This blog originally appeared on the Burlington Writers Workshop website.
Writing workshops are a pretty amazing thing. People, often strangers, come together to share pieces that express their artistic visions and, sometimes, intimate details of their lives. It can be scary to submit your work for review, but in return for your bravery, you receive valuable feedback, encouragement, and a sense of community. Participating in a writing workshop can be a powerful and even transformative experience.
This all depends on one key ingredient: trust. Trust is what makes the exchange between writer and reader possible. The writer trusts the reader to provide criticism that is both helpful and compassionate. The reader trusts the writer to listen to his/her viewpoint and not react defensively. In this safe environment, work is improved and writers are inspired to keep going.
To foster an atmosphere of trust at your workshop, follow these guidelines:
1. Remember the main goal
The purpose of a writing workshop is to provide helpful feedback – both encouragement and criticism – that writers can use to improve their poem, story, or essay. (In turn, they will provide the same when it is your turn to submit.) Before commenting on a person’s piece, keep this question top-of-mind: Will my feedback be useful?
2. Be humble: agree to disagree
There is no “right” answer in a writing workshop. It is normal for people to react differently to a piece, and even a person new to creative writing can provide valuable insights. Never denigrate a peer’s point of view or argue over whose interpretation is correct. It is helpful for the writer to hear from all sides.
3. Respect the writer’s perspective
Regardless of how you feel about a particular topic, the role of a BWW workshop participant is not to pass judgment on the writer or the validity of the piece. Instead, one must focus on what is or is not working from a literary standpoint. For example:
Helpful: “I wasn’t able to empathize with the character because…”
Not Helpful: “I don’t like this.”
In addition, beware of silencing techniques. Remember Guideline #1 – the goal of a workshop is to help a writer improve a piece, not to determine what s/he should write about.
4. Avoid stereotypes
Always assess a piece of creative writing on its own merits. Do not judge it based on the author’s gender, ethnicity, age, or other demographic.
5. Aim for a 50/50 balance of positive and “negative” feedback
There is something to like (as well as room for improvement) in nearly every poem, story, or essay ever written. Aim to make a criticism sandwich – trust me, it’s delicious.
6. Compassion first
Ultimately, everyone in a writing workshop is only human. Approach the group, your fellow critics, and the piece being workshopped itself through the lens of compassion, and you are guaranteed to build a positive community.