You’ve signed up for your first workshop, and you are freaking out. You have no idea what to expect, except a vague idea that your work will be shredded and you’ll be found out as a complete fraud. OR you’ve been told that your work is amazing so many times that you secretly expect an ego stroking, though you won’t admit this to anyone. Unless you are in a really crappy workshop, both expectations are faulty. As former Editor-in-Chief of my alma mater’s literary journal and former President of the Creative Writing club, I’ve run my share of workshops. As a MFA student at Spalding, I’ve been to my share of workshops. Here are some tips on how to prepare for (and what to expect at) writer’s workshops.
- Writers spend more time agonizing over what piece to workshop, and with reason. You don’t want to take a piece that isn’t good in your own eyes. You also shouldn’t take a piece that you consider finished (unless your only reason for going is the aforementioned ego stroking). Like Goldilocks, you want a piece that is just right – good but not too good. My advice? Find a piece that has a problem that you can’t put your finger on. The group may be able to help you identify the problem.
- Proof your work. I’ll say it again, PROOF YOUR WORK. It’s the hugest insult to the people in your workshop if you turn in shoddy work for critique. You will be embarrassed. Trust me on this. I’ve seen it. And the people in your workshop will talk about how shoddy the work is. One more time for emphasis – Proof your work.
- Some workshops require you to turn in your work in advance. You swap with the other writers. If you are lucky enough to get the work beforehand, read it three times. First, read it to enjoy it without making comments. Second, go through the piece and make margin notes. You should also read the work AND your notes the day before the workshop to make sure the piece is fresh in your mind. As with a beta read, your comments should include a mix of what the writer does well and where their piece needs some work.
- If you don’t turn in or receive the pieces until the workshop itself, bring enough copies of your work for everyone, including the instructor. It’s difficult to listen to a piece, and remember what to comment on. A printed copy gives your readers something to make notes on. You cheat yourself if you forget the copies.
- Most workshops ask the writer to read a portion of their piece aloud. It may be only a page. Practice reading your selection out loud. Sometimes you will hear mistakes or a problem with pacing. If you practice ahead of time, you have a chance to make changes. It’s embarrassing to read a work aloud and find your dialogue sounds unrealistic, even coming out of your own mouth.
- A good workshop doesn’t jump right into what’s wrong with a piece. The workshop leader will generally set the tone, though, and I’ve been to a lot of workshops that went down this path. It’s not a good scene. While you can’t control the workshop, you can control what you say. Remember that it’s easier to swallow a criticism if you can see the reader has spent time with your work. If you like something the writer is doing, point it out. THEN, move on to something you thought could be fixed. Don’t ego stroke, but be honest. Be specific. Vague comments make me think a reader hasn’t read my work that thoroughly.
- Example: You have a gift for writing dialogue that sounds both gritty and true to the rough nature of your character. You might want to work on the pacing in this section, though. It undercuts the work you’re doing with the dialogue and the exposition slows things down.
- The BEST workshop I’ve ever been to required us to analyze the work like it was Shakespeare before we dared to criticize it.* Can you imagine how amazing it is to have someone spend time reading your work for the symbolism you achingly laid in place? If you analyze the work from this place, the workshop discussions are deeper. The workshop opened with, “Tell me what you saw at work in this piece” or “What devices did you notice this writer using?” The discussion naturally brought out where the piece was strongest AND weakest without stripping the writer’s soul in front of the group. This type of reading takes time, but it is worth every second for the respect it shows respect the writer. Try this in a beta read, too, and see what a difference it makes.
- Worst. Comment. Ever. Award goes to “I liked it.” This comment is the kiss of death in a workshop. It has three translations. First, I didn’t read your piece and can’t possibly comment on it. Second, I hated your piece and can’t think of anything nice to say. Third, I have no confidence in my opinion/ability to critique and am hoping this will get me off the hook. All three of these are a cop out. Don’t say you liked something unless you can back it up with solid reasons why.
- Don’t be afraid to go against the popular opinion. Sometimes an alpha appears at a workshop. This is the person who knows everything, talks more than their share, and speaks with authority on EVERYTHING. This person can sometimes sway a group’s opinion on a work. Don’t be a lemming. Stand by your belief. After all, you’ve read the work three times, you’ve made notes, and you’re insanely prepared to comment.
- Most workshops require you to remain silent while your work is discussed. With good reason. While you STAY silent, make notes on everything that said about your work. It gives you an excuse to be invisible while you die a thousand times inside. Don’t filter your notes – write both the good and bad down even if you don’t agree. These come in handy when you’re back home and thinking revisions.
- After your work has been discussed, the floor is generally yours for a couple of minutes. This is generally meant for you to answer any specific questions or ask questions about comments you didn’t understand. Don’t use this time as an opportunity to make excuses or be defensive. It’s an insult to the people who spent time reading your work. Have some class, be gracious, and then go whine to your friends at home.
*I have to give credit where it is due. The leader of this particular workshop was author and Spalding faculty member, K.L. Cook. If you see a workshop led by him, sign up immediately. Do not pass go. Seriously.