Writing can be hard. Really, really hard.
It’s easy to feel isolated and discouraged when it’s just you, Microsoft Word, and that ever-flashing tab reminding you that words are not going to type themselves, no matter how hard you glare at the screen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the eleven or so years that I’ve spent dreaming up, writing, and often abandoning stories, it’s that finding a writing community is a great way to stay motivated. Participating in a writing workshop is one fantastic way to get a group of focused and passionate people to collectively improve their writing skills and offer constructive, critical feedback of each other’s work.Finding a writing community is a great way to stay motivated. - Lauren Kalt @Lulladiva #85K90 Click To Tweet
In most of the creative writing workshops that I’ve taken at my university, my peers sit at tables that are set in a large rectangle around the perimeter of the classroom so that everyone can more or less see each other. When we do full class critiques, the writer whose work we are critiquing that day has to stay silent as their classmates discuss positive aspects of their work and then move into constructive criticism.
These types of critiques can be difficult for some writers to get used to because they’re not allowed to defend their work or answer questions students have about their writing. It can also be tough because sometimes you’ve got the one jerk in the class who doesn’t know how to respectfully critique a peer’s writing, so it’s up to your classmates or professor to come to your defense.
Despite how uncomfortable this may be at first, these types of critiques can be immensely helpful.
For one thing, if I’m the one being critiqued, I’m forced to listen to how another person has interpreted my work. If one section of my writing was unclear, vague, or just plain crappy, I don’t get to explain my intentions—and isn’t that just like reading a review of your published work? When you’re reading a novel for the first time, the author isn’t there holding your hand and explaining their intentions when they leave something intentionally vague. It’s up to the reader to figure it out. Critiques are a great way to get this kind of reader feedback that you probably couldn’t get if you had the opportunity to explain every line of dialogue, point of view change, or dream sequence.
Another great part of being workshopped is that the feedback you receive is probably going to be more varied than what you’d get from a critique partner or writing buddy. Sure, one person reading your work may be super observant and find a few important narrative issues in your story, but a whole group of people may find a plethora of issues and have a variety of ideas on how to fix them. You may listen to three people with entirely different opinions on the ending of your short story, and from that variety of opinions, you’ll start to understand what your intended readers might find appealing.
Learning how to critique a peer’s writing in a workshop setting is just as important as the feedback you’ll receive.
Many writers say that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader as well. I definitely agree with this sentiment, and I think the same is true of critiques. When you’re reading a peer’s writing, you’ll start to define your own tastes as a reader and a writer.
You might read a story that is full of tropes and clichés that you’re sick of seeing in what you read, so you’ll know not to include it in your own writing. You might read an incredibly vivid description of a sunset, and find that you want to try to emulate your peer’s writing style in your next story. You might even find that the suggestions you make to a peer to change the point of view to second person would work really well for your own piece about a pink elephant with low self esteem—put the reader in the elephant’s shoes! It’ll surely make the elephant’s woes more relatable! Making suggestions for other writers can help you understand how to make intentional decisions in your own work, and you’ll start to be able to look at your own work through a more critical and knowledgeable lens.
Ultimately, writing workshops are an art of giving and taking.
You’re more likely to receive helpful feedback if you put the same level of effort into critiquing your peers’ work that you’d expect from them. It’s also important to remember that while peer feedback can be helpful, maybe even enlightening, you are still the writer. If your classmates didn’t get why the elephant in your story had to be pink, well, that’s okay. Pink elephants aren’t for everyone. Writing workshops have taught me that writing doesn’t have to be a lonely journey, but at the end of the day, it is always a personal one.
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About Lauren Kalt
Lauren is an aspiring editor and writer, voracious bookworm, and soon to be graduate of Northern Arizona University with her BA in English and minors in French and Studio Art. She was born and raised in the howling desert inferno of Phoenix, AZ, and has the thin blood to prove it. She’s passionate about helping others with their writing and hopes to work in the publishing industry. When she’s not reading, writing, or editing, she spends her time drawing, mumbling to her dogs in French, and binge-watching Netflix shows. For more about her, visit her website at http://laurenkalt.weebly.com/