What Is A Writing Workshop?
I've been tutoring students for quite a few years now, and something I always have to explain to them is the concept of a writing workshop. It's something I was introduced to at university, and it's the best way of getting support and feedback on your work. How does it work?
You get roughly six people (you can do workshop with more, but it does take longer to cycle round that way) together, all of whom have writing to be workshopped. If you're organising this yourself, rather than collaborating in a creative writing class, I would choose people you know, or can trust to be kind but fair. You want the workshop to be helpful, after all! Choose a date, a location (giant tables in coffee shops are my favourite!), and send around your work about a week or so in advance to give everyone chance to read it. Agree a wordcount - around 1500 words is usually a decent amount to get your teeth into. You then take it in turns to receive feedback from your peers.
What should I do before the workshop?
Print out a hard copy of everyone's work (which they should have been kind enough to send you double spaced, with wide margins and page numbers!) and read it through. Then read it through again. And again.
I would suggest reading it through once for initial impressions, possibly highlighting or noting down things that didn't read perhaps smoothly as you would have liked, or any questions that you have. Focus mostly on plot, character, pacing. Then when you read it through again, read it out loud. It will help you hear whether the sentences run well, or where you are stumbling over words / running out of breath - that will need editing! Then read it one more time, picking out words and sentences and phrases that draw your attention - for both good and bad reasons! Workshop should always include a deserved amount of praise along side the constructive criticism.
How do I explain what I thought?
When you are at the workshop, work through the piece in order. Begin and the beginning, and end at the end! You should share your thoughts, taking it in turns, and ask questions of the workshopee if needed - for example, if you have a question about the character, or where the plot is going, etc. Bring your edited piece with you to give the person a hard copy of your feedback to refer back to as they move forward.
What do I do if I am being workshopped?
Bring a notepad, a pen, and a blank copy of your own work! Personally, I rely on the blank copy of my own work more than anything else. While everyone is talking, I am furiously writing down everything they are saying - because sometimes thoughts will strike them during the workshop that they won't have put on paper. By making constant and copious notes, you are putting yourself in the most informed position possible as you move forward.
The most important rule for when you are being workshopped, however, is to never try and justify your writing. If someone has picked out an error, it is not your job to explain why you did it. It's not an argument; you're not making the other person back down and magically agree with you. Taking on feedback is vitally important as writer, especially if you want to get published, where you will constantly receive feedback and edits to get on with.
This doesn't mean you can't ask questions - I always like to ask questions like "okay, I understand. What kind of thing do you think would work better here?", or "could you give me an example of what you mean please?". That way you get clarity on what the person is saying to better help you make those changes in future.
The workshop is over - now what?
Thank everyone for being such good eggs, hand your hard copies of people's work back to them so they have it for reference, and go forth and edit your work!
Do I have to make all the changes that are suggested?
You don't have to - after all, this is your novel - but if something isn't chiming with your readers, then it is worth you altering, even if you don't change it in the exact way that person suggested. I would always suggest making the changes and then reading through your newly edited version, though. You'll almost certainly be pleasantly surprised with how it turned out!
Good luck - and happy workshopping!
* * *