You’ve been there, in a small classroom, crowded around a stout table or in a wobbly configuration of desks; or in a Whole Foods cafeteria with dim lights and children screeching on a frayed, plush playground; or in an empty theatre, perched on a dinted fold-up chair, rifling through a thick stack of manuscript pages, making sure your markups from 2am the night before make sense. You came equipped with tepid coffee, a sweaty bottle of room-temperature juice, a hangover rolling around in your head like a bowling ball on a ship deck. You came because you have a work-in-progress about a self-aware vegan zombie that is slowly starving to death for lack of a brain-inclusive diet and you want to know if it’s the “World War Z” meets “Fault in Our Stars” piece you want it to be, or if it’s total shit and you should put it in a drawer and then torch the drawer.
You came because you love writing.
You are in a workshop.
But have you ever stopped and asked yourself—are you a good workshopper? I mean, workshop is an exercise in evaluation. But when was the last time you stopped and evaluated how it is you, you know, evaluate?
There are probably a million different ways to be a good workshopper, but really there are only two worth talking about: those who are helpful and those who are not helpful. This may not seem profound, until you talk to people about how they workshop and realize 99% of them don’t ever think about being helpful at all.
In workshop, these people say things like, “This is where this piece breaks open,” or “I think you can cut the first page because the story really starts on the second,” or occasionally and unfortunately “This character is [DIFFERENT DEMOGRAPHIC THAN WRITER] but why I don’t think it adds anything more to the story.” They argue: this passage is too purple! This dialogue too stilted! This part where the zombie slips some pink dye into their macaroni casserole is funny but it doesn’t move the plot forward! They approach workshop with the idea that such-and-such piece needs to fix X, Y, and Z and then it’ll be “done”. (Whatever the hell that means. If you know please share.)
But most of the time, that doesn’t help the writer.
And helping the writer is literally the FIRST THING WORKSHOPPERS NEED TO THINK ABOUT. The only thing, really.
So here’s a How-To guide on Being a Good Workshopper:
1. Before critiquing (and yes that even means before you markup that obvious comma splice or cross out that rainfall cliché with your over-sized red pen) figure out what a piece is trying to do. Know the themes, the style, the characters… you know, the whole shebang… before you start honing in on the things you think need help. There’s no sense in trying to stitch up a shirt when the person wearing it has a car parked on them.
2. Now that you’ve figured out what the piece is trying to do, figure out what is preventing it from reaching it. Is it a piece where you think someone’s hallucinating but you weren’t clear until the second read-through? WRITE THAT DOWN THAT’S IMPORTANT. Did you not understand a piece of jargon that is plot-relevant? Bam! Write it down! Did you get bored through an expository monologue that’s supposed to explain why a character even exists? DON’T WRITE THAT DOWN THAT’S NOT HELPFUL. Instead, write down that you don’t think the segment is saying what it needs to. There’s a big difference between “This is bad” and “This is failing to do this, and here are some ways that could HELP.”
3. Celebrate. I should stress this so I’m going to write it down a few more times.
8. The most egregious workshop errors happen when a group of people forget to celebrate the writer they are workshopping. A writer brings a world into our world. That’s amazing! They may not sweat blood, but they may sweat blood. You don’t know! The point is, they had the audacity, the courage, the creativity to put something down on the page and then share it. Every piece has something or several things worth celebrating, and it is imperative that you tell the writer when their writing is good. Only heaping criticism on a writer, however kindly you heap, is just so, so wrong. And, worse, it could be damaging.
9. Listen. This is another big thing, it might be the #1 thing for some people. But, just like reading, to workshop well you got to shut up. People have things to say, good things, nuanced things, and not only does the writer getting workshopped need to hear those things, you need to hear comments on things you didn’t feel like needed a comment. Like I said, you have to be critical, not just of the work, but of your skills as an evaluator, and listening to others critiquing the same work you’re critiquing is an easy and educational way to gain perspective on your evaluation skills.
10. Keep it professional. You may think, wait, WHAT? How does this have anything to do with professionalism? Believe me, writers talk a LOT of shit. A lot. I don’t know why. It’s shitty and backstabbing and everyone agrees it’s shitty and backstabbing but they do it anyway. But you? Don’t. Rise above it. So what you hated so-and-so’s piece? Not your art, not your problem. Your only goal is to help a piece become more itself, not to bash Sally’s attempt at being the next Alice Munroe or William’s Phillip K. Dick ripoff.
So there you have it. Police thyself. Celebrate the writer and the craft. Do not attack, critique. Listen, process, and, above all else, remember that you’re here to help.