anonymous asked: Do you think creative writing workshops are useful? There’s one starting in my hometown next month, and I’m tempted to join; BUT in the past I’ve noticed that whenever I’m in a class or workshop I tend to sacrifice my personal style for what the teacher wants. Any advice on how to handle this? Thanks.
Joining a writing workshop is a unique experience. It can foster your work, but it can also frustrate you. An important part of determining how the workshop process affects you is your own attitude towards it, so we are going to try to give you some workshopping tips in order to make the process as helpful as it can be.
First, what’s a workshop?
Workshop (n): A writing community dedicated to giving writing advice through lessons and personal feedback.
Sounds fun, yes? It also probably sounds terrifying. Have no fear. Workshops weren’t created to intimidate, but rather to educate. Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding if a workshop is right for you:
- Research the workshop. If you go to the Wikipedia entry for a writing workshop, you’ll see a very rigid format for how it runs. Not all workshops follow this structure. If you’re considering a workshop, do a little research into it to see what sort of format they use, which demographics they usually include, who the instructor is, and what limits they have (some workshops have strict rules against genre fiction, so don’t sign up for one of those to test the waters on your space fantasy zombie saga). Research will curb the potential for disappointment on day one.
- Listen. During the mini-lessons, you might feel that you already know about what’s going on. That doesn’t matter. Listen anyway. Hearing something again will only reinforce your knowledge. If you disagree with something or don’t understand it, ask a question. There is no correct way to write, but most lessons worth anything (like most blog posts, actually) are not trying to get you to write a certain way, they’re trying to help you understand writing a certain way so you can use that knowledge to best fit your style.
- Be excited to read. Some workshoppers have this idea that workshop is something of a give-and-take: I begrudgingly read your drivel in exchange for you reading my masterpiece and giving me praise for it. That’s not how it works. Typically, the more thorough (and polite) your criticism of other people, the more thorough (and polite) feedback you will receive.
Additionally, criticizing also helps developing your writing skills. You are forced to pay careful attention to every aspect of a piece, which in turn makes you think actively as a writer. If you consistently notice things that work or don’t work, you can use what you’ve learned there and use it in your own writing. Further, it hones your abilities as an editor, allowing you to lend more of a critical eye to your own writing.
- Organize yourself and be specific. Response time is valuable. If you take notes on each of the pieces from the other workshoppers and know exactly which points (both positive and negative) you want to make about them, you won’t be flipping through the manuscripts looking for your next comment while other people are talking, resulting in your missing something interesting.
As a rule of thumb, don’t criticize the writer, criticize the writing (“the characters in this piece feel flat because…” not “your characters are flat because…”). Also, when speaking, remember that a specific compliment makes someone feel better than a general one, and a specific criticism is more helpful that a vague one.
When you speak, try making a compliment sandwich: something positive, something negative, something positive. For example:
Now you’ve made the point of negative criticism (you think there are too many details) and it ends up being an even stronger point in juxtaposition with both of your compliments.
The imagery here was exceptionally vivid; I really felt that I was walking in the woods with Susie. I especially liked [cite a couple of really great details and why they worked]. However, sometimes I think those longer sections can get a little lost. Pages three through six seem to distract from Susie’s quest to reach the Epic Grilled Cheese. Sometimes, like in the explanation of the tree trunk on page five, I forgot about her entirely. The first two pages of plot set-up with the cabin on top of the mountain were so intriguing that I don’t think they should be distracted from so greatly.
- Make sure you criticize. Nobody joins a writing workshop to be told that their work is brilliant and they don’t need any help. Nothing is perfect. Even if a piece blows your mind, there’s something in there that could be strengthened. Make sure the person knows you liked their work, but also make the criticism known.
- Treat feedback appropriately. There are a couple of ways to receive feedback, both positive and negative. Here are some things to keep in mind:
When you’re sitting in a workshop, scribbling into your notepad (bring one of those, by the way), keep these things in mind so you will be able to revise more effectively. Speaking of which:
- Do not take feedback personally. This is a terrible idea. Hopefully, your fellow workshoppers are courteous (for example, they say “the dialogue in this piece could be stronger” as opposed to “your dialogue is weak”). In any event, feedback is designed to help make your piece stronger, not to make you feel inferior as a writer. If people are making you feel inferior, make sure you’re not reading too much into it, then ignore them.
- Do not feel forced to sacrifice style. This one is hard. Theoretically, you could defend any criticism with “well, that’s just my style.” There are people in workshops who do just that. Nobody likes them. If you made a choice in your writing and a good chunk of workshoppers disliked it (or even one workshopper disliked it but they had a good reason for doing so), evaluate that choice. However, if you believe that your stylistic choice is valid (for example, your narration is full of swear words and your narrator is a sixteen year-old boy who listens to a lot of Ben Folds), stick with it.
- Never ignore praise. If you get a good chunk of negative criticism, it can be difficult to feel good about your work. However, most workshoppers (unless they’re terrible people) mention things that they like about your piece. Make notes of those comments too and use them to boost your self-esteem. If people say that your characters are really developed but your scene-setting is weak, find ways to channel your character-building skills (depth, attention to detail, etc.) into your scene-setting.
- Ask questions. Some workshops have a rule that states that, if your piece is being criticized, you are not allowed to speak except for a few minutes allotted to you at the end. If this is the case, use that time wisely. Often, when people are trying to be critical but want to be nice, they’re vague. If someone said that they didn’t think the ending felt complete, and you don’t know what that means, ask them. Be willing to put them on the spot to get the answers you need.
We think this goes without saying here, but don’t use your speaking time to tell people that they’re idiots or that they don’t understand your work. That’s mean, and it doesn’t hurt anyone more than yourself.
- Revise. Sit down with all of your notes, all of your manuscripts, and sort through what’s going on. Develop some sort of system. Try to work as broadly as possible first then working your way in. (There’s no sense in fixing the grammar of a section that you end up taking out.) Use your own editing method. It might help if you make a list of what needs to be done, and let those things simmer. Don’t start attacking your work right away. Take a few days to let it sit and then come back to it with a fresh mind. Coming home right after a workshop and taking a machete to your piece right away is often unwise because your thoughts have not had time to settle. If you got a really brilliant idea on the way home, of course, toss it in, but don’t sit in front of your stacks of papers and wallow in misdirection right when you get home.
When you workshop, give the other people your respect. Criticize their work politely and take their criticisms as they are: ideas from one individual writer. No story, no matter how marvelous, is right for everyone, so don’t feel that your workshop piece has to be. At the end of the day, it’s your work and you can do what you want, but know that the most important thing to do at a workshop is to go in with an open mind.
Thanks for your question. If you have any comments, criticisms (remember, be polite and specific!), questions, declarations of affection, etc., feel free to use our ask box!