There are two external things that a writer needs in order to improve their writing. First, a writer needs readers. It’s one thing to write for yourself – meaning that you’re not beholden to anyone else; it’s another thing to write only for yourself. If you’re a writer in the former, then get a diary and stick to journaling. For everyone else, being a writer with no readers is a painful experience. We write to communicate the shared human experience. We write to speak to another person’s soul. We write to be read. Second, a writer needs constructive feedback. Fortunately, creative writing workshops offer both necessities.
The standard format for most creative writing workshops is for all of the members to bring in the piece they want workshopped and to share it with the other members. So in a workshop of 10 members, each member gets 9 other pieces to read and discuss in addition to their own. Each member reads the other members’ pieces and prepares notes for discussion at the next meeting. Depending on the number of members and how often the workshop meets, each meeting may workshop more than one piece.
On the feedback day for any piece, the author is usually invited to read the piece aloud before notes from the group are given. If there’s a moderator, then he or she will begin the discussion. Some formats assign a primary responder to the piece with follow-up notes given by the remaining members. During the feedback, the writer of the piece remains silent. Once the feedback is complete, then the writer is allowed to respond.
Obviously, workshops can be very valuable to any writer looking to improve. Not only are the readers invested in your piece, but they’re also going to provide feedback (hopefully) in a way that an average reader reading your work for pleasure would not. What’s arguably more important, however, is simply being in a group of fellow creatives. Writing is lonely work, and it’s an indescribable boon to be around people who understand and share your struggle.
While workshops can be useful, you will only get out of it what you put into it. Even then, what you get out of it may not be valuable until you refine it through a process that can discern the gold from the garbage. The following tips can help you get the most out of your writing workshop experience.
Bring Your Very Best Work
Do not submit rough drafts or first drafts. You should workshop pieces that you have done your best to write, but are having trouble with particular areas and need to see how a reader understands your work. Alternatively, you can workshop final drafts that you are considering entering into a contest or submitting to a literary journal as a last chance sanity check.
Bringing your best work will also make you more comfortable in having other people read and criticize it. When you are confident, it’s easier to accept feedback without feeling judged. Moreover, when you understand where your piece is strong or where your work says exactly what it’s supposed to say, you’ll be able to create an internal filter for what criticism is actually useful to you.
Lastly, the workshop does not exist to write your piece for you. This is important to remember because submitting essentially incomplete work to the workshop is not only lazy, but also creatively useless. A piece can change dramatically on the journey from an early draft to a final draft. If you are a serious writer and are serious about communicating your vision, then you should shut out other voices that might pollute yours during these developing stages.
Understand the Process and Follow It
Most workshops will follow the format described above for a very simple but important reason: It’s the best way to facilitate communication. As an artist and creative person, I can tell you that it is sometimes difficult to put something out into the world and have other criticize it. It’s the same feeling that parents must feel about their children. As such, the impulse to immediately defend your work can be very strong in a workshop environment, and if the writer were to respond to every comment and criticism, then the workshop could easily devolve into an argument. That’s why the writer is asked to just sit there quietly and absorb the feedback. Truthfully, it’s harder to really consider someone’s critique when you’re focused on responding. You’ll have time to respond; just make sure you also use the time that is allocated for listening.
Funnel the Feedback
If you are workshopping a piece, then you realize that something needs work. It might be the pacing or the characters or a bit of dialog. Whatever it is, you know that that is where you want the workshop to focus on. You shouldn’t draw attention to it before they read, but you should definitely ask about it when it’s time to respond to the feedback.
Develop a Feedback Filter
Writing workshops are made up of people, and people are flawed. Some members will have no business being in the workshop because they are simply bad writers and their opinion will have very little value. Some members will feel threatened by work that they consider superior, so they will unnecessarily give negative feedback. Some people are just having a bad day and just want to destroy something beautiful. The point is that not every piece of feedback is going to be useful. That’s why it’s important to develop a good feedback filter, and the best way to do that is to have a very strong understanding of what your piece is about and what you are trying to convey to the reader. When that’s solid, then you’ll know when suggestions are incorrect, cosmetic, or would take your work in the wrong direction.
Like any profession, a writer needs tools, and a creative writing workshop is just one of the many utilities writers can avail themselves of to hone their craft. It can be a daunting experience to expose yourself to strangers in this very intimate way, but it’s also thrilling for the same reasons. If that isn’t enough to convince you to at least try the workshop experience, then at least consider it for the following reason: Creative people need to be around creativity.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 24, 2007. It has been updated.