When I think of Eleanor Roosevelt’s exhortation to “do one thing every day that scares you”, I imagine her words as a chorus for all writers. Writers encounter risks each day, personal and creative. Yet few things ignite fear and doubt in a writer’s heart like a writing workshop. For all the commotion created, the writing workshop is a useful tool for development.
Unlike the feedback from the friends, who may be hesitant to offer the more constructive of criticism, writing workshops aim to deliver balanced and diverse feedback. Unlike the long waiting periods associated with writing submissions, instant feedback is guaranteed. The immediacy is the greatest benefit.
Many writers would have their works read by a mere handful of people, before sending their stories off to a competition or other publication avenue. Making the most of a writing workshop may be the easiest way to help you develop your writing and polish pieces for publication. Varied feedback provides a clearer direction for improvement and a safe space to test out new ideas and techniques you’ve tried.
The typical writing workshop involves group members presenting their works-in-progress. As a group, the writer’s peers examine the piece, provide balanced feedback and suggest ways to improve. Depending on the size of the group and length of time available, the group will discuss many aspects about the piece: the style, the structure, the length, perhaps the potential ending if the piece is incomplete.
While the prospect of presenting a less than polished piece to your peers is unlikely to ever become easy, there are a few ways you can make the most of your writing work-shop.
Try these simple changes to your approach for an overall better experience. In the best writing workshops, you’ll discover things about yourself, notice unconscious writing habits and see your story in a new light.
1. Share more, learn more
Less is more is true for writing. However, more is more is true for writing workshops. Whatever form you choose, the quality of feedback increases with the amount you’re willing to share. You may be hesitant to share your work in progress. Perhaps you’re weary of letting a first draft see the light. Perhaps you’ve only managed to write the first half and a small section of the ending by the deadline.
In any case, there’s no need to worry. Submit all of your work completed thus far and, where unwritten segments remain, compile all those ideas swirling in your mind into a short summary. The feedback that follows will be based on a better understanding of the overall structure and narrative arc.
The truth is a lot of the fear of writing workshops stems from a need for perfection. The insertion of deadline leaves a yearning for more time. I’ve often thought, if only there was more time to perfect the ending, or this is so terrible I can’t let it see the light of day.
In Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, she echoes the writers cry. Perfection is elusive:
"Never never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul — my paintings, my poems, my stories — all poor reflections…”
Furthermore, the fear of “not quite perfect” translates to making unhealthy comparisons between yourself and workshop peers. Perhaps you imagine, like I have, the impending humiliation of handing in a story with a half-baked plot twist. The ideas had flowed, the tension mounted towards the chilling climax of your story, yet somehow none of your experimenting could compare to your perceptions of the people around.
Not only is the comparison game a creativity killer, it hinders the growth of a writer. It discourages writers to take the risks Eleanor Roosevelt so wonderfully reminds us are necessary for a life well lived.
Writing workshops are also a way to implement the dreaded deadline. The pressure is in itself a stimulant for creativity. It’s often the helpful push from “waiting for perfection” to “living for the present”. Make the most of your time by sharing more, rather than less of your writing.
2. Bring spare printed copies
Embracing the opportunity means you’ll have your writing seen by dozens of fresh eyes, that’ll see your story’s positives and problem areas in new ways. An important way to maximise your time is to make sure you don’t miss out on any feedback. Bringing spare printed copies is one of the easiest ways to ensure this.
Different writing workshops operate in different ways. Sometimes the facilitator of discussion will request group members distribute electronic copies of their work a few days before the workshop. Others require writers to read their work in front of the group while also distributing print copies.
As is the case for large discussion groups, the more talkative individuals often dominate. While their feedback is constructive, the time constraints on most writing work-shops mean you may miss out on valuable advice from the quieter peers.
Furthermore, some people may have identified minor problem areas which would be helpful for you to identify. However, under time constraints they mightn’t consider it enough fodder to raise in the discussion. Perhaps you abuse the word “to” on the 2nd page or your use of tense in the final paragraph could use some work. Perhaps your plot twist causes confusion rather than tension.
Preparing spare print copies means that you don’t miss out on any comments, arrows, circles and scribbles that your peers take the time to write down.
3. Leave your feelings at the door
Every writer will know distancing your emotions from your work is a difficult thing to do. When constructive criticism comes your way, it hurts. The #struggleisreal. Your story is the baby you want to shield from the cold, harsh world, but at the same time you know you have to let your baby go eventually.
American author Eudora Welty summarises this conflict well:
No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all writers are willing to work as hard as they do.”
Sharing a draft is a “risk” but it’s a useful exercise. Taking the time to reflect, distance emotions and take on constructive criticism bears enormous benefits for your growth as a writer.
Many people recommend the “sandwich” method for both giving and receiving feedback. Avoid beginning your feedback to another writer with a negative comment. Provide a feedback “sandwich” consisting first of a comment on the positives, then identification of problem areas and then a congratulatory conclusion. This helps you to deliver honest and balanced advice.
4. Prepare questions for the end
At the end of the day “the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people that we will become.” ― Leo Babauta
When we ask ourselves, “how can I keep getting better?”, then the type of person we will be and continually become is better. Understanding the myth of perfection opens you up to a realm of opportunity. Therefore, ask not only yourself but the people around you the hard questions.
Invest time before your writing workshop to formulate a list of questions you want to ask. At the beginning, stay quiet and see where the discussion goes. The natural conversations may already cover most of what you’ve been wondering.
However, before the workshop ends, remember to ask the questions. Perhaps you’ve set your story in an unfamiliar place and are wondering how authentic the descriptions seem. Perhaps you’re aware of how much dialogue is a problem area for you and are curious whether your efforts to improve have worked.
Use the conclusion of the workshop to examine your group members and dive into their thoughts. Pick their brains while your captive audience is there.
5. Be generous
The group work aspect is one of the greatest benefits of a writing workshop. It’s a group effort. Often you’ll have the chance to develop relationships with group members, see their writing evolve over subsequent weeks, and share advice and encouragement. It’s not always so easy, nor will the scare factor ever disappear for good. However, the immense opportunity workshops provide is a great reason why they’ve stuck around as a writing class formula.
Make the most of the group by being generous when providing feedback to other people. Be kind and sensitive, yet also speak with honesty and deliver the hard feedback where necessary. Exercising your skill as a critical reader is a crucial way of developing your writing.
Since the best writing workshops are the ones that maintain honesty, while providing balanced feedback, I’ll be honest. Writing workshops aren’t easy, nor will they ever be. Just as the self doubts are hard to keep at bay, so too is the lurking fear of failure.
The only solace is the knowledge that with risks and challenges come growth and the joys of writing. The writer’s life is simply one where “we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut
How are you making the most of your writing workshops? Tell us in the comments below!