Workshopping Works!

March 30, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Writers often just want to be left alone, and I’m no different.  There’s a part of me that wants to share my writings and ideas with others, but there’s also that part of me weighed down by self-doubt and fear.  Usually, I want to make sure my work is “perfect” (in my mind) before I have the courage to show it to someone else.  (Note blogging is different — I don’t give a crap about what people think of my blog posts).

So naturally, I’m not (or at least I wasn’t) a big fan of workshopping.  You know, people sitting around in a room, read your work, and discuss it.  They try and focus on the positives at first, so as to not crush your confidence, but the point is to soften you up before they can give you some constructive feedback (criticism sounds too harsh) so you can improve your work.

Sounds simple and harmless enough, but with so many personalities in the room (some incredibly strong and dominant, some overly confident, some depressingly timid, and not many perfectly assertive), it’s easy to lead to unproductive sessions.

There are people who like to dominate discussions, while there are others who like to remain silent.  Authors of works are usually too protective of their “baby” and become overly sensitive or defensive, and once that happens, nothing can be done.  They’re not going to take any advice, and that defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

But last night, we had a really successful session workshopping our screenplays.  Personally, it was a great experience for me, because I normally hate chatting about my writing, but I also had plenty of questions and uncertainties about my dark comedy short film project, so it was good to get all these issues ironed out.  When I write, I often get stuck in the same world (for lack of a better word) and can’t see things that are right there in front of me.  That’s when getting the views and advice of others can really assist in breaking through those annoying barriers.  Because we all really wanted to make our writings better, we were all completely open to the opinions of others, and as a result it was extremely productive.

It was also good to get a sense of what types of projects other people are conjuring up in their minds, and how their thought processes work.  Is it better to concentrate or plot, or character?  How to they create their characters and dialogue?

One of the reasons the workshopping session was so successful was because we were given specific guidelines.  I know it sounds artificial, and to be honest that was what I thought when I first received them, but having seen them in practice I think it really helps keep things in order and from spinning out of control (which is remarkably easy).

Here are some tips when others are critiquing your work:

  1. Be open to ideas, but don’t take every suggestion or criticism as fact — evaluate them objectively to see what can be utilised to improve your work.
  2. Write down what you are told because in the heat of the moment you might not agree but it could be useful.
  3. Don’t be defensive and start explaining yourself — ask questions or ask them to clarify if you don’t understand.

Here are some tips when critiquing the work of others:

  1. Be sensitive about their feelings and avoid blunt or cryptic comments they can’t use.
  2. Give comments in a structured, organised manner (eg, one thing at a time, such as structure, character, dialogue, etc).
  3. Be constructive and offer options and alternatives they can take away and consider, not just problems you have identified.
  4. If they are becoming sensitive and defensive, back off, because they’re not listening anymore.

Oh, and keep the groups small.  We had 4 or 5 people in each group and it worked.