Most writers have lots of experiences in critique groups or workshops but not all of these experiences are awesome and helpful. Sometimes changing your approach as a participant can make them more awesome and helpful though. So for what it’s worth, here’s my workshop manifesto (part 1).
Tip: Set Your Expectations Appropriately
Workshops can really vary in format, intention, mood, snacks, etc. If you go into a workshop expecting one thing (cookies) and get a different thing (cupcakes) you might be disappointed. I recommend doing your homework. Read up on everything the workshop or group organizers say about it. If it applies, ask former participants. Go into the experience meeting the workshop on the workshop’s terms. After you’ve participated in some, let’s arbitrarily say four workshops or groups, you will have a better sense of what works well and what doesn’t for you.
Tip: Discomfort Can be Good
I never advocate putting yourself in a position that feels unsafe personally or creatively but there’s a lot of space between unsafe and being cozy in your comfort zone. If your goal with a workshop or critique group is to improve your writing, approaching it from an all-new angle can shake up or affirm your creative instincts. By necessity so much of the writing process is internal. A group allows you to “road test” your act like a stand up comedian or musician. Sometimes you want a new crowd for that sort of thing. You might find that you can expand your work to be more accessible to more people that way.
Tip: This Isn’t Mandatory
To be clear, workshopping/critiquing is never required. You can write your glorious amazing words without ever getting notes or criticisms (constructive or no) from anyone. You can write for yourself. You can attend groups that are purely about support. That’s great and essential! My process involves sharing my roughest work with only people who will love and support it first (my wife, number one superfan) before I introduce it to anyone. There were points in my writing development when all I needed was a cheer squad, not a red pen. There are pieces of writing that are still too tender for me to subject them to anyone else’s approval or disapproval and that’s valid as fuck.
Also, a tangential point: a lot of writing events start or end up in bars but not all writers drink. I don’t drink much and almost never when I’m in training for a running event. It’s awkward sometimes but there are usually other people ordering sodas. We share meaningful, sober looks. There are also people who just don’t go into bars for all sorts of reasons. I’m tremendously sensitive to cigarette smoke and I have to leave events sometimes if I’m somewhere with smokers (usually patios these days). You need to remember that your health comes first and anyone or any group that pressures you to do things that aren’t healthy for you is not a good fit. Setting boundaries is important and if anyone ever gives you a hard time about it they are telling you to GTFO.
Tip: Don’t be an Asshole
As mentioned, workshops vary a lot. Some devote a lot of time to each writer giving their feedback verbally or in writing, some are primarily about the thoughts of a teacher or workshop organizer. Some get into a groove of cutting straight to the criticism. Some do a “compliment sandwich” approach (say something nice, something critical, something nice again). Whatever works for the writers, the workshop, the organizers, the most important golden rule for behavior is just don’t be mean. If you are giving your thoughts on something, keep it focused on the page not the person. Try to put yourself in the other writer’s place. What would help you? What would hurt you? Just, be cool. Don’t monopolize the conversation. Don’t speak over others. Behave like a grown up decent person who can social. The process is stressful enough already. Being a big ego meanie know-it-all is just uncouth and uncalled for. This may seem like real basic kindergarten advice but a truly unfortunate number of writers believe workshops and critique groups are places to demonstrate how much they know and how great they are and <big eye roll>, that’s not it at all. Groups like this exist to help. They exist to teach, demonstrate, and encourage. It is not and never will be your duty to brutally break down another writer and remake them Robocop style into your vision. You will find some writers and some pieces need more help than others and it may be tough to say or express all of the things you think need attention. That’s okay. Offer what you can in good faith when you can, with respect and patience, and you get the gold star.
Tip: Workshops are NOT All About You
I think there are four stages of workshop/critique engagement. In the first stage you are focused primarily on how your work, your precious words, will be received and what guidance you will get. That occupies most of your time and seems like the biggest priority. You wait for your turn, almost tuning everything else out until the focus is on you. Then you get to stage two and realize that other writer’s work and the feedback they receive really helps you learn your craft. Sometimes someone will use a device you were thinking of using or have used but haven’t brought in and you can get a sense of how well it goes over. Sometimes you learn a new trick. The third stage is when you learn enough about writing that what you see in other writer’s work and your thoughts help both of you. It’s a great big ah ha! moment when this first happens. Explaining a thing to another person sometimes (often even) improves your understanding and appreciation of that thing. A lot of writers think this is the ultimate stage, the goal. I don’t. Stage four is when you learn enough about yourself and about writing and enough about other writers that you can see the story from their perspective and give them insights to help them get what they want. It’s an easy trap to tell all writers to write more like the way you write but what you really want to do is tell all writers to be more like the unique writers they truly are. I love so many writers (as a reader, a friend, a critique partner) that write things I would never write in ways I would never write them. There are some universal concepts in storytelling, I blog about them sometimes, but there is more room for personal and unique expression and vision than you might think. When I read a story I want to understand the story the way the writer understands it, not the way I would tell it, and I do my best to get out of the way, suppress my own biases, and tell them how to get there. That’s workshop magic.
Tip: Come Back to My Blog for More Tips (Probably)
I could just go on and on about workshops and writing and the great big creative hug I want to give the whole world but we’ve all got stuff to do right? So, I’ll leave you with just these tips for now. Maybe there will be a sequel. Maybe even in 3D! Good luck with your words and your writers’ groups. Try to take a break to look at otters. Stay hydrated.