I couldn’t find guidelines for the kinds of writing workshops that I took in college (and now teach through Skillshare), so I wrote them up myself. Am I missing anything? How do you workshop your writing?
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Every creative writing workshop has its own quirks, but here’s a rough guide to leading and participating in your local, in-person workshop (or Skype or Google Hangout workshop—hint, hint!).
Respect and trust your fellow workshoppers. You’re all at different skill levels with different writing strengths. Respect that others will have divergent tastes from you, and expect that not everyone may get your style, and you may not get everyone else’s. Don’t be a jerk.
Bring enough hard copies for everyone in the group. I know, I know: “Paper, ugh!” But, this way, workshoppers can make notes on the page the way an editor would, and view the text the way your potential reader would.
Sit in a circle, sharing your work and receiving your critique one by one. This will feel weird if you’ve never taken a creative writing workshop before. However! Aside from working with a professional editor, this is one of the best ways to experience your story through the eyes of an anonymous reader. It’s almost impossible to be objective about your own work, and you need insights from others to find out which parts of your story need further development.
When it’s your turn to share your work, read your work out loud to the group. Again, this will probably feel weird. But it ensures that everyone hears your work in its entirety; it quite literally makes sure that everyone is on the same page.
When you’re done reading your work, the group gets to comment without interruption from you. Let your editors say what they will, and jot down their responses whether you plan to incorporate their suggestions or not. Don’t worry about whether others think your piece is “good.” Worry instead if they don’t get a joke or find something to be offensive or are unclear about what’s literally happening in the story. The only chance for a piece to be “good” is if the writing is clear, first and foremost.
When the group is done commenting on your work, feel free to ask follow-up questions. Again, “is this good?” should not be your follow-up question. More appropriate follow-up questions have to do with how you want the story to fit together. For instance: “Is character X believable, or is she too crazy?” “Do you get why character X made that decision?” “Is joke X distracting?” You’re not going to please everyone, but you can make sure that your characters are as engaging as possible and that readers care about what’s unfolding as much as possible.
When you’re critiquing someone else’s work, feel free to write on that person’s draft. In particular, note which parts you like and which parts are confusing. This will help the author figure out which parts to keep—and which parts to either refine or throw out.
When you’re critiquing someone else’s work, tell him or her what you liked about the piece. When I’m leading a group, I like to ask, “What were your favorite parts? Favorite moments? Favorite jokes?” One of my teachers liked to put a check mark above all his favorite parts of a story; you knew that if each page was full of check marks, you stood in good stead.
When you’re critiquing someone else’s work, be constructive and supportive. Don’t say “this sucks.” That’s not helpful. Instead, tell the author how to improve his or her work. If you think the story lacks something, mention this to the author and be specific. Perhaps he or she needs to describe what’s at stake for the main character? Or explain the main character’s motivation? Or add more imagery?
Mention to the author what his or her work reminds you of. If the author’s story reminds you of another work, bring that up. If you as an editor say something like, “Oh, this reads like The House of Mirth, but in a sorority!” that gives the author a convenient model for his or her story. (Also, “The House of Mirth, but in a sorority” sounds pretty hilarious. Someone go write that essay.)
If you’re commenting on someone else’s work, give the author’s draft back to him or her. Similarly if you’re critiquing someone’s draft online via the Projects section, please do not share another author’s work with people outside of the class without their permission. This happened to me once, and I’m still seething with fury—even though the non-classmate liked the story. That’s not the point. You know what you did, Steve.