Having participated in writing workshops at two universities as well as in an informal context, I have seen firsthand how they can motivate, forge connections, and most importantly transform a work-in-progress. Aside from the obvious benefits of receiving feedback, there is a lot to learn from critiquing the work of other writers. You can join an established workshop by signing up to a creative writing programme or researching online, but often there will be a cost involved. If you’re looking to start your own workshop / reading group with friends, Twitter connections, or writers from your local community, here are my top tips.
1. Arrange a clear schedule
It’s important to have set expectations and boundaries. At the start of the term, decide which writers will be discussed each session (and when they will need to submit work), what the maximum word count will be, and how long you will spend in conversation about each piece. Try not to accept more than nine writers into the group or discuss more than three submissions each session.
2. Make the author being critiqued stay silent
It can be hard to make progress when there are regular interruptions from the author, whether they’re clarifying something a group member has misunderstood, defending a stylistic choice, or asking questions. It’s best for the writer to listen to the initial response before seeking help with the issues they deem most important. Even if you trust the members of your group not to get carried away, make a guideline that no-one talks until the end of their own discussion.
“It’s best for the writer to listen to the initial response before seeking help with the issues they deem most important.”
3. Ask someone to summarise the submission or read a section to get into the zone
We’ve all been in situations where ‘Who wants to start?’ is followed by a deathly silence. Once you’ve decided which piece you’re going to discuss, try asking a member of the group to say in one or two sentences what they think the story is about – this will allow other members to gather their thoughts, and it can be helpful for the writer (if the summary offered doesn’t match up with their intentions). Another option is to have the author read the first page – both the writer and the rest of the group will probably notice issues that didn’t occur when reading the text.
4. Share positives and negatives
Opening up to feedback can make you feel vulnerable. It’s good to discuss what is working as well as what isn’t, both because it creates a happier environment and because it can be just as helpful. Knowing where your strengths lie will help you with future projects.
5. Only use specific language
Whether saying something positive or negative, group members should only use specific language. ‘It’s good’ or ‘the first page is boring’ aren’t very helpful comments. In the first session, encourage the group to say why an aspect of the piece is good or bad and offer examples where possible.
“Whether saying something positive or negative, group members should only use specific language.”
6. Look at the piece from all angles
It’s good to allow group members to share whatever thoughts stood out when they initially read the submission, but as you guide the discussion, make sure it covers structure, story, characterisation, themes, writing style, and genre. Encourage members to share one point at a time rather than listing issues in different areas, so that others can share their thoughts before you move on. The benefit of a workshop is that each writer gets a range of perspectives, but it can be hard to know which feedback to take on. Aim for a back-and-forth group conversation that reaches some form of outcome, rather than taking it in turns to say your piece.
7. Be prepared to de-escalate the conversation
It’s natural for writers to have an emotional response to critique, even when it is offered in a sensitive manner. There will likely be a range of abilities in the group, so comparison is hard to avoid. If you can tell that the writer being discussed is getting upset, try asking the group a ‘safe’ question, like where they see the piece sitting in the market or what its strengths are. When a group member becomes argumentative, ask others to share their thoughts.
“If you can tell that the writer being discussed is getting upset, try asking the group a ‘safe’ question, like where they see the piece sitting in the market or what its strengths are.”
8. Allow the author to clarify anything at the end, and share final encouragements
Once the conversation has concluded, it’s fine for the author to share anything they think would be beneficial to understanding of the work-in-progress and to seek clarification on comments made during the session. Try to end the conversation on a high, commenting on how effective suggested changes will be or highlighting some of the strengths mentioned.
I hope this blog post will give you the confidence to set up or participate in a writer’s workshop and that you’ll find the experience beneficial to your writing journey. If you’re looking for a professional perspective on your work, you might consider a manuscript assessment by a BPA editor.