Authorial Intrusion: Giving and Receiving (Part 2)

My last post was about things to consider if you’re planning to attend a writing workshop. Let’s say you’ve found the right workshop for you. Most likely one important component will be submitting your writing for feedback by fellow participants.

And this is where things often fall apart.

I’ve seen it happen in my MFA program. In small critique groups. In online forums. In structured workshops. Writers come with the best of intentions but have different expectations. Someone gets offended and the whole thing implodes.

New Orleans

I had three long months between being accepted to a recent workshop and attending which gave me plenty of time to worry about the group dynamics. How would we get along? Would we have productive sessions or would things languish into an awkward silence? Happily we quickly got into a nice groove. By the end of our session, we knew each other’s preferences and tendencies.

Here are five guidelines to help make sure you have a productive workshop experience:

  • Honor the rules. They are there for a reason. Most workshops have formal or informal rules. Submit the required number of pages in the required format. At the required time. Send your comments to other writers as requested. If the workshop leader asks you to remain quiet while others are discussing your work, then remain quiet. That also means no strange faces, no audible sighs, no slumping back in your seat.
  • It’s all about giving and receiving. I’m often amazed when a writer tries to slide by with lame feedback on everyone else’s work but expects a dissertation on his or her work. First, this is a two-way street. Second, you learn as much (or more!) by offering thoughtful comments on another writer’s work as you do reading comments about your work. You’re engaging in critical thinking, rather than passively reading.
  • Check your ego at the door. Your group doesn’t need to be bombarded with comments insisting that they MUST change something or they will be sent to writing purgatory. And no piling on without adding something new.
    • Addendum: Likewise, check the cheerleading at the door. Writers are there for honest feedback. While I’d love to hear that you think I’m the next Ruth Ozeki, I also need information about how to improve.
  • Honest feedback doesn’t mean brutally honest. Yes, we writers need a thick skin. If you can’t take having your work dissected, this might not be the best creative outlet for you. But there is a line between offering constructive criticism and criticizing. If you’re not sure where that line is, ask the group leader.
  • Remember that the character’s lifestyle and beliefs don’t necessarily match the author’s…or yours. And that’s okay.
    • Addendum: Just because you’re not familiar with something doesn’t mean it’s not possible. A long time ago (in a land far, far away), I had submitted a short story for feedback. One woman found my character unrealistic because she lived in an apartment above a hair salon. “Who does that?” the woman asked.

 

Have you been part of a writing workshop? Have any items to add to the list?

Next time, I have some suggestions on the most difficult aspect of a workshop: what to do with all those comments you received.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

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31 comments

  1. This is really good, Jackie, thank you. As you know, I’m not part of a writing group, and I’ve only in small doses attended workshops, but I do have critique partners. I think many of your suggestions can also apply to those situations. (I’m afraid I’m not always up to the task of offering feedback so I think it would be really useful to attend a workshop…I tend toward the cheerleader type…) Very useful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dude! Where was I for Part I? Nice post and I completely agree with you on all points, especially the one about criticizing just for the sake of putting it out there instead of constructive feedback and edits to make it better. There is usually one of those in every workshop and most of the time I had to let that roll off my back, everyone did. 🙂 I’m gonna have to check out Part I.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great guidelines, Jackie. I’ve only attended one writing workshop and it was hard for me because we had to stand in front of the group and read our work. I can’t stand public speaking! Luckily, everyone was really positive and helpful.

    The “Who does that?” comment made me laugh. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can totally relate to the fear of public speaking. At the workshop I attended recently, we had to read an excerpt of our stories for about 5 minutes. But, as you found at your workshop, everyone was very supportive. The fear of the reading was much worse than the actual reading. 🙂

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  4. This is all great advice, Jackie. Laying the ground rules for fair criticism is so essential as well as following them. I’ve been in workshops where the rules weren’t followed and they were brutal. And so detrimental to others.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely. When people just didn’t listen and kept defending the work, it was frustrating. But I understand why they do it. I absolutely do, but I’ve learned to wait and ask questions, rather than jump in and defend. Hard to do though.

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  5. These are helpful tips, Jackie. I’ve also found that you don’t necessarily need to consider all feedback – as the writer, you decide what works for you. Sometimes having too much information can hurt our work too.

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    1. I felt very nervous about sending my work to a group of strangers! What if they said terrible things about it? That was my main concern. But I decided that I really liked this story and I wanted it to be the best I could make it. To do that I needed to get other writers’ opinions. I think their feedback helped me focus on areas where I could improve the story.

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  6. Like Darla, I haven’t had the courage to attend one of these yet, but the comment about brutal honesty still resonated. I don’t ask my husband to critique my work anymore for that reason – my editor is much more subtle with corrections.

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    1. I’ve found that group leaders keep an eye out for anyone who is not following the “rules.” That person will receive a stern talking to and could be ousted from the group — though I’ve never seen it get that far!

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  7. Several years ago I was in a small writing group in which we critiqued one another’s work. It was a good experience. The routine of meeting was the most valuable aspect in and of itself – it kept me focused on writing and kept the projects moving forward. You’ve given me a lot to think about with this post!

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    1. I couldn’t agree more! Having a deadline helps me immensely. If I know I need to submit pages to my group by a certain date, I can set my sights on that. Otherwise Netflix is but a click away. 🙂

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  8. Ah, yes. You hit two nerves. Brutally honest is one. Margaret Atwood, as much as I admire her writing, once gave a writing workshop at my college–and she tore people apart. Totally unproductive. Which leads me to applaud your other point–leave your ego at the door:). I wish she would have . . . attendees could have learned so much more had they not been picking their hearts up off the floor in tiny shards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ugh– I’m sorry to hear about that disheartening (to say the least) experience. How disappointing when it could have been so inspiring! There is a balance between being encouraging and providing critical feedback, but it should never veer off into the brutal honesty realm. I hope you’ll take another, more welcoming workshop soon. 🙂

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