Sunday, November 11, 2007

Writing Workshop Etiquette: Top 10 Tips for Writing Groups

"Workshop feedback is not meant to be the equivalent of clicking 'Like' on Facebook. Writers need real feedback." - Heather Hummel

One way for writers to advance their craft is to join a local writing group or sign up for a workshop. Sounds easy enough – do a Google or Meet Up search for local writing groups, or check with nearby writing centers for their class schedule, then show up with your masterpiece and sit back while everyone raves about how it’s the next Great American Novel. Accept your applauds, offer autographs, and decide you no longer need your group because you have an agent to find. It could happen. Never doubt the power of positive thinking.

However, should you end up in a writing group or class for an unforeseen amount of time, there are some general standards that tend to be the foundation for sharing your own and critiquing other members' work. Besides attending several workshops and critique groups that followed these standards, many of my University of Virginia education and English classes involved modeling proper work-shopping techniques. In my former days as an English teacher, my 9th and 10th grade English students proved to be more than capable of  learning appropriate etiquette and how to give and receive feedback within the walls of our classroom, so I imagine you can too.

These are general guidelines:

1. Read Only! Read through the entire piece that you’re critiquing and then reread it before marking your comments.Why? Because you may write a comment early on that is addressed or answered later. A bunch of crossed out words (retracted questions or comments) on the paper doesn’t look so good blended in with your good ones...which leads to #2.

2. Out with the Old. Type your comments on separate sheets of paper appended with paper clips or stapled.Why? There is no need to mark papers with red ink. Red ink went out with, well, typewriters. Another alternative is to use the "Track Changes" or "Comments" feature in Word (use the Help feature to learn about these incredibly valuable tools). Be sure your group is familiar with these features before you use them, and it's most beneficial if you can send the electronic version to them at some point after the critique session.

3. Say What? Start your comments by acknowledging what the author is writing about.Why? This lets the author know that you understood their piece. It also starts the feedback on a positive note, which should be a rule, not a guideline.

4. Facebook? NOT! Note how the piece grows paragraph by paragraph. Comment on strong images, phrases, or tensions.Why? This idea relates to actually writing comments – give the author feedback they can work with other than a generic, “I like this!” Workshop feedback is not meant to be the equivalent of clicking "Like" on Facebook. Writers need real feedback. Noting how the piece made you feel, what images it brought to mind, and other personal touches gives the author valuable feedback.

Each reader will respond to each piece differently and the author would rather hear that range of emotions evoked than ten, “I loved this!” or "Needs work!" comments. Feel free to follow your comment with a question, if needed. For example: “Your image of the teacher sipping tea while grading papers may be realistic, but it also tends to pigeonhole her character into a stereotype - is that your intention?”

5. Digging Deeper. Give an interpretive summary of the paper.Why? As with #3, giving the author your interpretation of their piece lets them know if their message was relayed the way they intended. For example: If you read an essay on cycling and only picked up that the author loves to ride her bike but missed the parallel that relates to a more in-depth topic, such as the author/cyclist uses cycling as their muse and that's why they like to ride, then the author needs to know that her point didn't come through clearly.

6. Essence. When making suggestions for revisions, be supportive, not derogatory. You can help by making suggestions for revisions by using some of these approaches:

  • Ask for specific kinds of additional information;
  • Envision the piece in a different, transformed form of discourse;
  • Suggest quality deletions or paraphrasing;
  • Ask questions about anything in the paper that puzzled you. If you're puzzled, someone else might be too;
  • Suggest anything else, within the essence of the piece, that you think the author should consider. 
  • Respect their vision - this is very important - it is their piece and needs to reflect their voice and agenda.


Note: When making revision suggestions for excerpts from a novel (i.e. if you are only reading one or two chapters), bear in mind that you are only reading a small portion of a larger piece that can take place anywhere within the novel. It may be that your questions are addressed before or after the section that you are reading. (There are times that the author will provide critical information in these cases, but not always.)

7. #2 Pencils! If you choose to mark on the paper directly by commenting and highlighting certain parts, use pencil rather than pen.Why? For the obvious reason that pen is permanent...you can erase pencil marks. It only takes one time of wanting to erase a pen mark to learn this valuable tip. If you're in a group that is electronically challenged, or simply prefers the old style of using hard copies for critiques, this is especially important.

8. Be Charitable! Make your suggestions for revisions charitably; you want to avoid sounding patronizing or presumptuous.Why? Because ideally you’d want the same consideration when your turn to be critiqued comes about. The writing part is easy – it’s learning to take and give constructive feedback that is often the largest hurdle for beginning work-shoppers.

9. As the Recipient of Constructive Criticism...the best gift, and often the hardest, you can give yourself is to learn to detach from your story enough to hear other writers' suggestions. It is recommended, and often general procedure, that the author must endure listening to all others discuss and provide feedback for the first part of the critique session. In other words - no talking until the critiques are complete. Learning to bite your tongue and not send daggers across the room at the slightest bit of negativity during this time is critical to surviving a workshop. Remember that you signed up to hear what others think and feel about your work and to gain knowledge from the experiences they had while reading your piece. To interrupt would be the equivalent to telling your mechanic what is wrong with your car and how to fix it while they're working on it. Sit back, listen, take notes, chew gum, sit on your hands, do whatever you need to do to absorb what they are saying — your turn to ask questions and explain or defend, if needed, is at the end.

10. Wait it Out. Typically, as the writer being critiqued, you will leave with all the copies of your piece loaded with the suggestions, marks, and possibly questions from your group. When you get home, instead of sitting down and reading them (after all, you just heard most of the comments), set them aside and wait about a week before reading them. By then you will have a fresh head and will be better able to soak up their comments, praise, and suggestions—some will make you wince, some will make you grin, some will utterly confuse you and will make you wonder if the person actually read your story, but all of this is normal and you’re not required to take any or all of their advise.

Once you’ve made it through that process, you’ll be ready to forge ahead and the next time it will be all the easier to endure.


Note on Point of View: One of the most valuable parts of writing that beginners learn from critique groups is point-of-view. This is something that most advance writers will pick up on immediately if they see a piece that has constant point-of-view shifting. If you are not clear on point-of-view, research it before attending a workshop…it will save a lot of comments and time. In a nutshell, most point-of-views are third person, in which case only the main character can see and think (of course they can act and speak as well) — secondary characters can only act and speak. For example, if the main character is a teacher, her student shouldn’t be able to think, Why do we have to have all of this homework? He can say/ask it, but the story can’t be told from inside his mind since it’s not his established point-of-view. There are ways to have omniscient points of view, but the rules need to be clearly established by the author to the reader.

*****

If you're an aspiring author, you may want to check out Heather Hummel's novel Write from the Heart. Samantha Sounder, the protagonist, quits her day job as an office manager to follow her truth as an author. While writing her first novel in a coffee shop will Samantha sell her book and manage to find love over lattes while in the process? 

If your an English teacher, you'll especially love Heather's first novel, Whispers from the Heart. Madison Ragnar is a high school English teacher who is struggling to recover from a previous relationship. Madison's speckled view of the world is seen through her troubled students, a fellow teacher, an intriguing man who enters her life, and a haunting past. Yet everything comes into focus when she learns to trust in herself for the first time in thirty years.

Heather Hummel is an award-winning author and photographer. Her books include, Signs from the Universe,  Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best At Any Age, Whispers from the Heart and Write from the Heart. She has never smoked a cigarette or drank a cup of coffee. 
Visit Heather's website at: www.HeatherHummel.net
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