Writing Workshops for Dabblers

So there you are. You’ve dabbled in writing, sure, but now you’re in a workshop—a workshop! With people who probably know more about writing! And they’re looking at your work, and you’re looking at theirs, and that means you’re going to have to—gasp—critique people who probably have been doing this for longer than you have, and if it’s part of a class then there’s the instructor to consider, and….

…okay. Breathe. It’s not that bad. (You probably couldn’t have told my younger self that, though.)

First off, remember that whether you’re an expert or not, if you read something into a story, you’re probably not going to be the only one. Heck, you might run into things that experienced writers (or at least, experienced participants in writing workshops) tend to bounce off of, quietly rationalize and thus don’t really notice. Which is to say: your opinion means something. If something bugs you, interests you, or in any way that you think might be useful to the writer affects you, say something.

Be complimentary to something. Some workshop formats mandate positivity at the beginning, I think I’ve seen some that want comments to stay positive in general, but either way—even if you’ve got something that you’ve used so much red ink on that it looks like the paper itself is bleeding, find something that you liked. The object of the game is to improve the author’s work, not make him/her feel like a complete failure.

If you don’t feel confident correcting the technical stuff, don’t correct the technical stuff. Same goes for meta. If the workshop’s larger than two or three people, someone else is going to be able to handle the in-depth analysis and the nitpicking over typos. Your job is to find the things that scream out to you, both good and ill.

Note as many of the things you interact with as possible. Bear in mind, one of the things a writer is supposed to be doing is getting emotional reactions out of people, so if something pleases you, annoys you, makes you chuckle, throws out your suspension of disbelief, leaves you in that state where it’s like you’ve just spent the last [amount of time you spent reading] being crashed about between waves and rocks and all you want is a moment to dust yourself off before you dive back in—the person you’re critiquing will probably want to know. If there’s one little detail that just screams out at you “too fitting to be false”, by all means mention it. The best part? You don’t even need to think about holding back on mentioning the kinds of negative emotions that follow with the story; we’re trying to elicit those, too (and some of us are much better at drawing forth fear, sadness and rage than joy and optimism).

When in doubt, leave a question. One of the biggest problems that people have is that they know everything about their worlds, and thus they miss the things that in their internal logic makes perfect sense but in our logic are skipping a few vital steps. This even happens to professional authors, and some of them even admit it—there are a number of examples, but the one that springs most readily to mind is Zoe Marriott’s blogged admission (you want the third question down) that she was powered by inspiration alone when ending The Swan Kingdom and forgot to make sure that the logic she used was clear to everyone else, so what to her was the surprising-but-inevitable ending that had been in the works from the beginning seemed thrown-together to many of her readers. If you don’t get what’s going on, it’s probably not just you. If it’s probably not just you, they need to know so it can be a little clearer to people who aren’t the author. The best thing you can do in a situation like that is ask why.

In short, the best way to get from one end of a workshop to the other if you’re feeling overwhelmed is to take three basic steps: read the story, react to the story, and keep close track of your reactions. The rest will take care of itself.

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