A common flaw among many new writers is the idea that criticism is bad, and any corrections made to their golden prose mars the original genius.
With the right attitude, however, this can be overcome in the workshop setting.
Yes, I was a new writer at one time – or at least new on the workshop scene. I was in my late teens and had been writing for years, but as for my serious attempts at fiction, the only people who had read it were teachers or family members, none of them writers. My mother can proofread like a fiend, and my teachers could tell me all day long what was wrong with my grammar, but as far as improving my stories, I was kind of on my own.
So I wrote grammatically correct, typo-free stories that just weren’t all that easy or fun to read.
I thought I knew how to write a bestseller. After all, I’d subscribed to Writer’s Digest from the time I was old enough to afford a subscription, and I read anything about the craft that I could get my hands on.
After visiting one fiction workshop, just to test the waters, I realized how much I could benefit from not just knowing how I should write but receiving critiques and criticism from other writers.
The Workshop Format
Not all fiction workshops are created equal. I’ve attended anywhere between 120 and 150 individual sessions, the majority in person (usually in a classroom setting) but a few online. Anyone who tells you online is preferable either has only experienced this version and doesn’t know better or hasn’t attended a live workshop with a successful format. Dialogue between the critique-ers is such an important element, and in my opinion, it’s hard to capture that online.
There are workshops for creative non-fiction and fiction alike. Choose whichever best fits your needs. I chose fiction, and I took my friend Ari’s semester-long workshop seven times, four for credit and three post baccalaureate. Workshops are available at colleges at the undergrad and grad levels, but I’ve attended others put on by small groups of writers who couldn’t commit to an entire semester or weekly meeting. The Internet is a great resource for finding one in your area.
Ari’s format was pretty straight forward. We almost always received stories a week in advance, read them and marked them with edits and critiques, and when we met for the workshop itself, we sat in a circle, and he read the story aloud. Then we started in with our comments and critiques, in no particular order, and we kept going until Ari felt we were done. The author sat among us the whole time but was not allowed to say one word or make any kind of gesture or facial expression to “help” the conversation. Authors were merely flies on the wall.
It’s tough being the author in this situation, especially those times when it’s obvious that no one gets it. But as Ari pointed out, the majority is often – although not always – right. If an entire room of people can’t make sense of the story, chances are that changes need to be made. How to implement those changes is up to the author, often based on suggestions from the other participants.
I’ve heard of other workshops in which the author is allowed to respond or engage in the dialogue, but as hard as it is to just sit there and take it, it really is beneficial to be silent. For one, the workshop is full of other writers who will all be in the hot seat at some point, and if you can’t respect one another, you don’t need to be there. The workshop is not a place for personal attacks but a place of learning and growth. It’s a place of safety, although not necessarily comfort. By not being able to respond, the author can learn where the story falls short because other readers are allowed to express their own perspective without the author’s bias.
I also know of workshops that allow the author to read the story, instead of the instructor or another writer. The problem with this is that the author will read it how he or she intends it to sound – whether it’s truly written that way. Another reader may not get the inflection right, may not get the exact cadence, but this will highlight for the author problems within the text. This is how, after all, the general public will likely read it – something the author needs to know.
5 Benefits of Joining a Writers’ Workshop
1. Meet other writers.
Many of us are introverts, and the idea of venturing out to meet new people is frightening. My writing meant enough to me that it was worth the discomfort of meeting a roomful of new people. I never intended to make life-long friends, never intended to spend time with these people or become involved in their lives. And that didn’t happen at first. But the wonderful thing about workshops is that if they’re effective, the same people will attend again and again. My second semester, a group of us bonded and created Fiction Fix, and it’s still going strong today, well over a decade later. My instructor and friend Ari gained such respect for me that he agreed to workshop my first finished novel. A few of the friends I made in the workshop have even chosen me as their editor. One recently published her first novel. (Check out Brightleaf.) Don’t complain that you don’t have any connections – join a workshop and start making some!
2. Develop a thick skin.
The publishing world is harsh. I know this from both having my own fiction rejected numerous times and working for Fiction Fix, where we’ve rejected a lot of… refuse. If you’re serious about publishing but cry every time someone says something negative about your work, you won’t make it long in this industry. Sure, some of the comments you’ll get are unwarranted, but you need to learn to filter out the hurtful stuff from ignorant jerks and utilize the nuggets of pure wisdom.
The workshop environment is the perfect place to grow your alligator hide because, as I said, it’s a safe place. No one’s out to get you, just to help you. Criticism is merely a means to help you improve. Your first workshop will be tough, but it gets easier, I promise.
3. Sharpen your editing skills.
Even if you don’t plan to edit professionally, it’s handy to be able to self-correct. Spelling and grammar may not be your thing. They are for me, but there are amazing storytellers who can’t spell their way out of a paper bag – and that’s what the professionals are there for. But after you’ve attended enough workshops – and I’m talking about workshops that tackle others’ stories, not just your own – you’ll start to pick up on things by osmosis, and you will inevitably meet an author or two who has concrete editing advice that will stick. You’ll soon find yourself looking for the errors in your own work that you’ve found in others’ stories.
4. Discover your own style.
My earliest stories were formatted after Michael Crichton‘s style. A few years later, I moved on to Stephen King. If you’re not careful, you can easily fall into the pattern of imitating whatever author you’re reading at the time. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not good to let it dictate how you write.
What you want is a consistent style that is yours and yours alone. Just as you may be able to hear a song on the radio and immediately know who it is because of the distinct sound, you want someone to pick up your story and say, “Yep, this is Bob through and through.” (And I mean that in a good way, of course – not “Oh great, it’s him again.”) Sure, you may borrow different aspects from your favorite writers, but the end product should be all you.
In the workshop setting, I learned about POV (point of view), clichés that drive people nuts, and “rules” that may not be grammatical law but are certainly stylistic norms among seasoned writers. Yes, these issues are covered in any number of books and blogs and interviews, but it’s so much more informative to get this information in a practical setting. It took me a year of workshops to find my own particular style, my writer’s voice. And it sticks whether I’m writing children’s picture books, middle grade fantasy, young adult dystopian fiction, adult sci-fi, or even this blog.
5. Improve your writing.
This may be your ultimate goal, and it’s certainly a worthy one. If you come to the writing table with an open mind, the above four will automatically improve your writing. You’ll have friends who care enough to be honest about what does and does not work, who will support you in every literary endeavor (and then some); you’ll mature enough to be able to hear their criticisms without getting your feelings hurt; you’ll develop the tools necessary to not only fix what needs to be fixed but to not make those mistakes next time; and you’ll create a style that becomes your own literary hallmark. Sure, I still write garbage that’s not fit to print. But I’ve internalized so much valuable advice that I have an inner critic who says: You’re going to write that?! You know better! Many of my first drafts are better than what I thought of as “polished” in my pre-workshop days.
Why You Shouldn’t Sign up for a Writers’ Workshop
There are many other benefits of joining a writers’ workshop, but if you read #5 above and thought, I don’t need to improve my writing, then maybe you need to step back and do some soul searching.
I find it sad that some people are unable to improve because they simply use workshops as a venue to receive accolades for their writing. They are very disappointed when someone points out flaws. How dare they! these writers think – and sadly, a lot of them are not new to the writing game. They should know better. One older writer who attended my first workshop quit after his story was critiqued because we didn’t give the response he wanted, and he didn’t think he could get anything else out of our sessions. Another writer was so disillusioned when no one understood his story that he refused to go back and make changes. These are the type people who most need the workshop and, sadly, get the least out of it because they refuse to think they need to improve.
I do admit that I expected praise for my brilliance when I workshopped my first story. Turns out it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I thought. I was taken aback, sure, but I learned a lot. So I guess I need to add, as a prerequisite, that you should leave as much of your ego as you can at the door – and then just leave it there for good.
If you can do this, your workshop experience will change your writing life in unexpected, life-changing, and lasting ways.