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Workshopping Outside of School June 29, 2011

Can you count on one hand the number of people outside of school who have read your work? This is a shame.  You may be thinking, “talk about a blessing, not a curse,” but allow me for a moment to express just a few of the reasons why workshopping is so invaluable to writers of all levels, and can be done even outside of a workshopping class at school.

Different people read differently.

It may seem blatantly obvious, but when you read your own work, you will always know where you were going with it. You might be able to catch issues with grammar. If your style has changed, you may spot some issues with syntax and wording. This is certainly beneficial. But unless you wrote the piece so long ago that you genuinely forgot what the storyline and intentions for the plot were supposed to be, you will never be able to catch what might be make-or-break mistakes that put a reader on the line between loving or hating your work.

In a workshop, the people are different from one another. Again, blatantly obvious. But what is important to one reader may not be so important to others. This gives you a model of a potential readership demographic—and it’s much more realistic than getting feedback from your old stand-in readers: your proud parent who tweets everything you do as if it were just as incredibly fascinating to the rest of the internet as it is to him/her, and your three best friends you’ve known since elementary school who finish your sentences when you’re speaking aloud. I’m not saying “don’t share your work with your best friends or your family.” But I am saying that your BFF might have an easier time following your line of thinking, and your mom might just tell you it’s a brilliant work—and mean it—because she’s just so tickled that her baby still writes.

But, many of you can’t just take a workshopping class willy-nilly. Here is my suggestion: Go on Facebook, and find those friends whose walls you write on, who you’ve recently re-connected with, who live far away and never see, etc. Ask them to read your work. If you’re worried that their feedback may not be useful, consider giving them specific questions to answer at the end. Here’s my stock list:

  • What happened in the story?
  • What was confusing?
  • What felt realistic? What didn’t? (if it’s supposed to be, of course)
  • Which characters and settings can you “see” most vividly?
  • What do you wish could have happened, but didn’t?
  • What do you feel was unnecessary?
  • Where did you feel rushed? Where did the story drag?
  • Would you read this story again?

You can use or not use these, but I suggest avoiding yes/no questions. If their answer is that they didn’t feel it dragged anywhere, then they’ll say that. But given the option of a one-word answer, they will always opt for it.

The benefit of using the internet for these correspondences is increased when you consider the next factor as well, which can, depending on the way a traditional workshop is run, actually be lost face-to-face.

Shut up and don’t explain.

I mean it. The temptation to explain why you did something and how it does work and where you did in fact state such-and-such important detail (however discretely), is strong and deep. You must resist this. Sometimes, it is the reader’s fault: the reader mistook character A for character B even though the rest of your readers clearly realized that character B was male despite their gender-neutral name. But if 80% of readers thought B was female, then the fault isn’t theirs—it’s yours. And you need to adjust your story accordingly.

If this idea is something you still struggle with, then here are some facts to consider:

  • The reader is always right. (Even when they’re not.) Some readers are just going to not get it, and it isn’t because of you. But it’s better to go into reading their feedback with the assumption that what they are going to say is valid. That way, you will have an open mind, and when a reader is completely wrong, you’ll know it, because despite your best efforts you simply disagree. That’s fine.
  • If it makes you mad, give it a day or two, and go back to it. Whether the comments come from an instructor or a peer, I sometimes become angry while reading them and think “it’s right there, you idiot.”  But when I look at it two days later, (sometimes even a couple of weeks later), I realize that what they said was completely valid after all. If it still makes you mad after a good chunk of time, then you’re either not ready to make those changes, or you just really didn’t like that comment. That’s fine too.
  • It’s still your work. It may feel like making these changes to please others takes away your ownership. But let me lobby one last time for the value of this: you are still the one who gets to make the call of what comments to use and what comments to discard. You can make changes or not make changes. What you do with this feedback and the way you fix the issues presented to you is just as unique to you as the original work.

I know. Your craft is important to you. It’s very personal. And yet, I can’t tell you how much pride I’ve gained by hearing critical answers to the questions listed above and actually working to correct those. Seeing the next set of people  respond differently and more positively is rewarding, and lets you know that you are capable of growing, and doing so on your own terms.

So I highly recommend workshopping your writing. Gaining a captive readership whose sole desire is to give feedback on your work is not only a useful experience, but also an uplifting one. It doesn’t matter if the feedback is sometimes critical—it’s still valuable, and the fact that the feedback exists at all means that your writing was worth not only reading, but thinking seriously about.


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