How to Workshop: Part Two (Writers)

So you’ve joined a workshop. You’re taking a class, you’ve joined a community, or maybe you’re talking prose and poetry over brunch with friends. Whatever the circumstances, you are sharing your work with others—which is simultaneously a thrill and a heart-stopper.

The question is, what do you write? How do you write? What should your reaction be when people say nice things about your work, or when the offer advice, or, worse, criticize? Every workshop has its own style, but here are some tips for writers to give you a start.

What to Write:

Though meeting frequency varies, it’s safe to say as an example that many workshops will meet once a week or once a month. Additionally, people often review more than one author in a meeting. If folks meet for an hour a week, for example, they might discuss two pieces for thirty minutes each. How do you make the most of your thirty minutes?

Not by bringing in your 300-page manuscript, that’s for sure. Remember that folks have classes, jobs, and lives outside of the workshop; asking them to marathon your novel-in-progress in a week or two isn’t realistic. However, having little to offer means the group won’t have much to discuss, and you won’t benefit from that, either. Keep in mind that 25 pages typed in standard form (Times New Roman 12pt font, double-spaced, 1 in. margins) is between 30 and 40 pages in a published book, depending on layout and paragraph density. Here are some safe guidelines:

  • For poetry, 3-5 poems per workshop is reasonable. Even if they’re on the shorter side, you’ll have a few pieces to discuss and can also talk about themes and style in your work overall.
  • For nonfiction essays and short stories, staying under 25 pages is appreciated. There’s always wiggle room—30 pages isn’t unreasonable—but most short pieces are in this ballpark anyway. Try to have no fewer than 8 pages to give your workshop group enough material to work with for the full period.
  • For novellas, consider splitting your piece into halves or quarters, depending on length. Don’t go over 25-30 pages per section, and cut at the most natural-feeling places.
  • For picture books or early readers, feel free to share the entire piece. Once you start getting into chapter books, even for younger audiences, check the following bullet point.
  • For novels and novel excerpts, also stick to the 25-30 page range. Let people know that it’s an excerpt, and if it’s from the middle of the story, give them context. If you’re in a workshop for the long haul, it’s kind of cool to share your novel with the group chapter by chapter, and it’s good to see what points they find interesting and what questions they’re asking.

Outside of length, you have a lot of flexibility. Some groups or classes are more specific about content than others (for example, I had fiction professors in college who insisted on adult literary prose) but most are open to what you want to write. If you know that you are interested in writing for a specific demographic—children’s, for example, or science fiction—it may behoove you to find a specialized writing group, however. People who read a lot of children’s books or have kids will be a more informed audience for your picture book, and sci-fi lovers will be better equipped to critique your world building.

Whatever kind of workshop you join, be sure that you will be able to write what you want to write and what makes you happy. Dabbling in unfamiliar genres and stepping outside of your comfort zone are always good exercises in expanding your writing abilities, but put your passions first. If you’re into YA contemporary fantasy, dive into it. If romance novels are your calling, don’t let anyone tell you to stray from penning them.

Creative writing means you, the author, get to choose your topic. There is a reader for every writer, I promise. Stepping inside any given bookstore or library is proof enough—thousands upon thousands of topics and characters and writing styles at your fingertips.

Writer’s Goals

Now that my motivational speech is through, let’s move on to some prep for workshop writers. Ask yourself what you hope to achieve, first from your writing, then from your workshop. Maybe your goal is to write a novel, and so you are hoping to see what workshop peers think as they read chapter by chapter. You could be hoping to get a short story that you can submit to a favorite literary magazine, in which case you’ll be wanting to ask your peers about the completeness of the piece, the effectiveness and originality of the concept and writing—points that you’ll want to discuss anyway but that are especially important in short pieces.

Come up with a list of general and specific questions you are hoping will be answered in your workshop. Note anything that was difficult to write or that you’re shaky on, and listen to see if other people bring it up in the discussion. If not, you can always ask. Workshops are meant to help writers, and those who attend them are willing to help you through your struggles, just as you should be willing to help them. The writing community is an important one!

Writer Conduct

As I mentioned in my general overview post, there’s a time and place for writers to participate in the workshop. For smaller, more casual meetings, there’s probably a more evenly-dispersed discussion. However, in a bigger workshop or a class, it’s typical practice for authors just to listen while the group discusses their work, then come in with questions and answers later on.

Some writers don’t like not being able to jump in and explain themselves, but this is a very important lesson. If readers of a published book are confused or don’t like a character, after all, the author doesn’t get to defend himself or herself. The writing may belong to the author, but the story is shared with readers, and they shape the author’s work in their own minds.

Workshop participants may be your first readers, so their opinions are very important! They’re going to notice points for correction in your writing, yes, but also in the flow of the story, character arcs, and pacing. Now, as the writer, you have the right to take or pass on any feedback you get—but as long as it isn’t rude, don’t ever blow off a comment. In the workshop community, a little humility is necessary. Another writer may spot a point for revision that never would have occurred to you; if you’re ready to bristle at any critique, you won’t get far.

Constructive criticism—which I’ll discuss more when I post about the editing side of workshops—is something writers will have to deal with in the world of publishing anyway, because literary agents and editors are full of feedback to improve your work. Their intentions are the best, as are those of your workshop peers. Be respectful, listen to what they have to say, and take into consideration that their opinion, though it may be different from yours, has value.

If someone in your workshop is being a jerk, feel free to ignore that person. No need to be rude or abrasive—just chuckle to yourself that someone in your workshop is so envious of your writing abilities. I know it sounds like a petty thing to say, but not everyone is going to be cool 100% of the time, and getting upset over them isn’t going to help you as a writer. Remind yourself that you’re awesome and turn your ear instead to the person who is giving constructive feedback and wants to help your work succeed.

Bottom Line

Write what you want, but keep your audience in mind—a rule for the workshop as well as the professional writing life! Treat your editors with respect, be open to revision, and take advantage of the opportunity to improve your work. You are that much closer to publication!

xo P

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