Dear Writer, I just had a piece critiqued by my workshop group. While they gave me a lot of good feedback, some of their feedback is steering me away from my original vision for my piece. Should I ignore their advice, or are they right and my original idea is flawed? How do I know what’s right?
Sincerely, A Story Torn in Two
Dear A Story Torn in Two:
Writing workshops are tremendous.
These groups--comprised of folks united in a common goal of getting better at putting words on the page--are usually the first spot where our stories, poems, essays, etc., land. Until now the only other people who've seen our writing are the occasional friends or family members we've foisted our work on, begging for any kind of feedback.
But people are busy. No time for the fine-tooth-comb deep dives. We get the cursory, "It's good," or in the event someone really didn't like or understand the piece, we might be on the receiving end of the distinctly Midwestern, "That's different."
So we set out in search of like-minded souls who have stories of their own to share, who like us have had a piece rattling around the inside of their heads long enough, who have taken a story as far as they can on their lonesome. And though workshops provide myriad benefits, they aren't without their pitfalls.
A big challenge is that writing workshops are filled with writers, and sometimes* writers tend to approach a text as writers instead of readers. As we read through a piece of writing, the machinations of our own creative engines** creak to life, and when we come across elements that aren't working for us, we begin to think of ways we'd fix them. That's fine. But when giving feedback we need to rein it in a bit. Maybe develop the equivalent of one of those tiny stop signs which appeared at the bottom of standardized test pages, warning us we'd reached the end of the section. Most of the workshops I've participated adhered to three basic guidelines for giving feedback***, which helped foster that diminutive mental stop sign:
Identify what you think the author intended with this text (this part of the process is invaluable, as it lets the author know if what they were going for landed with their readers).
Identify what's working well for you in this piece (huzzah for validation!).
Identify areas which caused you to stumble or where you had questions (if a majority of group members point out the same parts or have similar questions, it's a usually a good indicator of something getting lost in translation between the brain and the page).
During workshop, folks would go around the circle, or whatever shape we happened to be meeting in****, and speak to the above guidelines. Whoever's piece was being discussed would listen and take notes, and afterward, have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions.
While it can be a bit overwhelming to receive that much information in one go, there's an unspoken rule***** inherent in writing workshops which helps keep things manageable: after thanking everyone for their insights, you get to return to your piece of writing and can then listen to or ignore as much or as little of the feedback as you want to; you get to decide what's going to help you the most.
So embrace your original vision. Hold onto it with all the fervor and excitement you had from the outset, and use the advice from your workshop that'll best help you to tell the kind of story you want to.
**That sounds really pretentious. Apologies.
***This is neither the only nor best way to structure workshop, just what's worked for me.
****Generally, I've found circles or ellipses conducive constructs for effective feedback. Oftentimes comfy chairs were involved.
*****Though maybe it should be spoken, or even bellowed at the top of every meeting.
P.S. Or, to put it much more succinctly, Neil Gaiman writes, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”