10 Tips for Surviving Workshops

Chairs in Circle 2

Chairs in Circle 2

Okay, so ‘surviving’ might be a harsh term to associate with the all-important workshop. The workshop setting is essential to growing as a writer. It allows you to hear feedback from people in your field, practice critiquing the work of others, and become a better reader and writer. However, workshops can also be awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you’re new to them. The following tips are useful for new writing students, and can also be good reminders for veterans; they can help you avoid heartache and embarrassment, and may even help you enjoy the workshop experience.

1. Don’t be a jerk
It’s a relatively simple rule, but one that people break remarkably often. Treat your fellow writers with respect, even if they don’t do you the same courtesy. Your job is to give people your genuine opinion and to listen to theirs without clawing their eyes out.

2. Don’t be a door mat
Don’t be a jerk, but also don’t apologize if someone dislikes what you’ve written. Just because someone didn’t like an aspect of your story doesn’t mean it’s “wrong” or that you have something to be sorry for. Hear each person out respectfully, and then move on.

3. Listen/don’t speak when your work is being discussed
A Young Woman Praying with Her Hands Together on White Background by David Castillo DominiciIt’s hard to keep quiet when people are talking about your work right in front of you, but oftentimes it’s the best option. Don’t try to explain things people didn’t understand, or tell them what every metaphor should mean to them. Don’t be defensive or arrogant; listen quietly, and try to only speak if someone asks you specifically about a part of your story.

4. Separate your ego from your work
In other words, don’t take it personally. Good-willed people in your workshop aren’t criticizing YOU, they’re critiquing the one piece that you brought to the group. Yes, that story might be your baby, something you’ve poured your heart and soul into. But that story doesn’t define you, and to make it better, you may have to cut it to pieces first. Get over it.

5. Know your story
Nobody knows your intentions behind your story better than you. Be purposeful in your writing so that you can know what criticism to take to heart and what to disregard. Being purposeful means you have a specific vision of what you intend for your story to be so that you can get closer to that goal with the help of friendly advice.

6. Weigh the opinions
Not all “I think” statements are created equal. Learn how to hone in on really good
advice, and filter out the junk. The guy trying to get back Gold Scales of Injustice by Kittisakat you after you said his story might be more appropriate in third person may tell you he “hated your writing style.” Gee, thanks. You’ll be able to tell when people are genuinely trying to help; consider their advice, at least for a moment. Throw their suggestion out later if you want, but listen to those who obviously put effort into understanding your story.

7. Bring a clean copy to work on
Elementary, my dear writer. Don’t distribute a rough draft for people to read. Don’t hand out a copy riddled with grammatical mistakes and typos. Don’t give them something in point 6 font. Don’t waste their time—give them a clean copy, well-edited, and in a readable format (double spaced is always appreciated).

8. Take good notes
Spiral Notebook with pen by adamrThis applies to both the notes you take when your story is being discussed, and the notes you take when reading other people’s work. If you don’t write down what people are saying when your piece is being discussed, you’ll probably forget over half of it. Have a copy of your story in hand to mark up, as well as a notebook to write longer ideas in. When you’re reading someone else’s work, write on her manuscript; use typical proofreading symbols, and write notes in the margins and between lines.

9. Be specific when critiquing
Don’t say “I didn’t like it” or even “I really liked it.” Be helpful to the author. You’re most helpful when you specifically state what you thought, whether it was positive or negative. Instead of “I hated the ending,” state specifically that “I wanted more from the ending; it felt as if it cut off too soon when the car crashed and we were left not knowing what happened to the driver.” You get the idea.

10. Don’t be a spellchecker
The hope is that you’ll be workshopping pieces that have solid spelling, punctuation, and grammar (see tip 7). A typo here and there is forgivable, and more than likely the writer will find them. Your job is not to point out that the writer put two l’s in “color” on page 7, paragraph 3. Your job is to look at the bigger picture and help the writer improve his story, not his typing ability.

By Madeleine Mozley

Image 1 by click, images 2-4 from FreeDigitalPhotos.net: 2 by David Castillo Dominici, 3 by Kittisak, 4 by adamr.