10 Tips for Surviving Writing Workshops
Updated: May 29, 2020
So it’s workshop day.
You’re sitting in a room with a few other people who have read your work. You have their works buzzing around in your head. You have feedback prepped, but that’s not what you’re thinking about. You’re waiting for it to be your turn. You’ll read a small bit of your work out loud and then brace yourself for the comments. Maybe you’ve taken yourself a little too seriously, and you’re ready to shut down what others think. Maybe you’re a little shy of your work, and you’re worried this will be the day you quit writing forever. Here are a few tips on how to survive this scenario.
1. First of all, breathe. Deep breaths. The workshop won’t be as bad as you think it will be, but it’s easy to get worked up over it. You need to be calm to handle feedback—positive and negative. There’s a mixture of excitement and dread that will fray your nerves, but just be calm. Once again, breathe.
2. Make sure you’re prepared. Know exactly what you’re going to read out loud when it’s your turn. Maybe prep beforehand by reading the passage aloud to family or friends. Also, make sure to read the work of your peers. They’re just as interested in feedback as you, and there’s nothing worse than going to a workshop and receiving no comments whatsoever because your peers couldn’t be bothered to read your work.
3. Give the sort of feedback you want to receive. So what are you hoping to receive? Detailed feedback? Perfect. Now be prepared to give detailed feedback to your peers. You’re all writers. All of you want to be able to publish your work eventually. If you give detailed criticism on the works of your peers, they will be much more likely to offer detailed feedback on your work.
4. Don’t be afraid to show a little envy. Often there are moments where a peer’s sentence or idea just sounds perfect. Like, why didn’t you think of that? Own up to your envy, but be cautious on your approach. Don’t look for ways to tear down your peer. Instead, build him or her up. Turn your envy into something positive and compliment the things that you wish you’d thought of first. It keeps the mood of the workshop light, and your fellow writers will likely follow your example in building each other up.
5. Be silent when receiving feedback. So now it’s your turn. It’s extremely important that you be silent when your peers are giving you feedback. Now isn’t the time to argue. It’s the time to really listen for the advice you need to make your work publishable. Limit your defenses and explanations. If you can, nix them altogether. If something wasn’t understood, it is your job to go and fix it instead of trying to explain it.
6. Take notes. Workshop feedback is a very valuable resource, and often you’ll find yourself wondering what that one person said that really made you go, “Oh! I need to fix that!” Well, note-taking is your friend. Write down suggestions, questions, and anything else that will help you. A recording device can also come in handy, provided you have permission from your peers to use it.
7. Ask the right questions. The right questions can be tricky. You might be tempted to ask what someone “liked” or “disliked.” Honestly, those won’t help you. The answers to these questions are often one-dimensional and lack any real criticism. Instead, ask about particular passages to see if they conveyed what you were hoping to convey. Ask if anything confused your peers. Ask if a particular character is fleshed out, your description brings your setting to life, or your conflict is obvious. Ask about the things that will improve the story, not how you feel about the story.
8. Feel free to laugh at yourself. At some workshops, people will notice tiny, silly errors that may embarrass you. How did they slip by you? Instead of being mortified, rest assured that you are not alone. Everyone makes those embarrassing errors at one time or another. The best you can do is laugh it off and fix it. Never take yourself too seriously!
9. Take all criticism with a grain of salt. Now, it is up to you to pick and choose what you want to change. You don’t have to change every little detail about your work. You don’t need to assume that making all of those changes will get the work published. Ultimately, it is up to you to sift through the criticism for the golden bits of advice that will further your career as a writer.
10. Feel free to reward yourself on a job well done. You’ve survived workshop. Congratulations! Grab your favorite candy bar or rent a good movie and relax for a bit. You’ve earned it.
Workshop day doesn’t have to be a complete nightmare. I’d love to hear about your workshop experiences! Comment below with your experience, comments on the article, or questions. Keep writing!