The Value of Workshopping

workshopcircleOne of the problems we face when revising is losing our objectivity. The more we work on something, the harder it becomes to see issues. We know our writing. We accept our idiosyncrasies unquestioningly. We know our content, so if something’s missing, illogically constructed, or lean, we can’t always see it because we subconsciously fill in what’s required.

This is where a fresh set of eyes helps.

Something we recommend to writers is finding or creating a workshopping group. The beauty of a group is you can get a consensus as to what works and what doesn’t. Often, you’ll engage in stimulating discussion that’ll challenge how you’ve articulated your concept. This is something that can help in the dilution of your ideas. It’s unsurprising if you walk away from a workshop with a clearer understanding of what you want to do or with renewed vigour about tackling your project.

There are dangers, too, though. You need to find people you can trust. Some people won’t click with your writing – it’s nothing personal. That’s just reading. Others – for whatever reason (and this is more a reflection of their character) – may be scathing. Some feedbackers, unfortunately, come at feedback from the angle of how they would’ve written it, which isn’t helpful.

If you’re thinking about putting together a group, here’s some precepts you can look at implementing as your foundation for workshopping.

Set a schedule and firm word limit
How often will you meet? Where will you meet? What’s the maximum amount of words somebody can submit? Try set a reasonable limit and, from the onset, be clear that everybody should be respectful of it. If submissions are a little over (e.g. 5–10%), that’s fine, but an exorbitant amount is just going to make readers feel obligated and create resentment.

Look at the piece as a whole
We don’t need to tick off every single thing that is right and/or wrong with a piece. It’s fine to cite a few examples, but look at the whole piece, at how it works, at how it could be improved.

Keep in mind that, often, these workshops may be part of a bigger work (e.g. a novel), so some concerns may be addressed elsewhere.

Try to recognise what the author’s doing
Get inside the head of the author and what they’re attempting, and make suggestions in accordance with that. We’ve experienced workshoppers who made great suggestions, but found the passages they were citing were fine. They wanted things done their way, rather than the author’s way. We’re all unique with our own voice and the way we want to do things, so try to empathise when you make suggestions.

Be constructive, not destructive
Be constructive, not destructive with your feedback, e.g. instead of saying, ‘This character’s motivation for taking this action is unbelievable’ (destructive), look at it constructively: ‘Perhaps you could strengthen the motivation for the character taking this action’. This might seem such a subtle variation, but it can really make the different between inspiring or demoralising somebody.

Where possible, give examples
Following on from the previous comment, you might give an example of how the author could strengthen the character’s motivation. Similarly, if you’re citing copy that’s unclear, you might suggest a way of rephrasing. Examples help illustrate where your coming from and avenues that can be pursued, whereas a comment such as, ‘This doesn’t work’, is hardly enlightening.

Be succinct
Clarity and precision is a necessity in writing, and it’s an invaluable practice in workshopping. Be clear in your feedback. A danger when offering feedback is spiraling into a tangent, or workshoppers other than the author discussing how things can be done amongst themselves, like it’s a piece they’re writing together.

Assign a time limit
Not always necessary, but it can be worthwhile assigning a maximum amount of time each feedbacker has to provide feedback, and how long as a whole you’ll spend on a piece as a group.

Finally … be respectful of everybody
Everybody is at different stages of their writing lives and development, and everybody is at different stages in regards to what they’re working on, e.g. you might be in the final chapters of your novel, while somebody else is just starting their novel. Everybody’s needs are different. Keep that in mind when you’re looking at a piece and working out what to say to others.

Ultimately, we’re all taking the same journey, so enjoy being with like-minded people who can help you.

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