Workshops – II. Making the Experience Valuable

Every workshop unique

Attending a workshop is a unique experience no matter how many times a writer chooses to do it. Instructors and participants vary, and the challenge is to sort through the unique, but sometimes useless, information given in a workshop to find what will be of value to you and your writing.

Taking responsibility for your education

Most workshop students reasonably expect that identifiable improvements for their writing will be taught. But that is rarely true. Workshops tend to be participatory, rather than didactic or Socratic, and addressing key elements of writing for improvement is often unsystematic, if not haphazard. Most workshop participants listen; take a few notes; contribute; and leave with ideas on how to change their manuscripts, but no clear instruction on how to write differently than they did before they attended.

Students must shape their own best experience without seeming to do so. There are definite ways to make your experience valuable.

1. Evaluating student writing—manuscripts.

Submission of manuscripts with distribution of all manuscripts before workshop starts is a common student evaluation format.

Guidelines: Always read the student manuscript for discussion at least twice. The first read should be continuous, and without written comment, for the over all understanding and effect of the writing and the story. The subsequent reads are for comments in the margin. Stay away from line editing (spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntactical errors). Instead, focus on letting the author know when you didn’t understand motives or when passages were not clear.. Look for confusion in points of view or in attribution of dialog. Let the author know where interest wanes and reading becomes hard. Let the author know when a passage pleased you and why (neat metaphor, interesting characterization, all making sense now),

When asked to comment on a student’s manuscript, do not express your generalized likes and dislikes. Be specific. Do not make comparisons to other published and unpublished stories (rare exceptions are possible here). Do not become anecdotal about your own life experiences that seem related to the story line. Instead, look for ways of restructuring the story that might improve clarity or impact on the reader. Look for examples of what you consider to examples of strong writing, and what is strong about it for you (and not that it meets certain rules of writing you think are important). Do not be tempted to make political comments or social judgments on stories. This is fiction, and don’t treat characters or plot as real entities that need to be corrected.

2. Learning from the evaluations of your manuscript.

Although paradoxical, a participant’s major learning about writing in a workshop is seeing how others can improve their manuscripts. When your own manuscript is under discussion, time is short, many comments from fellow students are desperate attempts at significance and often useless, and you are nervous and may not be able to take full advantage of comments that are valuable. But there are ways to improve your experience when your manuscript is reviewed by the workshop participants.

Don’t defend your work, even silently, against unjust comments. There is no need to convince class or instructor why you did something. They won’t care. Above all, don’t say in defense of your writing in a fiction workshop: “It really happened that way.” That is a sure sign you’re not on the right track.

Write down everything said during the evaluation of your manuscript. Immediately after class, edit your notes as a permanent reference, then list what you want to do to your story from the comments you received. Then look at written comments and incorporate them into class comments notes and your manuscript-change list. Do not wait on this process. It will be one of the most valuable activities you do.

At the end, there is often a time for “author questions.” Ask only what you did not understand about a comment. Again, do not defend the value of your work. Do not make excuses for what you did write. And don’t forget to thank your fellow students for their work on your manuscript. Courtesy is contagious.

3. Evaluating student writing—in class presentation of writing.

In some workshops students may be asked to write from prompts, or exercises, or to work on a segment of a work in progress. The student reads in class and then is critiqued.

Guidelines: Again take notes and use the same organizational process as with a written manuscript. For many, presentation of writing is an awkward performance skill. Ignore comments generated by your performance and focus of story elements and possible ways to improve craft of writing.

4. Basic ideas to filter out useless information.

Avoid reacting to the dedicated critiquer. It is not uncommon to find workshop participants who take workshops for a joy in critiquing others rather than for really caring about improving their writing.

These students comments are often unfocused, unfair, and dogmatic.
Avoid reacting to insecure writers. When forced to critique, writers who do not have depth in their understanding of writing often learn rules that they use as a measure of the value of the writing. Examples: never use the word “which”;  you can’t use more than one point of view; or, present tense is better than past tense.

Avoid reacting to “likers” who want to impose their subjective quality assessments of the writing on the listeners.  Ignore judgments such as: “I really don’t like stories about overweight prostitutes.”  These kinds of opion-statements are of no value to the serious writer. Similarly ignore, “I only read stories in first person.” Personal likes about technique are not useful. Instead listen to those critiquers who express ways to make writing more effective, to providie good story and well crafter prose for the reader.

Block out comments from attendees who come to tear down others so their own self-perceived talents will surface.  This negativity can get mean. “I know some of you liked this story, but I have to bring out the obvious. This is not a story!”

Pay little attention to the anecdotal-remembrance thinker. This includes remembering how they enjoyed a great story by their favorite author.  Instead, try to discover why the writing didn’t engage them enough to focus on the writing.  These anecdotes are a symptom of not being involved with the material under discussion.

Assigned reading

Many workshops have assigned reading—stories, novels, books on writing, that are usually read by participants before arriving and discussed during the workshop.  The discussions by instructors are often general, and often fail to identify how successful authors succeed.  Students doing the preparation of suggested reading for workshops, are best served by seeking their own interprtations of an author’s secrets to success.

Some students try to read at least some of the work of the instructor (rarely assigned, however). Common sense suggests value in learning how the instructor writes fiction stories, but most workshop participants find the value for time spent to how to write better to be low, probably because many teachers do not practice in their writing what they suggest for their students.

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