Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Thoughts on Workshop

Hi all,

Last week I promised a post after I completed my first week of grad school. I'm taking four classes this semester and love, love, love all of them, professors, classmates and all.

As of right now, I am thinking my thesis will most likely be in Children's Literature (no shocker there), but I'm also very interested in pursuing nonfiction. Luckily, I won't have to make this decision until after South Africa.

So...I had my first workshop. Overall, it went very well. I wrote a picture book/easy reader story--a feel good bedtime story is probably more accurate. The thing I love about workshop is that it gives the writer an opportunity to hear feedback and reader reactions.

For those who are unfamiliar with workshop, here's an overview. The class reads a selection provided by one or more students. We had four students submit, and each workshop took about 20 minutes. Those who are reading are encouraged to write comments in the margins of the manuscript--extensive comments. Sometimes this can be a bit tricky due to lack of space, so in my undergrad classes, we wrote workshop letters. They had to be one page, single spaced. The formula was pretty basic, but it was effective, one I would recommend to other writers who find themselves in a position to review another's work whether in workshop or otherwise. In the first paragraph, briefly summarize the piece. This can be very brief, but it is helpful for the author to have the summary in case the reader has misunderstood something about the plot. Chances are that if something didn't connect for the reader, the problem was in the text, not the reader's fault (obviously there are exceptions to this claim.) The second paragraph should offer positive feedback and should provide concrete examples. Rather than simply saying, "I like the narrator," choose a page or section that you feel best exemplifies why you like the narrator, include the reference and elaborate. Being vague helps no one. The third paragraph, or section in the case that the positive feedback needs to be divided into two paragraphs, should be suggestions for improvement. Tread lightly my friends. I've heard lots of writer's say "If you don't like something tell me." I understand this point. A workshop where everyone kisses up to one another is not productive, but it is important to remember that writing is personal, and therefore, there are polite and diplomatic ways to say what you want to say. The last paragraph should be closing thoughts, anything that did not fit above. Lastly, sign your letter. Take credit for your feedback. It's annoying to get a manuscript back with comments and not have any clue who made the comments.

Some professors lead the discussion. Others try to stay out of it. Also, some workshops are an open forum discussion, but other times we simply go around the room allowing each person the opportunity to comment.

One very important part of workshop is that the author does not speak until the very end. It can be a bit awkward sometimes to have people talking about your work right in front of you. It's also awkward to talk about someone's work while they are right there. The reason the writer remains silent is that sometimes it is tempting to be defensive or to explain, but think of it this way: if you are published, you are not going to be sitting there with every reader being able to explain your word choice or clarifying a confusing plot point. In workshop, the piece should speak for itself, even if it is an excerpt of a chapter. If the writer is too involved in the conversation, it does not allow for the other members of the workshop to discuss plot, narration, etc. However, if, as the writer, you take the time to listen and possibly take notes, you will most likely receive feedback that tells you what is and is not working in your piece. Workshops are a unique opportunity to discern how readers are reacting to your piece and if there is confusion, the other members of the workshop debate the possibilities among themselves. As with any beta readers or critique groups, workshops are helpful because they offer many other sets of fresh eyes looking at your piece.

Still, workshops cause anxiety among even the most seasoned writers.

I find it helps to remember that as a writer you are not going to agree with every reader's opinion. Some people "get" your work. Others don't. The trick is to sift through the feedback and make changes while still remain true to your voice and the integrity to the piece. The opposite is also true. You are not going to be everyone else's ideal reader. Obviously, the professor is the most likely the most accomplished person in the room and the one with the most experience. They are also the person giving the grade. I've heard lots of students talk about tailoring their work to fit their professor's preferences. I understand the temptation, but write the piece that you want to write,or better yet, write the piece you want to read. If you are trying to write for someone else, it is less fun.

Thanks for reading.


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