We all need someone to check our work. When we’re in school, it’s our teachers. When we grow up, it’s our colleagues, our bosses, our significant other. But a career in writing can be a very solitary venture. Who cares if you write your book? Nobody but you. Not really. They might love and support your writing, but tomorrow, if you called them and told them you had given up writing for the adventurous world of papier mache art, they may be confused, they may be disappointed, but they will NOT be the person sitting up in bed at 3 am waiting for the characters in their head to be quiet. That would be you. You are the only person who can motivate yourself to keep going.
So…solitary. But it doesn’t have to be lonely.
When babies first learn to play, they don’t learn to play together. They play side-by-side. Two different stories, two different imaginings, next to each other. They get older and they start discussing each other’s worlds. “Your castle is the biggest castle ever!” or “That picture is ugly!” Yeah, there’s one of those in every class. I know because I encounter one in every workshop.
When we learn to write, we need to learn to do it alongside other writers. And that is what a writing workshop is about.
A writing workshop is an exhilarating experience and kind of a terrifying one. It’s more like your child’s first day at daycare. You bring this creation of yours into a place where you no longer have sole control over it. You’re still in charge, but your creation may now have outside influences. When you distribute your story to the other participants in a workshop, you’re handing it off to trusted colleagues for an honest critique. And many others will be entrusting you with their creations in return. So it’s very important that you create an environment of trust and respect. Take criticisms with poise and, when necessary, restraint. Take some time, then turn an honest eye to your work.
When reading for others, read through the piece in front of you with a careful eye. Consider plot, theme, characterizations, language and dialogue. Look for things you don’t like, things that don’t work for you, things you love, that stick with you. Always consider the positive and negative. If you don’t like the piece, search out that solid turn of phrase, that one character you enjoyed. Praise that, then get to the nitty gritty. If you loved the piece, dig deep and find something that might still need a correction. Is the prose a little too flowery? Is one character a tad weak? Don’t make something up. The writer will know. But really work on helping the writer improve the work in some way.
Most importantly, respect the work. Read carefully. Know the characters. Know the important plot points. Calling a main character by the wrong name shows that you haven’t read the story closely enough. When you critique, don’t act like you’ve been forced to read something, even if it’s something you wouldn’t normally read. You are doing a service to another writer while simultaneously broadening your horizons. If you have a negative criticism, try to deliver it softly, without the edge of superiority or disgust. This isn’t a case of “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all”. You have to say negative things or your critique will wind up being pretty useless. It’s about how you couch your response.
Everyone was a first time writer at some time in their career. Everyone has produced a piece of utter crap once. So lend a hand. Be kind, respectful, and nurturing to the talent of others.
If you aren’t you end up being that kid in the daycare that kicks over everyone else’s castles. Nobody wants to play with that guy.