A guest post by Laurie Steed
Writers’ workshops are the worst place on Earth.
For the uninitiated, said workshops exist for people to come together and critique each other’s work. Critiquing, of course, is the process of having your story dismissed, categorised and assaulted by a room full of strangers. In other words, it’s like being called up on stage and having your pants pulled down in front of an audience.
Writers’ workshops are given a bad rap. David Foster Wallace famously denounces them in his essay ‘Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,’ and Stephen King is also highly critical in his how-to/memoir hybrid On Writing. I’m not as opposed to their very existence, and so I’ve been asked to discuss appropriate etiquette for workshops in the hope of alleviating their more painful characteristics. Which would be fine, of course, were it not for the fact that discussing etiquette in a workshop is a bit like discussing opera at a Nickelback concert.
Writers have egos. Big, snarling, Paris Hilton sized egos that have their own bungalow complete with a separate room.
With workshops, it’s necessary, rather than dictating right and wrong, to establish certain guidelines. The first few pertain to the workshop facilitator, likely the most qualified person in the room, and more than deserving of the utmost respect. With that in mind:
Don’t send more work than requested by the workshop facilitator
This should be a no-brainer. A facilitator has given you a word-limit, so why send more than the amount requested?
I don’t know why it happens, but I know that it happens all the time. Nice people do it; mean people, too. Short people, tall people are more than happy to join in. Doing this is not only rude, but it’s also mildly cretinous and here’s why. Your facilitator is most likely a successful, hard-working writer, who’s agreed to give feedback on say one story, or 3,000 words, in the hope of returning the goodwill they once received when they began writing. They’ll remember, with a smile, the crusty, mildly dotty but good-hearted writer who first said they’d look at their story. They will remember endless agonising over what to send through, and whether in fact, it was fair to expect such good fortune so early on in their career.
With the shoe now on the other foot, the facilitator will take solace in giving back to their literary community, and even, in some respects, look forward to reading the work of hopeful, passionate writers like their good selves.
They’ll then open the document, and gasp in dismay; one story has become four, 3,000 words increased to 5,000 or even 10,000. They’ll read two more samples from participants, all over length, and decide to never, ever give feedback again.
Professionally format and proofread your manuscript
I’m not such a hypocrite to suggest that your sample be error free. I’ve had stories published with errors, and indeed it’s near impossible to find every mistake in a manuscript, particularly when proofing your own work. That said there’s a huge difference between making an error and taking the piss.
Taking the piss is writing your title in 22 font letters, and two different colours. It’s not indenting, leaving lines between each paragraph, and not paginating. It’s explaining your novel/story in a cover note because your work has failed to explain itself.
It is spell-checking rather than proofreading. Yes, I am here suggesting that you print out your document and read through it, ensuring that you catch words seemingly spelled right, but that, in the context of your piece, are confusing, misleading, or hopelessly inappropriate.
Show up on time, regardless of whatever else is going on in your life
Given a facilitator’s willingness to sacrifice valuable writing time to help emerging writers, I’d ask you, as emerging writers, to be punctual. Get there in time, and you help everybody, from the most nervous person in the class to the old salt sitting up the back spinning tales of treacherous waters. You help the facilitator, who in addition to not being paid all that much, has probably done extensive preparation to ensure that you, the participant will get the most value from the day’s workshop.
So far, you’ll notice that I’ve not yet covered workshopping, the lifeblood of any successful writers’ workshop. Thanks for noticing . . . and here I go:
Prepare for your work to be skewered
When it comes to practical, helpful feedback, there’s none better than feedback that asks fundamental questions about the story in hand; feedback that quickens the pulse when you hear it; feedback that expects much of you in the redrafting process.
Many maintain workshop participants are too hard on their peers, but such a judgment is counter-productive; what possible purpose could there be for workshopping, if not to be honest about a story’s strengths and weaknesses?
Someone complimenting your work might make you feel good in a particularly vulnerable moment, but it also makes for lazy, self-conscious writers more focused on appearing competent than on actually doing the work.
Be honest about other people’s work
It’s difficult to come clean with people. It’s also vital if, in the act of workshopping another’s work, you want to help them.
I see it this way: you’ve been asked into a workshop to spot things you feel might hamper a particular story.
In any feedback, it’s best to start with what you enjoyed, however small this aspect might have been. It’s important to acknowledge the level of craft, the potential of the writer, and of course, the kinship you all share. In short, no one in a workshop space sets out to write flawed work. It’s your job to help your fellow writer improve their work, and in the process learn more about your own.
Never make it personal
Most writers possess an odd blend of arrogance and insecurity when it comes to judging their own ability. Given such a dichotomy, it’s better, as a participant, to give specific, workable feedback as opposed to general observations. Feedback should never be about the writer or their stage of development. A workshop lives and dies on a shared vision between its members. As such, every member must be responsible for fostering a group that mixes critiquing with support, and honesty with tact.
Never take it personally
It’s easy to assume that all the members of a workshop are out to decimate your work. They really aren’t. Some are biding time, waiting patiently (or not) for their work to be examined; some are annoying but hardly dangerous buffoons, and some (often the quiet ones) are ultra-observant, super-sentient beings brought to this earth only to spot things you could never have possibly picked up.
If there’s a writer that seems to be making things personal, then call them on it, particularly in front of the group. Don’t plan their demise, or store up resentment for their next feedback session; confront them. A way to avoid such a scenario in the first place is to treat people and their work with respect from the get-go. This won’t always guarantee mutual admiration, but it’s a step in the right direction.
I said earlier that workshops are the worst place on Earth. At times, they are. They’re also the most potentially dynamic, helpful and rewarding space you can find as a writer.
Amongst the critiques are often gems of insight, moments of praise, and in each carefully chosen word, the heart and soul of a reader trying to connect with your work. I’d like to say your journey ends there, but in truth, it’s just another step on the long road towards publication.
Regardless of the feedback you receive, you’ll still have to make certain decisions about your work, on your own, away from other’s thoughts, predilections and preferences.
These decisions are empowering at the purest level. In making them, you take back control, treating feedback as it should be treated: as a late accompaniment to hours of craft, an interlude in which to take a breath and go again.
Laurie Steed is a writer and editor from Perth, Western Australia. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has been published in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Review of Australian Fiction, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Sleepers Almanac, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of fellowships from The University of Iowa, The Baltic Writing Residency, The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, The Katherine Susannah Prichard Foundation and The Fellowship of Writers (Western Australia), and he currently teaches Advanced Fiction for Writers Victoria. His debut novel, You Belong Here, will be published by Margaret River Press in April 2018. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or find out more at his website, lauriesteed.com.
This article was originally published in The Emerging Writer: An Insider’s Guide to Growing Your Writing, published by the EWF Publishing.