How to Approach a Writing Workshop
Giving and receiving feedback is something that is encouraged in all Creative Writing courses. It’s often referred to as ‘workshopping‘. Some people enjoy it, others don’t. Some have a talent for it, whilst others are too afraid to hurt the other person’s feelings to focus on giving feedback to the work, not the person. Giving feedback is a skill that some people are a natural at, others get better at the more they practise, and, like with every skill, some people will always struggle with (particularly if they’re more interested in feelings than feedback).
How to Approach a Workshop
The most important thing to remember when giving feedback is that it’s the work you’re critiquing, not the person. If the person you’re critiquing truly wants to improve, they will listen to your feedback with an open mind. Even if they don’t agree with what you’re saying, they’ll try to understand your point of view. If you structure your argument well enough, you may just persuade them; if they structure their argument well enough, they may just persuade you.
You should approach the piece as neutrally as possible. If you don’t like the person that wrote it, take a step back before you start working on their piece. Ask yourself, how would you discuss it if you didn’t know the writer? Feedback should be objective, and should focus on the technical aspects, not on how you would do things.
People to Avoid
There will always be people that are averse to feedback. The people that think that they know everything. They may look down on you because you’re younger; you don’t write the same thing; what you write isn’t as ‘prolific’ or ‘important’ as what they do, or they’re just a bigot. They may well be happy to tear your work to pieces because it isn’t what they would do, but they’re forgetting one very important thing: it’s your piece.
Ignore those kinds of people.
If the person whose work you’re workshopping doesn’t appreciate feedback and you know it, don’t waste your time going in depth into something. Especially not if you could spend that time giving feedback on a piece of work where the writer would appreciate it, and listen to what you have to say. Even if they don’t agree with what you say, the important thing is that they listen to it. They might even argue back. That’s good — they care about their work, and they care enough about you to value your opinion on it.
The People You Should Workshop With
The best people to workshop with aren’t necessarily those that write the same thing as you. They should have knowledge in your area, but you don’t have to write fantasy to workshop it. So long as you know about fiction, you can give feedback on it. I often send my poetry to one of my friends that enjoys poetry but doesn’t write it. I also send my poetry and scripts to her, and she sends her work to me. We comment on things in a similar way (tough, but fair), and we don’t take things personally: that’s why we work well together. That’s the kind of person you want to workshop with.
The longer you workshop with someone, the easier it will become.
It will then become easier to tell someone that their piece isn’t as good as their usual work. There will always be pieces that we write that aren’t as good as our usual work, but that’s ok. This is the beauty of writing workshops: it gives us a fresh pair of eyes to notice things we otherwise wouldn’t have.
Workshopping can point out minor things like typos, and go all the way up to picking up on major plot holes. Both can be equally as important if you want to submit your work for publication, so always take in any feedback that you’re given.
Just because someone doesn’t have a fancy title, that doesn’t mean their opinion isn’t valid.
The harshest criticism is no criticism.
– Georgina Lock
The best workshoppers aren’t the ones with fancy titles or degrees. The best workshoppers are the ones that care about you and your work. They care about your feelings, but not enough to put them above improving your work.
Georgina Lock, one of my postgraduate teachers, said that the more feedback you give on a piece, the more you care about the work (and the person). I fully agree with this.
If someone gives you next to no feedback, it’s not necessarily a sign that the work is bad: they could be shy. If the room goes quiet after you’ve read your piece, ask a question. There’s bound to be something that you’re unsure of, so ask what they think of a certain phrase, plot point, or character trait, and go from there. It’s hard to be the first person to speak in a workshop — especially if a piece is controversial — so make it easier for people by giving them a starting point.
If someone does have something to say, don’t interrupt them. Let them finish what they’re saying before you speak. Some workshops adopt the tactic of the writer not speaking until everyone has given feedback. I’m not a fan of this myself, as I would rather address a question whilst it’s fresh in people’s minds, but if someone in the group has a tendency to interrupt, it can be useful.
Benefits of Giving and Receiving Feedback
Never underestimate what you can learn from workshopping someone else’s work. They may have a better grasp of grammar than you, they may approach the same topic in a completely different way, or they may have some great ideas for character arcs.
Don’t underestimate how much you can learn from giving feedback.
You may even discover a hidden talent for it, or a love of editing. Many writers work as editors, so it’s a useful skill to have.
Receiving feedback, meanwhile, allows you to find out how people receive your work and if it’s been interpreted in the way that you intended. It helps you to grow as a writer, and forces you to learn to control your emotions and think rationally about the piece(s) in front of you.
The chances are that what is said in your workshop will be nowhere near as bad as what the critiques and trolls would say should you get published.
How do you feel about writing workshops? Are you comfortable giving and receiving feedback on writing?
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