5 Tips for Surviving a Writing Workshop
This is a guest post from Mallory Soto. Mallory has never met a saxophone solo she didn’t love. A short story writer, literary fiction enthusiast, and sidekick for life, she spends her days as an Editorial Assistant and Social Media Strategist in New York. Follow her on Twitter @yourtrustyalibi.
Congratulations, you wrote something! Maybe it’s the first draft of a short story or a polished manuscript to a novel. Either way, it exists, and like most things a human being can create, it’s a little terrifying and needs some work. You’re going to want some eyeballs on it before you start submitting it to lit magazines or publishing houses.
Friends and family can be a vast resource of insight, but a room full of fellow writers are at once extremely familiar with editing their own work and distant enough from your work to see what works well and what doesn’t.
It takes a village. So long as you follow a few key rules, your village won’t be on fire.
1. Come prepared.
Bring the writing tools you’re most comfortable with. Read the work you submitted before walking in so that when someone points out a piece of the text you’ll have an immediate idea of where it falls within your story. Did you write it over a week ago? You’ve forgotten a chunk of it, guaranteed. It’s gone. Reread and mentally outline where you feel your problems are in this story. Caffeinate beforehand.
2. Get comfortable.
Whether your workshop is a day long or a few months long, in-person or online, get as reasonably comfortable as you can. Get used to the idea of other people reading your work with a critical eye. Trust that no one’s coming to the workshop to destroy your masterpiece. They’re there to craft their own. Small talk! Guess what? It’s easier to take a knife to someone’s work and have them take a knife to yours if you’re comfortable speaking to them.
3. Read the stories.
Read your peers’ stories. Just read the stories. Busy week? Read the stories. Trouble concentrating? Read the stories. You’re letting that story’s author down by not reading it and offering some sincere insight, however small it is. It’s easy to skate by in a workshop by skipping the reading and agreeing with the points everyone else is making about the text. Read anyway. You’re probably missing out on some great writing. Just think of your peers’ stories as free books. Free books that you get to read ahead of everyone else.
4. Do unto others as etc.
You’re at this workshop to create the best story possible. For the most part, so is everyone else. Remember what’s helpful delivery of a critique and what isn’t. Would you like getting ripped to shreds over an oxford comma? No. It’s petty, it wastes time, and most of all, it’s boring. It’s an incredibly boring hill to die on and you’re there to breathe life into this work. Think of what has helped shaped your writing in the past and apply some of that advice to your peer’s work. Offer your own advice. If you’ve read the stories (scroll the eff up if this bears repeating for you, it’s #3.) this shouldn’t be hard. It should be downright exciting. On the flip side, don’t hold back just for the sake of being nice. You want your story to flourish. So do your peers. They won’t hate you for pointing out a structural problem. They might thank you once that story sees its way out into the world.
5. Redirect where necessary.
Most people are great. Some people are terrible. Terrible people still get workshopped. To their credit, awful people tend to be tenacious writers and very vocal. That’s admirable, but it’s a problem when they’ve latched onto your story in unproductive ways. It’s healthy for a fellow workshopper to highlight a problem in your story’s structure or your character’s voice, not so healthy to pick apart those things just because they “don’t like it.” (Pouring one out for every writer from a marginalized group who’s been told their stories don’t really need to be populated by characters from said marginalized group.) Your best line of defense is your own text. Redirect them to the structure of your story or a specific piece of text and ask where the problems lie within that context. A good workshop leader will have your back.
Welcome to Workshop Village! May it never be set aflame.