As writers, you have all taken part in some sort of workshop, whether it was meeting up with a group of friends at a local coffee shop, sharing your work digitally via Google Drive, or commenting on the work of your peers in a more formal academic setting. Participants swap papers, read one another’s work, and reconvene to discuss opinions, highlight points of agreement, and expand upon areas of disagreement, all the while working to help the author achieve his or her goals. The writing may be left to speak for itself, or the author may play a more central role by directing attention to relevant concerns and questions.
Sounds like a foolproof system, right? Nothing bad can happen; you’re among friends, or colleagues, or both! Don’t be scared. They’re here to help you. However, the workshop environment presents a number of unique challenges that are not present in other arenas where writers share work. Public readings are nice, because readers are somewhat shielded from immediate criticism. There is a culture of courtesy and respect at such events because attendees are present by choice instead of necessity. A writer reading their work to the public can be compared to a basketball player getting playing time in an NBA game. You might not be considered “one of the greats,” and you might only play for a minute or so, but you’re playing in the NBA. Come on. For one minute, you’re not riding the bench. Your ambition has not been wasted. Yeah, you may mess up. You may even lose the game for your team. But you put on the uniform and you played on a national stage. You have a captive audience, as a writer does at a reading.
But workshop is different. Because nobody’s work is automatically positioned above the rest, a fight for supremacy often naturally ensues. Like benched players at practice, vying for just a chance to play in the game, it’s natural for writers in a workshop to feel competitive. Everybody’s been telling you the job market is shrinking, publishing deals are hard to come by, and rejection letters will pile up by the handful before an acceptance graces your inbox. As a writer, you face hundreds of seemingly insurmountable obstacles every day in the form of words. Do yourself a favor and don’t let unsavory workshop dynamics add to that load. Here are some tips to help you and your work survive workshop relatively unscathed.
Check your ego, along with your literary preferences and preconceptions, at the door, please. Grab it, along with your coat and its sleeves stuffed full of tender emotion and longing for warm, fuzzy feelings, when you leave.
Don’t try to sound smart. You’ll miss the point completely—especially if you’re having one of those incoherent days that befall overworked, sleep-deprived people every so often. There’s no need to spend a minute elaborating on something that can be expressed in ten seconds. And please don’t be scared of offending anybody, because doing so is just another way for thoughts to be lost in translation. Remember, everyone should have checked their egos and emotions at the door.
What to do if you dislike a submission: Find something to appreciate. Something must be working. Wrack your brain. Is there one decent line? One decent word? What does this contribute to the piece? Summarize the piece so the author knows you read it with good intentions and an open mind. Have something to prove? Workshop isn’t the place, folks. Try your personal blog, or, if you’re not shy, Facebook. Then, when in doubt, do as the new critics do: use textual evidence to support your viewpoints. You don’t have to be best friends with the author. In fact, empty praise deserves to be abhorred. But sometimes every writer needs a “job well done” in addition to more constructive feedback (as long as you’re not completely lying). Treat workshop like a day at the office. You might get a leg up by pleasing the right people, but you won’t gain anything by acting unprofessionally.
Hold tight to your intentions and filter feedback accordingly. Let your story be the net, trapping the ideas worth keeping; the others will slip through the holes during revision. Repeat: it’s not personal, it’s business. Well, okay, it might occasionally be personal, but, above all, it’s business.
Take accountability for the quality of your work. Did you give your writing the quality time it deserves? If you aren’t sure of your characters’ intentions and deepest desires, how do you expect readers to be? Any cut corners will become apparent in workshop. If your writing is genuinely un-workshoppable (if people just don’t understand the complexities of your artistic aesthetic), then go, young protégé, onward and upward; submit to experimental literary magazines and small presses. Make a name for yourself!
Firmly believe that no one is out to get you. Even if they are, your work won’t benefit from any such acknowledgement. Everyone is busy and everyone has bad days. If a response you receive is too short or too simple, chalk it up to a bad day. Your work might (shockingly) not have been at the top of the list of priorities in the daily life of the respondent. But you don’t know their struggles, so give them a break. Direct targeted questions towards that person if you really must know what they think of your work. Yes, you are probably attached to your writing, but your writing is not attached to that person. Don’t be swept up in the brilliance or ignorance of one idea or another; don’t let rhetoric sway you. Strip away the faces of the criticism, focus on the content, and have faith that other perspectives exist.
Let your work rest. Do you still feel like your work is worthy of accolades? Do you still feel cheated and want validation, or at least another educated opinion? Don’t keep riding the bench. SUBMIT, already!