How to Get the Most Out of A Workshop.
by Alanna Felton
As a college student studying creative writing, I spend a lot of time participating in workshops. Initially, this aspect of my classes terrified me. Before college, I had never shared my fiction with anyone outside a handful of friends, let alone asked for feedback from fellow writers. However, my first workshop experience quickly assuaged all my insecurities. By sharing our work with one another, my classmates and I were all being equally vulnerable, agreeing to be respectful and non-judgmental while offering honest criticism. I have now workshopped several stories and each of them has been completely transformed for the better as I result of the feedback I received.
Even if you are not in a formal academic environment, there are still opportunities to get involved in writing workshops or critique groups, many of them online. Personally, I strongly recommend joining a workshop to hone your craft and improve your communication skills. While family and friends make great cheerleaders and beta readers can provide invaluable feedback on a story from an audience perspective, there is nothing quite like receiving critiques from other writers.
There are two components of workshop participation: critiquing others’ stories and having your stories critiqued. To truly get the most of out a workshop experience, it is important to put forth your best effort in both of these areas.
Critiquing Other’s Stories:
As in so many other situations, the golden rule applies. Treat others’ writing with the same attention and care that you would want them to give to your work. Your fellow writers are taking the time and energy to read and offer feedback on your story. It is your responsibility to do the same. Also, practicing close reading can make you a better writer. Pay attention to your reactions as you read others’ stories; single out what is working and what is not working. Does it have something to do with sentence structure? Pacing? Characterization?
In preparation for a workshop, you should re-read the story you are critiquing multiple times. Take notes and prepare a list of specific suggestions and questions for the author of the story. Reference page numbers and quotes to support your critiques whenever you can. Few things are more frustrating than vague feedback.
Be polite but honest in your feedback. Let the author of the story know if you think something is not working, but make sure to tell them why in clear terms. Try to separate your personal reaction to a story (whether you “liked” it or not) from its craft.
Keep your critiques of a story impersonal and confined to its content. Avoid using the “you” pronoun or directly addressing the author. Remember that you do not know everything about this person’s background. Do not assume authorial intent, and tread lightly when addressing sensitive subject matter in a story; remember that experiences of trauma and oppression are not monolithic.
Having Your Story Critiqued:
Come to workshop with a list of specific questions prepared for readers. What do you want to know about others’ reactions to your story? Workshop etiquette tends to dictate that the person whose story is being discussed stays quiet and does not respond to feedback, but there is usually a period for you to ask questions at the end.
Take notes. Even if you receive written feedback, taking notes for yourself is still a good way to single out particularly impactful suggestions. I like to handwrite notes in my planner during a workshop and then use them as a cheat sheet when I begin revising.
Check your ego. All writers put parts of ourselves into our stories, it is only natural and human that we be emotionally invested in how others respond to them. However, it is important not to take feedback personally, to be able to separate your sense of self-worth from the work you produce.
Recognize that it is impossible to address every criticism of your writing. Different writers are going to have different opinions and you will likely receive conflicting feedback. Another important skill which workshops help writers develop is a gut-feeling for which critiques should and should not be addressed in revision. Remember, at the end of the day, this is your story. Trust your own understanding of what your narrative needs.
And there you have it! Hopefully the above advice will help you to have a positive workshop experience. I understand that workshops are not for everyone; however, a community of writers and working together to encourage each other and improve one another’s stories is a truly powerful thing.
Writing and reading are personal, solitary acts but there is still a place for collaboration in the writing process. If you are an introverted writer and bibliophile like me, it is all too easy to get lost in your own world of words. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your story is to get out of your own head and open yourself up to others’ perspectives.
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