As any of my regular readers know, I love writing workshops. I haunt a number of them throughout the suburbs, recommend them to my fellow writers, and even facilitated one in the pre-COVID era. Most of my growth as a writer can be attributed to either what I learned in those writing workshops, or from my mentors, who I met at those gatherings. However, not all things are created equal, and I have had my fair share of bad experiences. That’s what today’s post is about.
“Write my story instead”: A part of any workshop is sharing works and receiving constructive critiques on that writing. Just because a critique is constructive, however, does not mean it is necessarily helpful. One warning that a person or workshop might not be a good fit is when the critiques suggest changing the story or redoing it more to their liking. Let’s say I submit a scary story about being alone in a haunted house and there’s a twist at the end. Good critiques would be, “Incorporate some thematic elements that increase the tension,” “More internal dialogue might show us the character’s fears and anxieties,” and “Give more description of the house with plenty of moodiness.” These are good because they point out an issue and offer a suggestion for a remedy. Troublesome critiques might be, “Put in another character to get some dialogue in there,” “There should be some violence,” or, “Have you considered the following ending instead?” These kinds of criticisms ignore the basic rule of workshopping: This is your story; their job is to help you refine your writing tools so you can make it better. If they throw ideas around that are against what you want in the story, they are trying to make it their story. There’s no need for those groups.
Hive mind: I’ve encountered this one a few times, and it never ceases to amaze me. A good writing group is usually several people who, while possibly very familiar with each other, have different opinions and styles, and they all bring something unique to the table. Sometimes they even debate between different approaches. This is a good workshop, because it is a bubbling cauldron of ideas. The hive, however, is the opposite. This is a group of like-minded people with a narrow, often unyielding approach to writing. New ideas and creative approaches are chased off the moment they hit the page. If the hive is all about first-person storytelling, a third-person story is quickly dismissed or criticized in an unconstructive manner. These groups are often toxic, and unfortunately can dissuade a new writer from pursuing their interest. If you get a sense that a particular workshop is of one mind or style, it might be in your best interest to walk away.
Disengagement: This one is troublesome, as it might be part of the workshop or just of individual members, so I would like to describe it by putting you into the shoes of a workshop member. Someone brings in a piece to discuss that you have utterly no interest in – say, a story about journalism in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century (no offense to my Austrian friends). There might be a natural impulse to tune out then offer flat, broad commentary. Shame on you. Even when the subject matter does not interest you, the writer needs your help, which should be all the motivation you need to pay attention. If you don’t like fiction/fantasy and someone brings in a sword & sorcery story, they truly need your input as an outside reader. People who love swords & sorcery will have a natural bias for the subject; the outside reader is the one who can best see if things are truly interesting, if the characters actually stand out, or if the world is worth reading about. Even if the piece is offensive in some way, it is your job to be constructive for the writer, even if you preface it by saying, “My beliefs are totally opposed to this piece. That being said…” A workshop needs to be there for the writers, and that really counts when the subject isn’t an automatic crowd-pleaser.
(Just as a side-note, there’s a difference between tuning out and not being drawn in by the piece. If something is written poorly, it might not draw in the reader, and this should be commented on in a constructive manner. Prejudging, however, or letting a personal disinterest in the subject matter turn you away from the piece, is a disservice to both the writer and the workshop.)
There are other workshop warnings I could offer, and the list gets even larger now that online video workshops are prevalent. (Thanks to the camera and simple intuition, people can tell when someone is typing/web-surfing instead of paying attention.) For now, however, these broad warnings should serve as a road map to getting into a good workshop and starting to build those writing tools.