Oh, writing workshops! How we love and hate you! A group of talented folks come together to discuss one another’s writing. What could possibly go wrong? Any one of these 5 writing workshop pitfalls, that’s what!
As a professional writing coach, I encourage my clients to join a good writing workshop. Participating in a well-run, level-appropriate workshop will add benefit to our writing coaching sessions. But a bad workshop? That’s just a waste of time. It can take some research to find the right fit—but it’s worth it. Use the lists below to increase your chances of writing workshop success.
5 common writing workshop pitfalls
1) Writers in one genre may not be well-versed in other genres. In a genre-mixed writing group this may result in less-than-helpful feedback. A horror writer might fault a women’s fiction writer for not establishing high enough stakes early on in the story, for example.
2) Often, workshop mates have widely differing opinions about what’s working and what’s not. This leaves the writer under discussion in a quandary: Which advice should they take?
3) Being a good writing workshop participant requires time. If the group is reading 25 pages of your novel-in-progress, you’re expected to read 25 pages of everyone else’s manuscripts— ongoingly. While there is much to be learned from reviewing others’ work, the amount of attention to our own work may feel like a scant payoff for the reading we do on the other writers’ behalf.
4) Sometimes a workshop member is just mean, insensitive, hurtful. Are they having a bad day? Are they jealous? Do they simple dislike the writer under attack? Or perhaps the writer is simple trying to help. When our writing is up for feedback, we can be quite sensitive to criticism. But, you know, sometimes someone is just not playing nice.
5) The math may not work in your favor. If you’re submitting 25 pages every three or four weeks, that’s a slow ride to get the ~80,000+ words of your novel read!
5 solutions to the pitfalls of a writing workshop!
1) If writers unfamiliar with your genre give feedback that consistently misses the mark, consider starting a workshop for writers only in your genre. Or, alternatively, create a “cheat sheet” of the basic tenets of your genre. Hand it out to group members and ask them to consider those points when critiquing your work.
2) Too many conflicting opinions about your writing? Use this rule of thumb: If two or more people comment about the same passage—no matter how different their views of it—take that as a signal to review that section closely. Ultimately, though, give your own opinion more weight than that of your workshop fellows.
3) Spending a disproportionate amount of time reading others’ work relative to the attention your own work is receiving? Maybe your writing workshop is just too large? Could members agree to split the group in half? Or maybe what you really need is a single excellent critique partner, rather than a guild!
4) Ugh. Harsh, mean, or otherwise hurtful feedback can be devastating. Set up guidelines for feedback—and stick to them. The “sandwich rule” is helpful: Start and end feedback with positive comments—and limit critical comments to just three to five of the most significant. You might also allow those whose work is being considered to ask for specific feedback and not entertain comments on any other aspects of the writing.
5) If your critique group is slowing you down, you might benefit from a book-writing program or course designed specifically to support writers in finishing book-length drafts in a short time. Or you could hire a developmental editor or writing coach to help you move ahead more quickly.
Bonus writing workshop support
In her article “The Writing Workshop Glossary” on the NEW YORK TIMES website, Amy Klein translates some of the puzzling stuff a writer might hear when hanging their work out on the line and inviting others’ input!
Klein includes her very helpfulo take on the following phrases, frequently heard in a writing workshop: Find your own voice; I don’t find the character sympathetic; What does the character want?; What Is this story really about?; Show, don’t tell; and the ever–popular Kill your darlings.
Discussed with both humor and an obvious wealth of writing workshop experience, Klein’s article will likely offer you support as you manage your workshop participation—and a chuckle or two. The latter may come in handy when dealing with the pitfalls of the former.
Need more for your writing? A chat with a top writing coach can help!
Sometimes, writing workshops are great for writers. Sometimes, they’re confusing. Over a decade of leading workshops has taught me that! If you feel you might benefit from some one-on-one attention, let’s chat. Schedule a free initial consultation. And also take a look at this THE WRITER mag article “Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”