Workshopping: Suck It Up And Do It Already

Let’s open on one solid premise: workshopping is fantastic.

The awesomeness of thrusting your rough, unpolished work at equally frazzled writers who aren’t sure they like your style anyway is easy enough to understand.  Feedback is always a good thing: it’s hard to improve anything inside a vacuum.  Beyond that, running your work past others is invaluable to figuring out if ‘proctologists in space’ concept translates as well to the page as it sounds in your head.

Heads up: It won’t.

Try not to roll your eyes at me, internet, but I can hear a legion of young writers whining, “But aren’t beta readers good enough?  Why do I have to find more people to read my work?  Aren’t they practically the same thing?”

Oh, internet.  Silly, silly internet.

Beta Readers Are Not Workshopping Buddies

Beta readers give you general feedback on your work and are typically happy to chat about the brilliant nuances of your all-incontinent-ferrets cast for hours on end.  Workshoppers are a different beast entirely:  rarely will you get an entire novel workshopped and you have to offer an equal amount of effort in exchange for their time.

Your valuable, valuable time.

Sure, sometimes you get some rock star feedback from a beta reader, but that’s often the exception and not the norm.  The beta reader’s true purpose is pretty binary:  “I liked this part because of X.  I didn’t like/was confused by Z.  Seriously, space proctologists?”

Workshoppers tend to be a lot more critical: they’ve signed up to try and point out the problems in your writing and suggest how to fix them, rather than give you their overall impressions.  The emphasis is all on improving the weak elements, not on praising the positives.  It’s also important to not forget that they are fellow writers: their skills and time are equally valuable as yours. Therefore, you owe them at least as much effort in reading their insipid vampire teen romance as they put into your incontinent-ferret-political-thriller.

Yes, It’s More Demanding But Incredibly Worth It

I’ll admit, I’m selfish like the rest of the planet.  I would rather beg acquaintances to read my work out of obligation than have to put in the effort to earn the time of a stranger.  For a long time, I assured myself that I didn’t have the time or that I was trying to protect my creative independence, or excuse #7, etc.  

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I was mostly just lazy and unwilling to put in the mental energy to care about someone else’s work.  Flattering, I know.

Fortunately for me, my beta readers had dwindled and left me wanting, so it forced me to seek feedback elsewhere.  Extra-fortunately, Scribophile was familiar with my particular breed of jerk and had a built-in karma system to ensure that I was forced to critique others’ work in exchange for posting my own.  I lived for those notifications on my phone informing me that someone had read and taken the time to review my work.  Sure, I’d hammer out a couple lines about someone’s chapter in order to earn the points, but it was just a necessary evil I’d come to accept like lackluster cashiers unwilling to just type in the barcode for the lady paying in individually counted Peruvian pennies anyway.  

That is, until the Reckoning.

It was the single most honest moment I’ve experienced as a writer to date.  There I was, pecking away at some author’s work and giving them politely phrased hell for both abusing adverbs and treating me to paragraphs of unattributed dialogue when it hit me.  I did those exact same things in my latest posted chapter.

Existential despair doesn’t even cover it.

 

Once I crawled out of my blanket fort of self-pity, the benefits of this system became strikingly apparent.  Every time I take a scalpel to someone else’s work, in reality, I’m learning to frame my own work more intelligently.  By observing everyone else’s mistakes, I understand why they are so hard to read and why I must not repeat them.  Additionally, since I’ve now approached so many crappy first chapters, I’ve trained myself to revise my own work with the same level of detachment.

Yes, You Can Find a Workshop and No, They Don’t All Suck

Workshops come in many flavors, but if you live in a depressingly rural area or in an out-of-the-way suburb, your options might be limited.  Also, if you’re a people person who needs to see peoples’ facial expressions in order to process what they have to say (you weirdo), you’ll want to angle towards in-person meetups.  If you’re an angry introvert, like myself, online workshops are the happiest place on earth (sorry-not-sorry, Disneyland) and you’ll want to tailor your strategy accordingly.

University Workshops

Great if you’re already seeking an English degree, crappy if you’re there for literally anything else.

Pros:

  • Everyone’s grade depends on their participation (yay, deadlines).
  • You get lots of input at once.
  • No one wants to sit next to someone they were inappropriately rude to for the rest of the semester.
  • Lots of opportunity to ask for clarification or drive the feedback in the direction you want.

Cons:

  • No guarantees your workshoppers will understand/care about your genre.
  • Some people don’t actually care about their participation grades.  Feedback will be accordingly disappointing.
  • Costs whatever college tuition costs in your area.
  • Harder to bail on if you hate the group.

Informal Workshops/Groups:

Usually these pop up in metropolitan areas on their own though plenty begin in less populated regions by virtue of NaNoWriMo groups (which you should totally commit to doing).

Pros:

  • Usually someone cares about your genre at least in passing.
  • Everyone knows each other and are more diplomatic because of it.
  • Can make special arrangements with individuals to finish your entire manuscript.
  • Free coffee anyone?

Cons:

  • Almost no barrier to entry, so feedback may be less than useful.
  • Everyone may know each other’s writing styles and opinions if the group is old enough, leading to potential groupthink and bad advice.
  • Meeting locations vary.
  • Free coffee is sometimes bad coffee.  T.T

Online Workshops:

These come in many different flavors.  Notable examples are scribophile.com, fictionpress.com, and critiquecircle.com.

Pros:

  • You have access to hundreds of thousands of sentient human beings who only came to this site because they care about this.
  • There is always someone who likes your genre/writing style.
  • Wait times may be smaller than physically dropping your manuscript on a table and waving goodbye.
  • Many sites offer reader statistics.

Cons:

  • Again, no barrier to entry.  Feedback may come from inexperienced writers who didn’t even have to travel for the privilege of wasting your time.  People can also be needlessly aggressive.
  • Some sites have subscription fees before you unlock enough features to be useful.
  • It’s much harder to find people who will read more than a chapter or two. The power of guilt works much better in-person.
  • No one’s required to pay attention to your work and it may languish with no explanation.

In Conclusion

Why are you still reading this?  Start googling.  Sign up for stuff.

Or leave a comment.  That works too.

 

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