Writing can be hard. Really, really hard. It’s easy to feel isolated and discouraged when it’s just you, Microsoft Word, and that ever-flashing tab reminding you that words are not going to type themselves, no matter how hard you glare at the screen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the eleven or so years that I’ve spent dreaming up, writing, and often abandoning stories, it’s that finding a writing community is a great way to stay motivated. Participating in a writing workshop is one fantastic way to get a group of focused and passionate people to collectively improve their writing skills and offer constructive, critical feedback of each other’s work.
In most of the creative writing workshops that I took at my university, my peers sat at tables that were set in a large rectangle around the perimeter of the classroom so that everyone could see each other. When we did full class critiques, the writer whose work we were critiquing that day had to stay silent as their classmates discussed positive aspects of their work and then moved into constructive criticism.
These types of critiques can be difficult for some writers to get used to, because they’re not allowed to defend their work or answer questions students have about their writing. It can also be tough because sometimes you’ve got the one jerk in the class who doesn’t know how to respectfully critique a peer’s writing, so it’s up to your classmates or professor to come to your defense.
Despite how uncomfortable this may be at first, these types of critiques can be immensely helpful. For one thing, when I was the one being critiqued, I was forced to listen to how another person interpreted my work. If one section of my writing was unclear, vague, or sloppy, I didn't get to explain my intentions—and isn’t that just like reading published work? When you’re reading a novel for the first time, the author isn’t there holding your hand and explaining their intentions when they leave something intentionally vague. It’s up to the reader to figure it out. Critiques are a great way to get this kind of reader feedback that you probably couldn’t get if you had the opportunity to explain every line of dialogue, point of view change, or dream sequence.
Another great part of being workshopped is that the feedback you receive is probably going to be more varied than what you’d get from a critique partner or writing buddy. Sure, one person reading your work may be super observant and find a few important narrative issues in your story, but a whole group of people may find a plethora of issues and have a variety of ideas on how to fix them. You may listen to three people with entirely different opinions on the ending of your short story, and from that variety of opinions, you’ll start to understand what your intended readers might find appealing.
Learning how to critique a peer’s writing in a workshop setting is just as important as the feedback you’ll receive. Many writers say that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader as well. I agree with this sentiment, and I think the same is true of critiques. When you’re reading a peer’s writing, you’ll start to define your own tastes as a reader and a writer.
You might read a story that is full of tropes and clichés that you’re sick of seeing in what you read, so you’ll know not to include it in your own writing. You might read an incredibly vivid description of a sunset, and find that you want to try to emulate your peer’s writing style in your next story. You might even find that the suggestions you make to a peer to change the point of view to second person would work really well for your own piece about a pink elephant with low self esteem—put the reader in the elephant’s shoes! It’ll surely make the elephant’s woes more relatable! Making suggestions for other writers can help you understand how to make intentional decisions in your own work, and you’ll start to be able to look at your own work through a more critical and knowledgeable lens.
Of course, many folks don't have access to a college education, or start writing long after their college days are behind them. There are plenty of resources out there to get you connected to other writers who would be willing to exchange writing and offer critique. Writing challenge communities like 85k90.com and NANOWRIMO have forums and messaging systems where writers can connect with one another, based on location or writing genre. You may also find writing workshops offered at your local community center, library, or community college.
Ultimately, writing workshops are an art of giving and taking. You’re more likely to receive helpful feedback if you put the same level of effort into critiquing your peers’ work that you’d expect from them. It’s also important to remember that while peer feedback can be helpful, maybe even enlightening, you are still the writer. If your classmates didn’t get why the elephant in your story had to be pink, well, that’s okay. Pink elephants aren’t for everyone. Writing workshops have taught me that writing doesn’t have to be a lonely journey, but at the end of the day, it is always a personal one.
For those of you who have taken writing workshops, have you had mostly positive experiences? If not, why? For those who have not taken workshops, how have you managed to connect with other writers or willing readers?
This post was originally published by the fabulous folks at 85k90.com on January 20, 2017. It has been updated since the original post.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.