If you’re an English major or just have a knack for writing, you may find yourself in a writing workshop course. When in workshops, something that is key for students to learn is how to critique other writing, no matter how strong their own writing is.
Workshops tend to be filled with both people who have been writing for years and have to complete the course as part of their major requirements and people who are not English majors but simply enjoy writing. If you’re not used to being in a workshop setting and aren’t used to giving or receiving writing feedback, then workshops can be pretty awkward with the sounds of crickets every now and then. But, do not fret. Workshops aren’t as scary as people think they are.
If you are considering registering for a writing workshop next semester, here are some tips to give helpful writing feedback in college workshops.
1. Begin with an open mind.
When in workshops, one of the hardest things to adapt to is probably when others read your work and catch mistakes that you hadn’t while you were writing. You must be able to receive writing feedback to improve, and I strongly believe that most people gain this skill with time.
When I first started one of my workshop classes, I came into class very narrow minded. I received feedback that was great and helpful, but some of it was negative and made me feel worse about my writing. Don’t start as negatively as I did! It can be tough to process sometimes, but the point of workshops is to improve your writing, so any and all feedback should be welcomed.
2. Do your assigned readings.
Yes, there is a lot of reading in workshops. I know that no one is ever bouncing off the walls to read all of their assigned readings (even English majors get burned out from time to time), but required readings in workshop shouldn’t frighten you. Because it is a workshop, some of your assigned readings will more than likely be writing guides. No one can force you to write in a certain style or form, but with the right guide, you can learn some tools of the trade.
Some examples of great assigned readings for a fiction workshop are collections of flash fiction from different authors and guides that highlight which types of writing tools to use to create stronger storylines. An example of a great assigned reading for a poetry workshop is a guide that focuses on different aspects of poems, such as line variation, rhyme type and length. When it comes to assigned readings, just trust your professor!
3. Do your peer reading.
This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people do not read their fellow students’ works. To be a great writer, you must read, and it is especially important to read what others your own age are writing about as well. There could be common themes between writing, such as teenage love or angry rants about the government, but the ways that these stories are told can be entirely different, which is the beauty of writing.
It is important to see what other people are writing about and the strategies they are using to tell their stories. For example, you can be tossed into a story that has features of fairytales and folklore, but the plot could take place hundreds of years from now.
Someone could write a rant about disliking oranges and the sad fruit-picking process that is associated with migrant workers, and it could transform into frustration with current people in office. Seeing and understanding other people’s writing is vital to giving and receiving writing feedback, so always read what is being written by your classmates.
4. Problems do not exist.
Sometimes in workshop, you might come across a lot of mistakes in someone else’s writing. This leads to people saying, “The problem I had with your writing was that …. ” Don’t be this person! By saying something like this, you are you are making it seem like their writing is terrible, which could make them feel like they are simply a bad writer who will never improve.
Instead of pointing out problems in someone’s writing, give them suggestions. Some different approaches could be: “I would suggest using a stronger word for ‘love’ in your third stanza, because love is a weak word,” or “I think you should switch the first and second to last stanzas because it would really help make the poem be clearer and flow better.”
5. Favorites do not exist.
Just as there are no problems with people’s writing, there are no favorites either. Someone could read their workshop pieces and shout, “Oh my god I love it and it’s perfect!” Don’t be this person, either.
Something to understand in workshop is that 99 percent of pieces brought into workshop are first drafts, and this means that no matter how much someone “loves” something, there is always room to expand on. First drafts — even second, third or tenth drafts — are often still babies, and writing can always grow.
If a publisher would send it back for further revisions and not publish the first draft (most publishers would never publish a first draft without editing), then it is not perfect.
6. Stuck on giving writing feedback? Ask!
If you’re going through someone’s workshop piece and are stuck on how to give feedback, start asking questions. If something is unclear to you as a reader, ask about it. “What do you mean by ‘taupes and evergreens’ in the third line? Do you mean them as colors, trees or both?” Asking questions for clarification can make the writer home in on where their work needs to be stronger.
Similarly, if you are being workshopped, ask your peers questions. Not sure if something fits for a piece? “Is there too much Spanish in my poem? “Is there an even balance in the code-switching throughout my story?” Asking readers to focus on a specific point in your writing can make them emphasize its functionality, and it can help you with the clarification of your piece as well.