What Workshopping Is Not

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Yesterday I shared my observations on what makes for a worthwhile workshop. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Having been through a handful of…let’s say…less than helpful critique sessions, here are some tips on what not to do during your workshop, whether you’re the critiquer or the critiqued.

What Workshopping Is NOT

Workshopping is not…

1. A time for being defensive

I emphasized in my first post that the key to a successful workshop is listening. Workshops, when run well, provide time for you to respond to the notes given on your work. Workshopping isn’t, however, a time for getting defensive, e.g., “Well, you just don’t understand what I’m trying to do in this piece”. Will everyone love what you’ve written? No. Will everyone be kind in their critiques? No. Sometimes people are rude and brash and their comments bruise your ego. But taking a defensive stance in response to critique will prevent you from learning and growing as a writer. It’s difficult to see a bigger, better, more vibrant vision for your work if you’ve built a wall around yourself.

There is always room for taking time to ask for clarification on comments, as well as a time to answer questions or clear up misconceptions about your piece. Being defensive, though, shows your lack of good sportsmanship, and will make your chances of getting another objective from the same group unlikely.

2. A time for retaliation

As unbelievably childish as it is, it happens: you provided feedback on a person’s chapter, and now that it’s your chapter on the docket, that person uses the opportunity to flay you. To tell you just how horrible a writer you are because you had the audacity to point out the weak areas in his manuscript. Workshopping should never be a time for retaliation. Critiques should never be a personal matter. It’s not about the author or the critiquer’s relationship with the author. Workshops should always be about the work. If you find yourself critiquing out of spite, do yourself and the author a favor and step back. If you can’t offer an objective critique, don’t waste everyone’s time. Do everyone a favor, and don’t ruin what could be a productive, growing workshop with your need for retaliation.

3. A time for showing off

I once attended a roundtable critique session with a very well-known editor. We each had ten minutes to hear her thoughts on a chapter we’d submitted, as well as the thoughts of the other writers at the table. A really cool opportunity, don’t you think? Well, one woman at our table could not keep her mouth shut. When it came time for her to share her comments, she used the majority of each person’s ten minutes talking about…herself. It was so, so disappointing.

Let me be clear: workshopping isn’t about you. It’s about the work. It’s not a time to show off. It’s not a time to sing your own praises or talk up the book you just posted on Amazon. Give honest, objective feedback and then stop talking so others can have a turn as well.

Writers are not just people who sit down and write.  They hazard themselves.  Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake.  ~E.L. Doctorow

One thing I think we can all agree on is that writing can be a difficult journey. It takes a lot of courage to put words to paper. It takes even more courage to show that paper to others, especially strangers. The least we can do is respect each other and the writing process enough to not get in the way — either our own or others. The best workshops are led with ground rules in place. Whether or not the workshop has guidelines and a leader keeping people in check, if you follow the guidelines I’ve posted here and yesterday, you should have a worthwhile experience.

If you have other guidelines or observations you’d like to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear them!

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