Writers are notoriously creative. When we get together and talk about writing, the extroverts among us wax poetic—the introverts (if given a chance, and enough pauses by the chatty extroverts) often have great ideas about improving and augmenting a text in workshop. But more loquacious workshoppers and their quieter cohorts need to keep these simple rules in mind.
I didn’t make these up and they’ve been sourced all over the place. Most recently in Steven Dunn’s workshop at Lighthouse, “Workshopping the Workshop” that you really need to watch for if he leads another one. I will credit all of the sources below.
Rule Number One: No prescriptions
This isn’t your book (story, poem, play) so unless specifically asked, “What do you guys think I can do here plotwise? (characterwise, with setting, imagery, etc.) continually ask: What is the text on the page itself need for understanding and clarity? Not how you would love to see it go with Fiona and Claire.
Rule Number Two: Don’t bogart the joint
You love the story. You are overtaken by emotion in a good way. Try to chill.
I have often been guilty of this one. First off, it doesn’t matter if the text reminded me of darling Aunt Sally’s tufted velour pillow collection. Rhapsodizing about the way the text made you feel isn’t helpful. Sure, if you’re asked at the beginning to give an overall impression, spend a bit of time telling the writer about what you saw as their strengths. We all love it. But specificity is key. Try to use page numbers and reference specific scenes/words and remember, you don’t want to corner the market on input. Your fellow workshoppers have just as good ideas (often better) than yours. If you have a hard time not popping in during silences, time yourself. If there are seven people in the workshop, you can plan to say something every seven minutes. I write people’s names and put a checkmark every time they share, including myself.
You also have to wait a full one minute before chiming in if there’s silence.
Conversely, quieter people should make bullet points about the text. In workshop, there are often common topics like:
• What’s working (in general)?
• What do you think the text needs for clarity (where are you confused if at all)?
• What about the sentence, stanza, paragraph level? How are these building blocks of the work helping and hindering the reader’s experience?
• Find a spot you love and plan to read it out loud.
• Find a spot you would like to see tightened. In poetry, where the images may be muddled, in playwrighting, dialogue that doesn’t do enough work for the character/plot in comics, I don’t know how to workshop those so please don’t ask me.
Quieter people will benefit by having this list in front of them.
Planning to pipe in during these discussions can help you a) If you’re getting a grade and need to be a great workshop member for a good one and b) it helps the writer hear from everyone instead of 1-2 confident/loud people c) oddly enough it can help you clarify your own issues as a writer. You’ll be merrily typing or scribbling along and a workshop experience based on these bullets will come up for you in the current project. You’ll be like: I thought I was helping them, but check it out, I learned something, too.
Also, try to piggyback off what other people are saying. The aim is a lively discussion not everyone changing the topic each time they speak. Use the list of names to keep track of what you would like to say about which person’s comment. A few scribbled words like, “Jax said they liked the use of assonance here. I also saw assonance here and there plus a great image there.”
Rule Number Three:Send your comments to the writer FAST
Workshoppers are often waiting for input before submitting to a deadline in a journal, magazine or for a contest. Don’t be douchy. Send your comments as soon as you can.
A word about preparation: We all can tell if you spent five minutes before class or are reviewing the text for the first time in workshop. This is lame as #$@% and you’re better off ratting yourself out if you have had a horrid emergency and couldn’t review the writer’s work the way it deserves to be reviewed. As in, if the leader calls on you, you can say, I was sideswiped by a tractor during harvest yesterday and spent the night in a ditch next to the cornfield (insert your own emergency) but I will make sure to spend time with this (a LOT of time) and send my notes. I apologize.
Rule Number Four: Don’t be afraid to question uncool gender, race, or any kind of fucked up insensitivity or harmful themes
As writers, we should be well read. If we’re working with a specific minority experience or are writing a story about social justice; if we want to highlight the evils of ablelism and the lack of understanding about patriarchal abuse/eating disorders/disability/queerness/racism/economic constrictions/poverty/domestic violence or any other triggering topic for any person who will potentially be in workshop, it is on us to do our research.
We are all adults. If you come across text in workshop that triggers you, privately email the leader and tell them you do not want to work on that text and why. You don’t have to go into detail or make them your ad hoc therapist—it’s okay to say no to protect yourself from trauma.
Going into workshop with someone who has upset you with what may be a quite honest mistake but still should have or could have been handled with more sensitivity is a shitty way to spend your valuable time. It also could be a serious hit to your mental health. Chances are others will call them out on it during workshop and if you feel up to it, you can sit in and experience that, as well. It may help you out if you would like to write about a different, hot-button issue in the future. But of course, only you know what you feel and you can give yourself the grace to dip at any point.
That being said—if you have the tiniest teeniest little voice in your head on this subject about a work you are considering submitting to workshop, pick another one. It’s so distracting to everyone to have to deal with your cluelessness and/or laziness about these issues.
Get a sensitivity reader for the piece and then (maybe) use it in a later workshop.
I get it—we’re writers and self-censorship doesn’t feel too great. But you never ever got into this game to hurt anyone, right? Looking at it from that perspective—we can borrow from the Hippocratic oath here—first do no harm—you will probably be okay. That doesn’t mean to shy away from the hard stuff. It just means not beating vulnerable people over the head with it.
Rule Number Five: Get in and get out
These are the practices that have really helped me in workshop. I don’t know if they will help you but they’re ideas. As I said, we’re all in this together. There are tons of great resources on what to do and not do at workshop. Mine are just experiential and hard-won. These are not about icebreaking or getting to know one another. I am presuming the leader took care of that kind of thing already.
I took my first workshop in high school in the early 80s. It sucked so hard. Fifty percent of the class cried over the semester. It was pass/fail so many of us took the fail rather than the toxic environment every Tuesday from 12:30 – 2:30 (see I even remember the module!!) The leader wasn’t protective or kind. And if I didn’t have this need to write, i.e., I can’t live without it, I am compelled to do it, if I didn’t crave community and input from other writers, I might have been scared off forever.
- Ask the writer about their needs for the piece—what they want to learn, what’s giving them trouble, what they want you to pay special attention to—ideally prior to workshop in a group email. If you’re in this workshop, take notes about this and reconfigure your comments accordingly for class.
- Go over the bullets or similar, listed above.
- After they’ve been workshopped ask the writer if they have any questions.
- If leading, ask workshoppers to privately email about any issues they might have experienced in the session. If merited (or helpful for the rest of the week for weeklong workshops) share these concerns with the class and some direction for addressing them/discussion time. If the workshop is hours long, leaders need to announce that during break, they are open to feedback about any part of the experience.
- End by asking the writer if there is anything else they would like to say.
- Ask other workshoppers to send comments (either line comments or a written paragraph or two) as soon as they can.
So these are admittedly top line and quite superficial but really a good place to start.
I have no patience for people who don’t respect each other’s art. That means yeah you won’t always “like” the text you encounter in workshop but it’s important that you realize it doesn’t matter if you like it. Give it space to breathe. You’re not a lion tamer, put the chair and whip down. Instead show up with the literary equivalent of a row of Oreos and the adult beverage/glass of sweet refreshing whatever for your workshopping humans. We’re all starved for steady, intelligent attention toward our projects. Let’s extend it to get it. Or maybe cause it feels good and it’s the right thing too. Or feels awful and is super helpful. Or feels meh and we still wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Some references that are boss-diggety