How to Be a Good Writing Workshop Partner
If you write, chances are you will probably want to workshop your WIP at some point with other writers and readers, if you haven’t already! And even if you don’t write, but simply want to be a good, insightful, and also sensitive reader for a friend, it could be useful to set some house rules.
Here are some tips, tricks, and rules of etiquette I’ve picked up from writing workshops I’ve done, but also from my more general editorial experience working with writers.
As The Writer
Especially if it’s your reader’s first time digging into your piece, try not to preface your writing exchange with too much explanation, or what I call “disclaimers.” We’ve all been there, and we’ve all done it. “I’m so sorry I was finishing this up at 3am last night so it’s terrible.” Or “No matter how hard I tried, I can’t get the dialogue between Marco and Mohammad to work.” I completely understand the urge. Early work is vulnerable, and we all try to protect it even if honest criticism is exactly what the work needs right now.
However, if you explain what you’re trying to get across, or even draw attention to your writing’s flaws before your reader’s had a chance to review it, you may inadvertently influence their interpretation of your work, or direct their attention to something they might not have naturally noticed.
Personally, I find it most helpful to let the reader speak first, (or respond first, if you’re exchanging over email). Your reader won’t catch an explanation that’s confusing, if they already know what you’re trying to express. They may notice something you never realized was an important part of the story, ask a question you had never considered, or even praise a strength you didn’t know was there. There’s a lot of robust feedback you can get from a “clean read,” when a reader is going in with no expectations or assumptions about your work.
I like to reserve my questions for the end of my portion of the critique, so I can allow my reader to go through all their thoughts, notes, and their own questions, before I return with my own. Here’s the place you can raise the concerns that we are all so tempted to bring up before the reading. “Did this part make sense?” “Is Thomas too unlikeable a character?” So on and so forth.
Try not to frame your questions as leading questions, though. Instead of “Do you think Levi is the murderer?” ask “Who would you guess is the murderer?” Rather than “Can you tell that Annie is trying to sabotage Hector in this scene?” Ask “What do you think is Annie’s goal in this scene?”
Even basic questions like, “What did you like best about this piece?” and “What in your eyes needs the most work right now?” can be extremely insightful.
The perfect way to end your portion of the critique, asking questions will both shed light on whether you’ve accomplished your goals for this draft and help you set goals for the next one.
Thank your reader!
Your reader puts in time and effort and offers an invaluable outside perspective on your work. Even if you disagreed with some of their feedback or critique, make sure your reader feels heard and valued for their work. They’ll be much more likely (and even excited!) to do a second read or future readings of your work.
As the Reader
Give Constructive—Not Destructive—Feedback
Always try to frame your feedback in the most helpful language possible! As mentioned earlier, and as many of us are deeply familiar with, sharing work can be difficult and scary because it feels very vulnerable. It can be easy to offend, even when you’re not trying to!
For example, rather than “This part’s confusing!” try saying “I was confused here because I didn’t understand why Sasha would eat her potato here, of all places!” And rather than, “I was bored when reading about the history of the walls,” try saying “I think you could move this section about the walls after raising the stakes first, so we understand why the walls are so important.” Always explain your reasoning for your criticism—it will often help the writer to understand your feedback better too.
Point Out Strengths
While it’s important of course to point out what’s not working, it can be just as helpful to point out what you love about your partner’s work so far. While revising, it can be easy for a writer to lose sight of what’s strongest and what ought to stay because they’re focusing so heavily on what isn’t. Even if it’s something as simple as underlining your favorite lines, point out and call attention to what’s resonating with you. Not only is it good for morale, but by reacting to what you see as the core strengths, themes, and message of the work, you reinforce them for the writer—they know they’re going in the right direction.
Ah, asking questions can be so fruitful and versatile, which is why I’m including this bullet in both the Writer and Reader section of this post.
As the reader, asking questions can be most helpful if you see somewhere that needs development, or can tell the writer is running up against a block in their story. It’s a non-aggressive way of nudging the writer to give a little more in one section, or nourish the worldbuilding or character development of a particular aspect of the story. Don’t be afraid of asking a lot of questions. It’s all meant to be a springboard to further development. I always like to reassure the writer: “You don’t need to answer all these questions. They’re just meant to stoke the imagination. Answer the ones that you like!”
Have you heard any of these workshop tips and tricks before? Or do you have any advice I haven’t covered here for writing critique comments? Add your thoughts in the comments below. I hope this post was helpful—happy writing, and happy workshopping Swoon Readers!