Before you jump – considerations about writing workshops

I first joined a writing workshop in October 2004. At that time, I had published in non-fiction, but I had never shown my fiction to anyone, even though I’d written since I could pick up a pen. Showing a bunch of strangers my writing was the most scary thing I’d ever done.

So – before you join a writing workshop – what it is, what can you expect, and why should you join?

First of all, a definition. By writing workshop I mean a place, online or in real life, where writers post their work and have their peers read and comment. I do not mean writing courses given by experts, or critiqueing services by experts. Writing workshops are free, or if there is a fee, it is to maintain the site, not to pay reviewers.

Why should you join?
I’ll play the question back at you: why shouldn’t you? If you write for an audience, there comes a time that your writing should go out to an audience. Here is your audience, ready to read.

What can you expect?
To learn lots, but in many unquantifyable ways. Your fellow workshop members will also be aspiring writers. They have no great knowledge of marketability, or even of writing techniques, but they are readers, and have valid opinions about what they read. They allow you to see your manuscript through the eyes of a reader. Their opiniions are valuable.

What should you do when you’re in a workshop?

Don’t just sit there! Offer reviews, return reviews, or partake in discussion.

When someone gives you comments: don’t talk back. Don’t explain. Don’t attempt to make them see your point of view. You can’t do this with anonymous readers either. If you buy a book, you don’t get a little version of the author sitting on your shoulder explaining stuff.
Develop some distance form your work. Don’t get defensive. Thicken your skin.
Wait until all comments are in before you decide what to do with your work. Never edit to please one particular reviewer.
Put all ‘this is great’ reviews in a folder, stick them away under the bed for a rainy day, and ignore them.
Never dismiss any review that has ‘negative’ things, not even the wild outliers. In my experience, these comments are often right.
If anyone says ‘you will surely sell this’ for crying out loud, delete it and forget about it. No one in this workshop has sold anything major and no one knows about selling fiction. It will only serve to inflate your head, and that is the last thing you need.

When giving comments:
Remain polite.
Sarcasm is as bad as rudeness.
Always re-read your reviews for anything that could be interpreted in ways you hadn’t intended.
Don’t EVER quote writing books at people, unless you want to come off as a mega-arrogant prick.
Try not to re-write people’s sentences.
Give people you review a bit of space to digest it.

Above all, have fun. Connect with writers and improve your work out of sight.


4 comments on “Before you jump – considerations about writing workshops

  1. Really sage advice thank you Patty, especially to take notice of the negative and wild outlier comments.

    I’ve sometimes felt defensive about feedback I’ve received but realised on reflection that the feedback-person has picked on an issue I’m aware of deepdown – but that I haven’t been sure how to tackle – which is why I’ve felt touchy about having it highlighted.


    • It is very easy to feel defensive about your work, but if you do, I feel it’s best to shut down the workshop for a bit and come back to the comment later. At that point intime, you can decide if:
      1. You totally disagree with the commenter because you live on different planets
      2. If the defensiveness was actually ‘your’ fault and the comments are valid
      3. if the commenter was showing off their own cleverness instead of critting your work
      I’m guessing 80% of cases should fall in option #2, even if you are mighty angry about what the stupid bitch said.
      I have many cases where a work was rejected with a comment just like that one outlying rude reviewer had made. That doesn’t mean you have to change it, nor that a story won’t be accepted elsewhere, and sometimes a problem just cannot be helped, but I feel you should never dismiss an opinion as rubbish, no matter how much you disagree with it.

  2. This is excellent….and you ought to post it on Authonomy as would be really good advice for everyone (including me!) on it.

    I’ve never tried a writing group (though did Arvon and it was fabulous and out of that developed a small group of us who carried on for a bit – but all lived too far apart for regular meets so drifted). Heck, sorry, awful sentence.

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