Katey Schultz is back with the next essay in her mythbusting series, and it’s a big one. Are workshops the right place to turn when we’re not sure what to do next with our work-in-progress? That’s what we’ve always been been told, but today, Katey begins to break down that myth, with the conclusion coming next month! Be sure to check out Parts One and Two while you’re at it.
Why Workshops Can Kill Your Writing
Hang with me for this one, readers, because I’ve been holding my tongue on this topic for far too long. I’m going to come at you with a lot of don’ts right up front, but I promise that by the end of this soapbox speech that might just save your manuscript, I’m also going to offer you some empowering do’s. Well actually, those do’s will come at you next month when this myth-busting series concludes. For now, here goes…
If I could count the number of times in my ten years as a writing mentor that I have heard someone say, “I’m ready for feedback…I just need my writing group/editor/teacher/BFF to tell me what they think…I am definitely ready for workshop…I don’t know what to do so I guess it’s time for critique…” I’d still be counting today. Because the truth is, for better or worse, our literary writing educational world has trained us to believe that when we aren’t sure what to do next, the best way to find out is to ask someone else to tell us what to do next and then try that.
I’m here to call bullshit. In fact, I’m going to say that workshop for feedback and critique, in an academic or continuing educational setting, should not be the norm. It should be the rare, and appropriately calculated exception.
Because nine times out of ten, doing what someone else tells us to do for a particular sentence or chapter is not the right approach to our writing (and, it turns out, often in life). What’s more, by continually eddying in workshops, pages and pages of feedback from acquaintances or teachers we’ll never cross paths with again, tips that misunderstand our goals, solid suggestions that sound great but we have no idea how to implement, or downright bad advice—we do ourselves and our writing damage. We hang out in “I’m-not-sure-land” for class after class, year after year, draft after draft. But we don’t call it that. Instead, we call it, “experimenting” or “revising” or “working through feedback” or “trying something new.”
In the best of circumstances, those four things can literally take a good manuscript, story, or essay and turn it into a published book worthy of an award. But when do we ever hear someone talking about “circumstances” when accepting someone into a workshop or giving feedback about someone else’s work? (Um, exactly, approximately, very likely never.) Instead, we take anyone who thinks they need feedback, give them feedback without regard to circumstances, and send them on their way. And that, more than any life challenge or resistance to deadlines or “failure” on our parts as writers, is why most projects and manuscripts never get finished or never blossom into their fully realized, best iterations.
My heart is racing as I’m saying this. None of this is what we want to hear. I certainly didn’t want to hear it when I flipped my writing coach business on its head, turned down the waiting lists of writers seeking line-level feedback from me, and instead insisted on a model that teaches writers how to become their own best editors and deciders. But I did, and I’ve never felt more free and confident as a teacher and author myself. My students have never felt more enriched, either. I share that because I think it’s important to know that I risked the entire success of my business (and therefore also my family’s financial well-being, among other things) on exactly what I am talking about in this article. And ever since, I have been on a mission to make sure as many writers as possible realize that workshop and critiques are not the only way (and often cause us to stall out) to get where you want to go with your writing.
Still not convinced that workshop or critique might not be your next best step? Let me offer one more angle of persuasion, before I dive into when workshop is right, as well as what to do when it isn’t your next best move (as promised, next month).
For starters, so many conditions need to be present at the right time for the writer:
- A writer needs to seek feedback at a time when they are ready to receive it.
- A writer needs to know how to do something with the feedback they receive (in a very concrete, sentence-level, or structural-level way).
- A writer needs to land with exactly the right instructor and/or workshop participants for exactly the right piece of writing, at exactly the right time.
And even more, conditions need to be present at the right time for the writing:
- The writing needs to be refined to the best of the writer’s abilities at the time, but not so pristine or coveted that the writer will resist change.
- The writing needs to have gone through a rigorous process of drafting, redrafting, revision, and reshaping as a stand-alone piece or as an excerpt separate from the context of a larger body of work. In other words, it needs to have been taken to the very edge of what that writer is capable of before it gets workshopped.
And if all that is actually aligned, syncing up at the same moment, then the writer and the writing can subject themselves to workshop or critique. But there’s more…because the workshop instructor and participants also come with their own set of conditions:
- The instructor needs to know how to guide a group toward feedback that will be most useful, given the position that the writer is in at that juncture in their writing life (this is based on goals), and the position the writing is in as it relates to the context of a larger project or stand-alone piece.
- The participants in the workshop need to be skilled at accepting a piece for what it is, where it is, and what it most needs to become—all dependent upon the writer’s goals and skills at the time, as well as the writing’s potential.
Which means if you think you’re ready for workshop, at the very least, you can use those bullet points to help determine if the workshop or critique you’re considering is the best fit for you. Has the instructor inquired about your goals? Your strengths and weaknesses? Are the participants able to understand the utterly essential difference between critiquing a stand-alone piece of writing, versus an excerpt from a novel or memoir? How much emphasis is placed on process rather than product in this particular arrangement? Interestingly, it’s the former that can teach us the most, but workshop focuses on the latter.
What’s a writer to do? Email me to continue this conversation, and stay tuned for those “do’s” next month!
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free craft lesson and resource guide The 5 S’s That Will Help Get You Published at www.kateyschultz.com.