5 Tips for Successful Workshopping
5 Tips for Successful Workshopping

5 Tips Every Writer Will Tell You About Workshopping Papers

Remember, you're not there to make friends. At the same time though, don't be a douche.
April 20, 2017
9 mins read

Workshop. Drop Top.

Remember, you’re not there to make friends. At the same time though, don’t be a douche.

By Kara Mercer, Northern Illinois University

You could edit and provide feedback to people for a living, or you could have been given an assignment in an introductory English class to read someone’s paper and give them advice.

Regardless of the setting, it’s important to respect the sanctity of reviewing someone else’s work.

Letting go of your ego, and setting aside the effort put into a piece of writing is extremely difficult. While peer reviews are more intimate than workshops, both settings incorporate a certain amount of trust between author and reviewer. Critiques are meant to be helpful, but sometimes workshops can go wrong and wind up being more stressful than useful.

So, whether you’re in a group workshop where people are bouncing ideas off each other, or in a one-on-one critique with a partner, it’s important to take the review seriously. Being able to communicate errors to someone is a skill transferrable to most job fields.

If you become the boss of a big company, you wouldn’t want your employees making mistakes. Identifying mistakes and noticing positives in others’ work can also help you in your own work, be it written or any other medium.

As an English major, and someone fascinated by literature, I spend most of my time reading the work of others. I’m also in a fiction workshop class, where the author sits in the room while everyone discusses their story.

Northern Illinois University’s literary magazine requires me and the other members of the organization to rate literary and art work. I edit content for a publishing company, and writing for “Study Breaks” involves a workshopping aspect as well. I’d say I’ve learned a few things about critiquing, so here are some things to keep in mind when helping people with their creative works.

1. Honesty Is Key

Some people can’t see what’s wrong with their own work. An author could pore over a story so much and read their own words so many times that they become oblivious to the inevitable mistakes or mechanical errors. O

r, your classmate could have written their essay the night before in a caffeine-induced stupor. Either way, they’re trusting you, their reviewer, to point out the mistakes they’ve missed.

5 Tips for Successful Workshopping
Image via Smart Bear

Workshops are supposed to be a safe space, so don’t hold back because you’re trying to protect someone’s feelings. Anyone having their work critiqued should have thick skin. Obviously, you want to be a decent human being and avoid being disrespectful, but don’t be afraid to point out something and let them know if a plot device isn’t working.

You wouldn’t want to walk around with something on your face or in your teeth without someone telling you, so tell the author to get the gunk out of their writing, so they can go on with confidence.

2. Incorporate Praise

If you’re impressed by something in the author’s writing, tell them! If the author has a good attention to detail, tell them to continue using the details to bring you into the story or that an argument they made in an essay is really captivating. If a writer doesn’t know what’s being done well and they are in a peer review or workshop setting, they could become discouraged by only hearing negative comments about their piece.

You can point out problems in the writing by prefacing your comments with something positive. By doing so, you don’t forget to point out what’s good about an essay or a work of fiction. If an author is new to being workshopped, or even just new to writing, it’s important to point out what is being done well.

3. Too Much Positive Can Be Negative

No one is perfect, so no one is going to hand in a flawless first draft. Too often, out of laziness or misunderstood belief that praise is enough, students or peers will critique a work and just say “Your writing is great!” or “I liked it!” without going into detail. Simple praise doesn’t help someone get better. A peer reviewer who says a piece is perfect is doing the originator a disservice.

An author’s work can always be improved, so by suggesting that they’ve already achieved the highest level of a paper or story, you’re lying to yourself and the writer. Even if you have to nitpick at a draft, there is always room for improvement.

The whole point of a critique is to make the author and yourself a better writer by finding a balance between critiquing and recognizing what is done well.

4. Their Style Is Their Own

Everyone has a different approach to writing. It’s up to the author to come up with their own style, or spin a preexisting style their own way. You want to give the writer advice appropriate for whatever style they’ve chosen for themselves.

When peer reviewing, know the difference between helping and hurting.
Image via University of Iowa

If an author creates a story through a child’s perspective and the piece misses the mark, let them know what could help the story, and avoid telling them to restructure the piece entirely. If someone in your 8 a.m. lit class wants to use “I” in their formal college paper, they can, so cater your critiques to what you know about the style of writing the author has chosen.

5. Take Yourself Out of the Equation

Just because you don’t like what someone else has created, it doesn’t mean no one will like it. I’ve been in critiques where people will say things like, “I would prefer this story to be told in third person,” or “I don’t like it because it’s fantasy.”

While you’re meant to share your opinion on whatever is being critiqued, don’t tell someone to completely change their work because it doesn’t work for you.

Most importantly, remember that the author doesn’t have to make any of the changes you suggest. At the end of the day, it’s the author’s work. Your job, as someone reviewing their work, is to make sure you’ve tried to make them the best writer they can be. Your suggestions could fall on deaf ears, but at least you know you tried.

Kara Mercer, Northern Illinois University

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