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Writing Groups

A note on writing groups and workshops. My work has been workshopped at least a hundred times. I’ve been in a writing group on and off since 2002, I earned an MFA in 2006, and I attended the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference in 2007—all which used the traditional workshop format of critiquing manuscripts with slight variations. The workshop generally works like this:

There are 8-12 people in the group. A select number of those—usually two or three people—submit their work for critique a week in advance of the workshop. The others read the manuscripts, preferably twice, marking it up on the second read. The writer may have asked for specific feedback, like, “Is the narrator reliable?” “Does the flashback in chapter two work?” or “This is a first draft, so no need for line editing.” If the writer doesn’t request specific feedback, the reader may or may not do line edits in addition to critiquing the structure, pace, characterization, etc. of the piece. The reader may or may not type or write up her critique for the writer.

The day of the workshop, a couple different things could happen. In my writers group, we do it like this: Whoever is the first person to be critiqued, the person to his left gives her critique first. Then we go around the table, each reader giving her critique, without the writer defending himself or asking any questions. Once everyone is finished, the writer has the opportunity to speak. In my MFA workshops and at Squaw, rather than going around the table, everyone just jumps in at any time to offer critiques. There are advantages and disadvantages to this format. The advantage is that one person’s comment may spark comments from the others that they wouldn’t have thought of on their own. This way they can just jump in and talk when they have something to say. The disadvantages are a) some people do all the talking while others hardly speak b) the conversation very quickly devolves into negative critiquing. A good workshop leader will encourage readers to give positive feedback first, because it’s so much easier to spot what’s wrong with a story than what’s right with it, and it can be damaging to the writer to hear only negative critiques. But I’ve noticed that once the first person says a negative comment, the whole group starts jumping in with their negative comments and it’s very difficult to turn it around again.

A few suggestions for giving and receiving feedback (oral or written) on a manuscript:

1. Give positive feedback first. Point out what’s working in the story.

2. Don’t over critique. Don’t deconstruct every paragraph of the story, marking up every line. Too much red ink will make the writer want to chuck the story or, worse yet, give up writing. Your job is to encourage, not discourage.

3. Don’t rewrite a person’s work. How YOU would write the story may not be how the writer wants to write it. Put your personal taste aside, and try to view the manuscript the way the writer envisions it.

3. Don’t line edit if the person doesn’t want you to. If the piece is a final draft that’s so polished there isn’t much to do besides line edit, or if there are glaring typos and grammatical mistakes that you can’t resist marking, go ahead and line edit. But if it’s a first draft with all kinds of structural and other problems, dozens of line edits will overwhelm the writer, and you may be wasting your time editing passages that will get deleted or revised anyway.

4. Tell the writer what he/she can do to improve the piece. Don’t just tell him/her what’s wrong with it. Don’t present problems without some solutions.

5. If you’re receiving feedback, shut up! Don’t defend your choices, don’t argue with the person critiquing your work, and hold your questions until everyone has finished speaking. Then ask away, explain if you must, but still, please, refrain from defending.

6. Don’t rush home and make every change to your manuscript that every person suggested. There have been numerous times when I’ve revised a chapter based on critiques, resubmitted that chapter, and been told that the earlier version was better. ARGH! Once this happens a few times, you’ll learn not to listen to what everyone says. When you’re a beginning writer, and new to workshops, it’s hard not to take every comment to heart, but you’ll eventually learn that your choices aren’t necessarily any worse than anyone else’s, and that you know your story and your characters better than anyone else. If three or more people give me the same feedback, though, I usually listen.

Have you been in a writing workshop or group? What has your experience been?

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