School bells across the country will soon be ringing again, which serves as a reminder that education is a lifelong journey. Regardless of your age, you and your writing can benefit from stepping into a classroom – even if you haven’t done so since high school.
Bringing your work to a writing group can provide feedback and insight from readers in a supportive environment. Being in a workshop also means that you have to help other writers with their creative process, which may sound like a burden but it can also enhance your editing and analytical skills.
Unfortunately, nearly every workshop has one of “those types”: nit-pickers, over-sharers, negative Nellies. Don’t be that way. Here are some guidelines for being the best presenter, reader and commenter in a workshop.
Eighteen rules for being a good writing workshop participant
1. A writing workshop is considered a safe space to drop your inhibitions and share work that has become a part of the soul. Maintain respect for your peers and for their work.
2. Do your homework. If you are supposed to print out a chapter of your book, print out a chapter of your book – and enough copies for everyone. Don’t show up with your laptop and decide what to read on the spot. Not only will this create chaos, but not being prepared is also disrespectful to fellow participants.
3. Make sure that your submission is ready for critique. Yes, it can be half of a chapter, but you should be happy with that half chapter. If you present a piece that you haven’t molded into a state you’re happy with, other people’s ideas might confuse the entire concept.
4. If the material is available, read others’ work before class and have concrete comments prepared. Just as it’s important for you to get feedback, it’s important other writers as well.
5. Be sure to have backup comments about each piece in case someone before you makes the same point.
6. Putting one’s writing on the line is scary. Whether you love or hate the piece, help the writer get his or her work perfect by being honest and offering specific suggestions. Recent Harvard University graduate Kimberly Onah says, “Don’t be afraid to be critical of your peers’ pieces. Sometimes I felt that my peers weren’t being completely honest with each other. That doesn’t give you the right to be mean or rude, but constructive criticism is very helpful.”
7. Part of a workshop is figuring out problems, so the conversation may take a negative turn. Kimberlee Auerbach Berlin has taught for Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Mediabistro and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Her strategy for balancing the good and the bad: “Always start with something positive, something that grabbed your attention, a line that you loved. There is always something positive to say about a piece. This helps make any constructive feedback easier to hear.”
8. Be true to your opinion. If you respond strongly one way and the rest of the class feels the opposite, know that your feelings are still valid. Somewhere in the world, another reader will feel the same way – and the writer should be aware of that possibility.
9. That said, know how to let it go if others don’t agree with your critique. There is no need to fight for your point. Say your piece and move on.
10. Know the difference between a “bad story” and “poor execution of a good concept,” says Patricia Pete, Ringling College of Art and Design 2015 graduate. “When writing, we have to pay attention to how we use language and what it communicates to other people,” she says. “It can be an out-of-this-world concept, but if the writing is strong and the plot clear, you’ve got something. Or perhaps you have an amazing concept, but it becomes a car crash of a story, which is immediately written off. Instead of sitting on ‘it’s good’ or ‘it’s bad,’ we should be asking ourselves: How do you tell an effective story? How do you show that story? And most important, are you having fun with that story?”
11. Whether you’re critiquing or being critiqued, be aware of how much time you’ve spent talking. Other people’s opinions are just as valuable as yours, so keep it short.
12. As a writer, don’t argue the criticism being given and never interrupt to do so. Auerbach Berlin says, “Try to listen and breathe and address notes in your writing.” Be confident in your work. Ask questions if you have them and say thank you.
13. Whether presenting or commenting, avoid getting personal, Auerbach Berlin says. “Don’t go off on a story about yourself or your life. That’s not feedback.”
14. Comments about formatting, grammar and spelling are helpful, but the purpose of a workshop isn’t to copy edit. Focus on the “big picture” concepts and present the writer with your marked up pages if the story is riddled with errors.
15. The writer presenting will only be able to absorb so much of the verbal critique, so hand over your notes to give him or her more time to better process the advice.
16. When your contribution is being workshopped, Auerbach Berlin suggests recording the discussion. “It can be very emotional, and you can get very defensive, often making it hard for you to really hear what’s being said,” she says. “If it’s recorded, you can go back and listen, helping you hear something you may have missed.”
17. Keep an open mind. If you are set in your ways, the whole point of getting ideas and opinions to help improve your work is defeated. Your fellow writers might spark something you’ve never considered.
18. Use the critiques you receive – or don’t. The workshop police won’t come knocking if you don’t incorporate every suggestion.
Meredith Quinn is a graduate of New York University and a former managing editor at The Writer.
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