A creative writing workshop needs to be a safe place, many of the people in one may never have shown their work to anyone but friends and family before. It can be a terrifying prospect to show your work to strangers for the first time, strangers have no reason to be nice after all. This all has to be born in mind when forming feedback for another person’s work as such my number one rule for giving feedback that you must always have at least one positive point.
You might be wondering why this is because you might not like their story but we’re not looking at another person’s story through the window of our own tastes. We are looking at their work writers advising and encouraging other writers, it’s not quite an academic perspective but it’s not quite a reader’s perspective either. We’re standing on a line between the two reading and rereading with more intensity over each submission than other readers might. Now I’m not trying to say that other readers don’t reread intensely but when things are submitted to a workshop you may have 1,000 to 2,000 words, sometimes of a short story or of a novel, that you might dissect every sentence of before giving the writer feedback. Generally speaking a reader doesn’t read books in such small intense pieces.
Now, there is a problem with this in that when you have such small segments of a novel which is on average 70,000 or more words long there may not be much context at first until half-a-dozen or more sessions. However, I can say from experience that it can also be helpful if you’re developing a novel to receive this feedback to see if people pick up your twists, or what questions they might have that you haven’t answered and might need to. Sometimes there’s even questions that you haven’t considered, but more on that in the next article.
One thing that must be avoided in the workshop is one writer attempting to rewrite the work of another. You may remember in my original article on The Good and The Bad in The Creative Writing Workshop I referred to this as one writer trying to make me write another story simply because that writer considered my choice of the fantasy genre to be less than literary fiction. When we give feedback in a workshop we can offer angles and suggestions: we might suggest a way to rephrase a sentence to make it pack more punch, we may ask if they have considered adding something to the prose, perhaps action to break speech, we may contend that something in the story hasn’t clicked for a considered reason. As a workshop develops their ability to work together we may argue passionately as any friends or colleagues might. What we do not do is tell someone how to write the story, we do not tell them they cannot write something and we absolutely do not rip their work apart.
The workshop is a place of suggestion, support and help doing something as simple as offering something you think works well in their story, whether structure, plot, or character can help boost a writer’s confidence. Nobody wants to show their work to people and come away with it completely deconstructed with no sign of hope. At least if we offer things we think work well a writer can think ‘Well, this perhaps needs work but I’ve done this well.’
As with any aspect of life it doesn’t cost us anything to be nice.