Friday, July 9, 2021

Pros and Cons of Workshopping Your Writing--How to Survive It, How to Gain the Most from It

Years ago, I attended a summer writing conference at one of the most renowned colleges in the US. A friend lived in the town, invited me to stay the week, and spend five days workshopping my short stories in a small group of writers from all over the country. I said yes. It sounded perfect for where I was in the process: I liked my stories and so did my writer's group, but I hadn't really opened the door to wider feedback.

It was a terrible experience.

We all have war stories about bad feedback. If you've been writing and attending conferences or classes for more than a few years, you know the range of possible reactions when workshopping: annoying to devastating, from "Let's ignore that comment" to "I'll never touch that piece again."

I loved being with my friend. We had a great time. But by the third day, I was skipping the (expensive) workshopping sessions in favor of a great coffee shop. The feedback, for me at that time, was not well monitored by the teacher. In fact, it felt like he stood by and encouraged the most off-the-wall critical comments you could imagine.

Peer review, which is what happens in workshopping, should be supportive (but not coddling), fostering careful readers who respect our ideas yet offer good ones of their own.

But I've heard from many students and clients over the years that this is hard to come by. In classes, sometimes but not always. In writer's groups, the same.

So where does a writer find this kind of supportive feedback? How can we gather readers who open us to new insights, keep us writing, keep us enthused and engaged with our own writing?

The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Ugly in Workshopping

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. An experienced instructor or good ground rules within a writer's group helps everyone help you. A functioning group is actually a "stand-in" 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, not just my nightmare above, 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. I spoke a little about this in my post on feedback a few weeks ago.

Either we carry the 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, we harbor grave doubts about our worth as writers, sure the piece is terrible, not worth the time to read it. 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?

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.

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