The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes
Workshopping your writing is a great way to get inspired, increase your word count and advance your skills. You’ll meet other writers and build a professional network. You may even discover you’re a better writer than you thought you were.
But seeking feedback can be scary. Even published authors are nervous when they read in public.
Following these simple guidelines when your work is up for discussion will take much of the fear and apprehension out of the experience and help you get the feedback you need to revise.
Submit raw material.
A writing group is not a showcase for polished work. It’s a place to bring your problem children: the clunky poem, the short story that’s grown eight arms, the scene from your novel you can’t seem to move beyond.
The more you polish the material, the more attached you become to the words, and the harder it will be to hear the feedback.
When you bring a rough draft to the table, you acknowledge—up front—that it needs work. And that means you don’t need to be embarrassed about its flaws.
Many workshops begin with the moderator asking the writer if there’s anything she wants to say before the group begins discussing her piece. It’s much like the hangman asking if the prisoner has any last words: a pall falls over the room; everyone looks down at their notes, and the anxious writer begins to babble:
“So I wanted to write this story about a woman who decides to fire her secretary, but on the way to work she sees a cat run over by a delivery truck, and decides she just can’t do it. At least not today. Because it’s like she’s the truck. (Metaphorically speaking.) And the cat is the mess she’s going to make of the secretary’s life. Her two kids are in the car because she’s taking them to daycare, and her son is really, really upset by this, mostly because the cat isn’t quite dead. Anyway, I’m wondering if the imagery of falling leaves is working to convey the idea of death (and endings in general) and also if having the delivery guy stop and get out of the truck to finish the cat off with a case of beer is too over the top.”
Yeah. So that was painful. For everyone.
But the main reason you should never preface your work is it reduces the useful critique you might get from an audience who doesn’t know what you meant to convey.
Your writing group is a tool for you to measure how much of what you intended to say actually came across on the page.
Look at all the information revealed above. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but these details—about setting, conflict, theme, and character motivation—might not have been clear from the text alone. How will the writer ever know if she’s getting them across?
The point is she won’t. And that’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Don’t defend your work.
During the discussion, sit tight and listen to what people have to say.
Don’t jump in and offer reasons for doing things the way you did. Don’t explain. Don’t clarify anything—even if someone asks you to.
Any information you provide will only make the next person skip over whatever they were confused about in that section, robbing you of their insights.
Instead, smile! Deflect the questions. Better yet, ask people to tell you what they think is going on.
It’s the group—not you—who bears the burden of figuring out what the story is about now.
Let them wrestle with the beast for a while. What you’ll glean from their comments will help you see where the thin spots are in the narrative and how to move the story in the right direction.
Develop a note taking system.
Every time I bring a piece of writing to my critique group, there are at least five comments that really strike chord in me. It’s like a gong goes off in my head and I think, “Duh! I totally forgot about the sense of smell in this scene. The character’s goal isn’t clear at all. That was the wrong word choice for this character’s point of view. I need to revisit that placeholder in revision. Put a reaction here to make it clear to the reader what the character is feeling.”
Sometimes there are so many of these insights, and they go by so fast, I can barely keep up in my head, let alone remember them later. Taking notes helps a lot. I prefer to make notes on my copy of the work. I use a system of abbreviations for the technical problems identified: “R” for reaction; “PH” for placeholder, “G” for grounding, etc.
When you find yourself frantically scribbling down all the things you need to fix in your story, you’ll know the process is working the way it should.