Writing and Workshopping

A friend of mine is doing a study of writers and workshopping, and asked me for a comment about my experience in workshopping groups, both as writer and teacher.

I realised it would be easier to write a blog post about it, so here it is.

My first workshop was in Year 9 when my beloved English teacher, Mrs Alden, organised for me to attend a poetry workshop – she even drove me there a couple of times a term after school! (Blessings be upon you, wherever you are, Mrs Alden!)

We didn’t really do much ‘workshopping’ in the sense of critiquing each other’s work, but it was my first experience of being among people who loved words and loved writing and we supported each other a good deal through the difficult teenage years.

We even published some stapled-together books of poetry which local school used as resource material. So I guess that was my first publication.

This experience taught me the value of hanging out with like-minded people. People who thought writing was an admirable activity, not something weird and time-wasting.

That’s one of the great benefits of workshopping groups. Finding a peer group is no small thing.

When I began writing (mostly fan fiction for friends’ zines – hi, Karen Miller!), my friends would read and comment. Some were good at that, and helped me. Some weren’t.

As a scriptwriter for ABC Kids, I didn’t have a workshopping group –I had a director and producer instead. That taught me to take criticism. Writers are the low face on the totem pole of television – it’s better at the ABC than elsewhere, but I’ll never forget the day I had to completely rewrite a script because the outside broadcast van we needed for the shoot had been commandeered by the cricket!

When I started writing children’s books, I found I missed those critical eyes on my manuscript. So I enrolled in a Master of Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney, primarily because they required all Masters students in Writing to join a workshopping group.

A version of that group lasted for 8 years, and some members of it still read my work and comment on it for me. It was the single most useful experience in my writing life. It taught me, not only how to take criticism and use it to improve my writing, but also how to look at a piece of writing critically myself. By critiquing other people’s work, I learnt more than I did from being critiqued myself, and I see the same thing happening, over and over again, with my novel writing students.

I think this is one thing that can be invisible to new writers. When new writers enter a workshop group they are focused on getting feedback on their own work. Perfectly understandable. That’s what the group is for.

But so often, we learn most about writing by reading and thinking about other people’s work. I think that’s for several reasons.

The first is that, of course, it’s easier to be objective about someone else’s writing. But after a while, we learn how to be objective; it becomes a familiar state of mind, and therefore easier to access when we look at our own work.

The second is that it’s easier to recognise problems in your own work by seeing them reflected in another piece of writing. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a student exclaim, ‘Oh my God, I do that too!’ when an issue has been raised in a workshop group. (I’ve been known to do it myself.) Often someone else raises the issue – but because it’s about the other person, the defensive barriers aren’t up and we are able to see the problem clearly, and also see where we have made the same mistake.

And thirdly, workshops generate skills. This is particularly true if the workshop is run by a professional, but even when it’s not, the group will bring a range of different skills and abilities to the critiques, and participants can learn these skills from one another.

In the workshop group I was in for so many years, I learned which group member was great on analysing scenes; which had a good ear for dialogue; which understood voice and style. I learnt from all of them. I might never match any of them in their particular speciality, but I got better at all of them.

And one of the skills – absolutely essential to any writer – was to know when to ignore advice. Workshop members always bring their own experience and prejeudices to their responses to your work. In the end, you have to follow your own instincts and your own story.

Of course, all too often the feedback you get is identical to your own fears about the work; if you think something in the story is dodgy, it probably is, and having your fears confirmed over and over again (in a nice, encouraging way), helps you to take your concerns seriously, and to realise that ignoring those niggles just results in more work later on. You come to identify your problems earlier and earlier in a manuscript. I often say to my students that my experience of writing (30 books and counting) only saves me one or two drafts. It doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes – I just identify them earlier now, and correct them as I go (at least,that’s the aim).

I have never in my life sent a story or a novel to a publisher without having had it read and commented on by several people. I don’t have a regular workshop group anymore, but I have highly valued beta readers and I would be lost without them.

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