it. Though I'm still learning how to be the best writer I can be, I'm excited to share what I learn with you. Happy writing!