How to Survive a Writing Workshop
And what to do with the overwhelm of feedback
No matter how you slice it, writing fiction isn’t a simple process. After your world is invented, your characters developed, your sentences constructed, and your hair mostly pulled out, it’s time to focus on the hard part: revision.
Revision is vital to polishing and perfecting your work, but the best revisions come after getting outside feedback. Beta readers are useful in the post-revision stage, but nothing is more informative (or scary, let’s be honest) than sharing your work with a writer’s workshop.
Workshops can take many forms, from casual online sites like Scribophile to pinkies-up college Master’s programs (which I did attend, and my pinkies got plenty of exercise, thank you very much). The idea is similar to sharing your work with a beta reader, with a few important differences.
First, you’ll get feedback from perfect strangers. Second, you won’t have control over your readers’ tastes and quirks. And third, you’ll have the opportunity to critique your critics in return (mwahaha!).
The best part is that handing your work over to a writer’s workshop means you’ll be working with fellow writers, and not with potentially inexperienced or unhelpfully biased friends and family. Your fellow writers will know plenty of tips, tricks, hacks, and adages about writing craft, and they’ll better understand what you’re trying to achieve.
That said, when you submit your story to a workshop, you’ll need to armor yourself. Nothing will thicken your writer’s skin faster than a group of strangers picking apart your work like chickens at feeding time.
It’s easy to get defensive and protective of your writing, to try to explain your important choices until your face is blue, but a reader’s perspective isn’t likely to change with your protests. A reader’s experience is very subjective, after all, and no amount of raised hackles will change that.
What to Expect
Writers come in many different forms, from the casual tinkerers to the relentlessly erudite, from the beginner to the well-seasoned. It’s important to recognize this when the feedback starts coming in, or you may start feeling discouraged about your abilities and rethinking all of your life choices. Remember, you’ll never please everyone with your work, and that’s not what workshopping is about anyway.
After the feedback arrives, overwhelm often sinks in. One person will decry your story’s lack of character, while another will cite characterization as its greatest strength. One will tell you they didn’t understand the timeline, while another will point out how naturally the story unfolds. Others will try to give you grammatical advice without being able to type a proper sentence themselves, and others will say your story is perfect and you shouldn’t change a thing (which is nice, but quite unhelpful).
The important thing to remember is that this feedback, no matter how painful, frustrating, or indigestion-inducing, is kind of like kale. It’s actually good for you. It’s easy to grow attached to your work, and seeing it through someone else’s eyes will help you detach and view it with a more discerning eye.
That doesn’t mean you should take every bit of advice to heart and change your story to make everyone happy. It is, after all, your story. In the end, you need to be satisfied with it first.
Instead of throwing your hands up, here’s what to do with the avalanche of post-workshop opinions:
1. Make a list
Summarize the main points of each person’s feedback.
2. Once complete, review your list for recurring advice
This is where you should focus your attention during revision. Did three people get confused by your opening scene? Did you get several comments on your protagonist’s lack of voice? Circle the feedback that gets repeated. You’ll need to think about it later.
3. Look for logical mistakes
Did someone notice your protagonist’s eye color changed between page 2 and 5? Have you misjudged the passage of time between scenes? In a recent workshop, a fellow writer described her protagonist planting mushrooms. Mushrooms can’t be planted, exactly — they sprout from incubated mycelium. Pay attention to those annoying readers who catch little details like that.
4. Think about which bullet points ring true for you
Oftentimes when you’re reviewing your feedback, people will point out things you were already insecure about. You’ll know you struggled to describe old Mrs. Willoughby’s pond, or that your ending felt a little too flat, or that the dialogue seemed a little off on page 3, and someone will inevitably wave these things in front of your face. If a reader pokes at these wounds, take note. This will help you recognize when your natural writerly instincts are correct.
5. Also consider what doesn’t ring true
The feedback you receive will likely contain a lot of personal preference and opinion. That’s fine and worth considering, but should hold less weight than more concrete advice about plot and mechanics. If you write a horror story and someone tells you to omit the squirm-inducing scene with the bloody worms because they don’t like horror, you should probably chalk that up to mere personal taste.
Once you gather the most important points from the sea of voices, it’s time for another revision. Even if you receive a surge of negative feedback, your story can still be saved. That’s the beauty of writing and revising.
Take the advice, learn from it, fix the issues, and if you’re not confident, try workshopping it again down the road. If it feels like a lost cause, set it aside for a few months and start something else. Sometimes giving your work a time-out for a bit can allow you to see it with fresh eyes later. And chances are, what you learned will translate into your next story being a better one.
If you want to be a good writer, and I suspect you do, you must expect criticism along with the praise. Workshopping is a perfect venue to experience this, and once you take a breath and reassess your work, you’ll find it does make you a bit better each time. And that’s priceless.
For more advice on revision, see also: