Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Workshop and the rule of Garbage In, Garbage Out

A letter to my students: 

How can you benefit from our writing workshop?

I know most of you would rather visit the dentist than participate in writing workshop. I understand that you have had painful and often time-wasting experiences with peer review in the past and I cannot promise this won’t be equally awful or worse in different ways. In fact, if you let those past experiences drive the way you participate in this workshop then I can actually promise you this workshop will be awful and useless. That is because the benefits of writing workshop participation are based entirely on one simple rule -- garbage in, garbage out. I am not talking about your actual writing here, but rather the effort and time and energy you put into asking for help and offering it others.

Writers are people too

This is one of the reasons I spent so much time and effort on building community at the beginning of our class. The better you know the others in your writing group then the easier it is to ask for and offer help. It is never an easy thing to share a part of yourself with strangers so try to get to know your classmates and understand the talents and knowledge and skills as well as unique challenges they bring to the group. Also remember, that as humans we are inclined to be lazy. By default we will want to expend the least amount of time and energy possible. Call each other out on this when you spot it. Don’t just let unexplained comments and criticisms hang in the ether. Push for explanations and more details. Question!

Give us some direction

As you know, one of my biggest pet peeves is the plaintive cry for help without asking for anything specific. Simply posting your writing to the workshop and asking for help to make it better does not put us in a position to help you. Help us help you by telling us: What are you still struggling with the most? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this piece of writing?  What do you want to know from a reader? This is your chance to get individually-tailored advice to improve your writing – grab it with both hands.

Provide an audience not a proofreader

Perhaps the biggest mistake that many people make during workshop is approaching peer review as a writer. This is especially fatal if you lack confidence in your own writing ability. Your job here is to provide an audience for your fellow writers and give your honest feedback. Whenever you get lost or confused; whenever you are jarred by the text by the writing, ideas, or presentation; and especially whenever you are interested and pleased by the message and/or writing make a note on the text. After your initial reading, provide a gut reaction to the piece on an emotional and intellectual level then provide more detailed explanations regarding the notes you marked throughout the piece. Finally, go back through and offer as much advice and support as possible to offer solutions to the problems and challenges you identify.

I believe strongly in the power of writing workshop. You can learn from real readers and you can learn by being a real reader, but you have to come fully suited up and ready to play. You have to get in the game before you can score. You have to get a little sweaty and play through the pain and discomfort. Do you want to be a better writer? Then do writing workshop like you mean it.

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