We're all searching for supportive (but not coddling) and careful readers who respect our ideas yet offer good ones of their own.
Where to find this kind of feedback? Some people get it from a writers group. Some get it from workshops and classes. Some exchange writing with a feedback partner. Whatever works! As long as the comments open you to new insights, keep you writing, keep you enthused and engaged with your own writing, they are useful.
But all of these methods are based on vulnerability--sharing ideas and images and attempts with people who don't see the full vision you do. And most of these employ something called the "workshopping method," which has its pros and cons. How do you set yourself up for success? For the best possible outcome with the least risk? It's not easy--but there are definitely things to embrace and things to avoid when workshopping your writing.
The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Ugly in Workshopping
I've been on both sides of the workshop table--in person and online. As instructor for fifteen years, as participant for even longer, I've survived MFA workshopping sessions, summer conferences, weekly classes, and virtual gatherings. Most were extremely helpful. Those workshops kept me writing.
But some stopped me cold.
About ten years ago--the memory is still vivid, down to the humid air, the buzz of chatter in the hall!--I eagerly arrived at a week-long workshop with a Famous Writer. Big fan of his short stories, I awaited his wisdom. The conference was at one of the most respected in the U.S. I'd been a student here before; I came home with gems. Expected no less this time. But top writers do not always make top teachers. The week bombed. Although I'd been published for decades, I left so discouraged by the feeding frenzy--completely unmonitored by the instructor, who almost looked like he relished it!--I never looked at my story-in-progress again.
I learned a couple of things:
1. Teaching skill is more important than writing fame, when it comes to instructors.
2. Set up what I want from a workshopping session and discriminate--don't accept all the feedback without examining its value against my vision for the piece.
3. Take at least a day after feedback to let the ego relax. Otherwise, I can get overly defensive or overly defeated.
Why Workshop at All?
Most writers--in my experience--are well meaning and kind. They want to help. They want to offer good feedback. But your peer may be confused about just what to say. They don't realize that they aren't supposed to rewrite your piece--that's your job. They don't realize they aren't supposed to impose their own vision on your writing--they're just supposed to ask questions and open doors for you.
Here's where good facilitation is key. A writer who knows the workshopping method or an experienced instructor or good ground rules helps a group really help you. A functioning group are actually "stand-ins" for your future readers: they not only point out areas of confusion, they let you see your work from a new viewpoint, revealing those blind spots we all have.
But in worst case scenarios, and there are many, the workshopping process narrows to just a fault-finding mechanism, as instructor and author Madison Smartt Bell says in Narrative Design. Just hearing what isn't working can be disheartening. It dampens the spark of a fledgling piece of writing. After a workshopping session, Bell would often get second drafts "that very likely had less obvious flaws than the first, but also a whole lot less interest." This happens because writers follow the comments too closely, without holding their own vision of the piece. If they take every comment as God's truth, it can result in conformist work that lacks passion and originality. Writing, that as Smartt says, is "well-tooled, inoffensive, unexceptional, and rather dull."
In the very worst situations, this process of conforming to craft as dictated by peers causes some writers to not take any risks, not try new ideas or structures. This is how the much-joked-about "MFA clone" emerges.
What made the difference in my very positive workshopping experiences--of which there have been many? First, an alert, caring facilitator. Someone who knows when to encourage, when to critique. Who guides the process carefully, promoting originality and risk-taking and craft improvement, but not at the death of creative ideas and exploration.
Second, alert writers. Each writer must act as his or her own moderator, filtering the feedback and discriminating its value. Asking more specific questions to the group. Knowing that, in peer review, nobody can give feedback beyond their own writing skill level.
Our Attitude Affects the Outcome: Writers' Expectations about Their Writing
Most of us come to workshopping with secret dread or secret expectations.
Either a hope that the other writers will see the gold in our writing, be stunned by its perfection, and the instructor will give his or her blessings, saying, "Go forth and publish immediately."
Or, grave doubts about our worth as writers, sure the piece is terrible, not worth the time to read it. We apologize profusely, excuse every mistake. We are blind to what is original and good about voice, prose, plot. We're here only because we live in despair of never finishing.
It takes years to develop a more balanced attitude about getting feedback. Usually, an in-process piece is neither prize-winning nor trash. It's probably somewhere in between.
Such a balanced attitude comes from knowing where we are in the feedback continuum.
Where Are You in the Feedback Continuum?
It's a no-brainer that we need different types of feedback at different points in the writing journey. If you are at early idea stage or early draft, at the intermediate stage of first draft, or if you are revising, your feedback needs to be structured appropriately.
I teach online classes in each of these levels and see this in action every day. In the beginning stages of a project, I offer the option of workshopping chapters or "islands" of writing each week, but not everyone is ready for that. They are still tossing around ideas, trying new structures. So mostly they want encouragement, questions, and options to test out.
Early on, we most require freedom and support to air our book ideas in real time with kind listeners. The goal is to keep writing, keep exploring!
In the draft stage, when the book is really forming, writers need more critical feedback. In my intermediate level classes, we might discuss why a paragraph isn't working, what specific changes might strengthen content or structure. A writer who needs dialogue skills is given specific exercises to practice them, then feedback on improvement when he posts again. We offer ideas on how to solve a sticky plot problem. We learn about overwriting"--a hazard all writers encounter, where both showing and telling are used, and cancel each other out (usually because the writer is unsure if showing is enough). Small workshopping groups of four or five cultivate trust, a sense that we're all struggling equally. No one is above feedback.
At the revision stage, writers have put in more time, know their manuscript well, and are ready for detailed feedback in workshopping groups. In my advanced classes, we examine what makes a chapter work, narrative arcs of characters, using container (setting and culture) to enhance emotion, refining theme and pacing. Each writer posts one chapter a week in their group, then receives comments mid-week and reposts a revision of the same chapter by Friday, so we can all see what happened as they revised.
Writers must stay alert to exceptions, though. For instance, a writer in my Part 3 class is trying out a radical new structure; she needs freedom to not get critical feedback right now, just hear questions and encouragement until she settles into her new structure. Otherwise, confidence in the book idea can plummet. In Part 1, a writer might ask for in-depth responses--how to bring a character more to life or how to move from summary to scene more effectively.
Your job is to understand where you are in the feedback continuum, not push past your level too fast, give your book and your own skills time to grow. Remember that we are all so individual, our writing journeys so unique, you can't compare yourself to another writer's pace or learning process. We each walk more of a spiral continuum than a straight path.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. This week, assess your feedback needs. Where are you in this three-level continuum, right now, with your book project?
2. Then ask yourself if you are getting the level of feedback that most helps you grow as a writer. What might you change?