Writing Insight

Writing Insights – Navigating the Multiple Personalities of the Writing Workshop

A common component to many writing classes and even writing conventions is the workshop. This is a session (or series of sessions) where writers share their work with one another and receive feedback. A big positive for workshops is that you can allow your story to be read by a fresh pair of eyes, so if there are any holes to your plot or weaknesses in your characters, another reader might pick them up. But there can be some downsides.

Writing Workshop Motley Crew
Most workshops are positive experiences for all. Others are mediocre. And a few are horrendous displays of human nastiness. Most writers in workshops, thankfully, are serious-minded people who seek to improve their stories and hope to help others in the same, positive way. But a few folks  bring their own quirks to the table, which are worth exploring.

Poser Pete/Poser Patty: Poser Petes and Poser Pattys talk the writing talk but don’t necessarily walk the writing walk. They’re full of great advice based on book-knowledge but they’ve never actually done much writing. Poser Petes and Poser Pattys make a good show of things, but when it comes down to it, they don’t have much to physically show for all they know.

If you’re a Poser Pete or a Poser Patty, understand that you don’t know everything when it comes to writing, so don’t be a know-it-all. There are writers at all experience levels, so you might end up looking foolish if there is someone present in a workshop who is much smarter than you. Feel free to share what you know but be ready to back it up by proving you actually do write, not just talk about it, and be open to what others have to say. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of Poser Petes or Poser Pattys, the best policy is to be polite and probably ignore them, especially if they dominate the workshop by showing off how much they (really don’t) know.

Silent Sam/Silent Sally: Silent Sams and Silent Sallys usually don’t submit anything to workshops because they’re afraid to have anyone read their material. Sometimes Silent Sams and Silent Sallys are just shy by nature while others are a touch paranoid that someone might steal their ideas. Whatever the reason, Silent Sams and Silent Sallys don’t actively participate and let everyone else do the talking.

If you’re a Silent Sam or a Silent Sally, try to stick with small workshops rather than large groups. Being around a smaller group is usually more comfortable and you get to know the people better than participating in a large panel of fifteen or more people. Likewise, understand that no one is out to steal your ideas. Even if someone does rip your story off,  it won’t be a perfect duplicate (since that other writer isn’t you and isn’t in your brain) and you wouldn’t be competing in the exact same market. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of Silent Sams or Silent Sallys, just be considerate. Don’t force them to talk if they don’t feel comfortable. But if you make them feel welcomed, such folks will usually open up on their own.

Nervous Neil/Nervous Nancy: Nervous Neils and Nervous Nancys are a step up from Silent Sams and Silent Sallys. They may talk but fear their opinions are invalid or not as insightful as other members of the workshop. Likewise, Nervous Neils and Nervous Nancys are skittish about sharing their work, primarily because they feel it isn’t up to some sort of standard.

If you’re a Nervous Neil or a Nervous Nancy, understand that no one else has your exact opinions, so your views are just as important as the next person’s remarks. If someone makes you feel inferior, either confront them (nicely) or drop out of the workshop. If you’re on the receiving end of Nervous Neils or Nervous Nancys, let them know that what they have to say is important and worthwhile. Sometimes a little encouragement is all it takes to get someone to feel more at ease about sharing.

Dabbler Dan/Dabbler Debbie: Dabbler Dans and Dabbler Debbies write but don’t feel compelled to do so. They primarily write for fun or for friends and family, which is fine. But sometimes folks who write for publication just can’t understand why someone doesn’t wish to be published, which can lead to some hard feelings.

If you’re a Dabbler Dan or a Dabbler Debbie, then avoid workshops populated by published or striving-to-be-published writers. If that’s not possible, and if you do join such a group, let them know you write for fun or just for yourself. If they’re cool with that, then enjoy yourself. If there seems to be mixed feelings or if you feel shunned, then find another group who better understands your intentions towards your craft. If you’re on the receiving end of Dabbler Dans or Dabbler Debbies, remember that not every writer desires to be published. That’s not a required goal and some folks just like to compose stories, anecdotes, and even poems as a personal outlet or to share with friends and family, not the world. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, so don’t criticize or condemn other writers just because publication isn’t a goal of theirs. It’s best to remember to each his (or her) own.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu: Mary Sues Gary Stus craft characters (as their names imply) based upon themselves, and sometimes the similarities might be painfully obvious. You may have a guy named John Gray who lived in Florida, moved to Michigan, teaches Math, owns a Golden Retriever, and lives in a three-bedroom house. If John is trying to pass off a story where the main character is named John Greene who once lived in Michigan, moved to Florida, teaches Math, owns a Labrador Retriever, and resides in a two-bedroom house, you have a Gary Stu on your hands. (And if you think this example is an exaggeration, it’s not. I actually knew someone in a writer’s group who wrote a story using his house, name, and other personal details only slightly altered.)

If you’re a Mary Sue/Gary Stu-type writer, understand there is a difference between drawing upon inspirations and making direct comparisons. Beginning writers are often told to write what they know, so sometimes the only person they feel they know best is themselves. But that’s not the case. Branch out with your imagination and create a character who, rather than being a mirror of you, is the exact opposite. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu-type writer, don’t be mean but don’t be afraid to point out the obvious. Help them take characters too closely modeled upon themselves and create new, original persons.

Critical Chuck/Critical Cathy: Critical Chucks and Critical Cathies love to point out what’s wrong or weak in your story but rarely indicate what they liked. They relish criticizing others but can’t take criticism in return. In short, they tear others down while trying to make themselves look good doing so.

If you’re a Critical Chuck or a Critical Cathy, keep your comments in check. If something you’d like to say either doesn’t relate to the story you’re reviewing or won’t help the writer improve, it isn’t worth sharing. Likewise, don’t take offense if people point out weak areas in your story. Writers are all in this together, so don’t disregard anything someone says. That doesn’t mean you have to take up every suggestion or piece of advice someone gives but don’t believe you’re above reproach. If you’re ever on the receiving end of a Critical Chuck or a Critical Cathy, heed what they say with a proverbial grain of salt. If their comments are valid, that’s good. If the criticism is unwarranted or if they can’t pinpoint what it is that isn’t working in the story (such as “I just don’t like this”), then ignore them. Don’t be rude but don’t incite them either.

Overall, writing workshops can be a fun, engaging, and insightful way to gain genuine criticism on your writing. But they can also be cesspools of less-than-amiable folks who are out to puncture other people’s egos in order to inflate their own. So if you ever have the chance to attend a workshop, go for it. Just know what you may be getting into and who you may have to deal with.

A quick word about online workshops….
Since it seems human interaction these days keeps moving more into digital circles, it wouldn’t be fair to address the function of in-person writers workshops and not say something regarding their online counterparts. Granted, if the “workshop” is part of a formal online class (through an academic institution) or simply you and other writer friends who email each other’s stories back and forth for comment and critique, that’s fine. But, in my opinion, if you have to pay for strangers to read your work, it isn’t worth it and it’s too easy to get scammed. So avoid online workshops unless you personally know the folks in your circle, such as a class. Otherwise, you have no idea who is on the other end. It could be a genuine writer. Or it could be a nutcase.

Have you ever attended any writing workshops? If so, what did you think? Was it a help or no help at all? Feel free to share in the comments!

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