Workshopping 101

by Ron Hayes

Full disclosure: I’m a snob. A HUGE snob. When it comes to writing (and poetry in particular), I chafe quickly and easily when bad verse is foisted onto an unsuspecting reader—especially when that reader is me. The proliferation across the Internet of exploitive sites that prey on the earnest honesty of new and inexperienced poets has resulted in an unprecedented number of “poets” getting “published.” Yes, I’ve used the quotations marks here on purpose. These pay-to-publish and/or publish-anything sites foster nothing but false hopes and flawed dreams among young writers, and it makes me angry. It makes me angry because sites that open the floodgates to pseudo-publishing deny young poets the rigor that evaluation, competition, and rejection develops. It stunts their literary growth. It falsely inflates egos. It promotes bad poetry.

When poems are published in the absence of evaluation and rigor, it’s akin to a student passing a test without anyone actually grading the test. It’s disingenuous and harmful. In poetry—all writing, really—excellence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Just last week, as a new class of high school juniors sat through my initial lectures of the new year, I took a moment to survey them for their favorite authors. Poe. King. Rowling. John Greene. Even a few Shakespeares! And it was gratifying for me to tell them that not ONE of the authors they mentioned nor any other author worth reading had ever published ANYTHING that hadn’t in some way been critiqued and subsequently revised in response to those critiques. I could see by the looks on some of their faces that such a concept had never occurred to them. They don’t think about such things apparently, but it made me happy to tell them that neither Harry Potter nor King Lear had simply fallen onto the page in the way they know them now. Even genius takes hard work.

And make no mistake. Revising your writing is at least as grueling as getting it onto the page— depending on the sort of writer you are, revising can easily be the most grueling part of the process. It is for this reason that I find workshopping to be such an essential component to learning, growing, and succeeding as a writer. Further, I am beyond grateful to have been taught how to workshop by a handful of profoundly gifted writers with a talent for teaching. Despite the fact that I currently teach History, not writing, the nature of my students’ writing assignments is immaterial to our purposes here: workshopping is as applicable to academic writing (and technical writing and literary fiction and memoir and… and…) as it is to poetry. If you’ve never had an opportunity to enjoy the experience, here are the basics:

  1. Find Partners. Probably a bit of an obvious first step, but workshopping requires sharing. Ideally, you’ll find partners you like and who will challenge you and from whom you’ll receive work that is somewhat different from what you do. But if you’re currently writing into the ether with no friends, family, or colleagues with whom you can consult, finding any kind of readers to share exchanges with is paramount.
  2. Exchange Work. Probably a bit of an obvious second step, but workshopping requires sharing. Now, I almost combined this step with the previous step, but I chose not to because I wanted to point out that exchanges nowadays can be accomplished in more ways than ever before. Currently I exchange work with friends in different parts of the country via email (note: familiarize yourself with the Comment and Review features of Microsoft Word), but in the past I’ve also workshopped poems via Google Docs, which is fun and interesting. Of course, the tried and true method of exchanging physical sheets of paper is the oldest, most traditional means of exchanging, and one I highly, highly recommend. There’s something earthy, visceral, and surprisingly satisfying about taking pen in hand to help a fellow writer out by disemboweling their hard-won efforts.
  3. Give Good Feedback. This the heart of workshopping, I feel. But how to? It’s easier than you might think. When in a workshop environment, larger groups (like, say, writing classes) best operate by soliciting two initial comments from each reader: one thing about the poem that is working, and one thing about the poem that isn’t working. From there, conversations begin, ideas get exchanged, and the give-and-take nature of the discussion provides the poet with feedback that would otherwise be inaccessible. One of the essential wrinkles to large group workshop sessions is a strong, knowledgeable leader who can meaningfully moderate the contributions of the group’s members in order to strike a balance between the supportive statements offered (what’s working) with the negative statements (what isn’t working). If you find yourself trying this method, you’ll go far in being successful if you make sure you are as prepared as possible on workshop day. This means being more than just familiar with what’s being workshopped. You should have engaged the work several times beforehand and you should be prepared with the bare minimum: one positive comment and one negative comment. Not only that, you should be able to back up your opinions. Word choice weak, you say? Offer a stronger alternative. Line break in the wrong place, you say? Say why and explain substantively why it should be broken elsewhere. Couplets not effective for you? Meter stilted or distracting? Cliches abounding? Prove it. Prove it. Prove it.
  4. Be Helpful, Not Harmful. As a self-avowed snob, I’ll definitely cop to leaning toward the Harsh Critic end of the spectrum that Jenny told us about last week. I’m also a Grammar Nazi, so that doesn’t help much either. But when I workshop, I make sure that everything I do and say is aimed solely at helping the writer. I may not be the Cheerleader type of workshopper, but as long as I’m honest and open about that from the start and then fair beyond reproach afterwards, the harshness of my criticism should come off more as “tough love” than nitpicking negativism. Similarly, I make no pretense of being anything less than honest. If a line is brilliant, I say so. If a word, phrase, or concept is sophomoric or cliched, I call the writer out on it. The endgame is to be helpful, and if being nice prevents you from doing that, then workshopping isn’t for you. The reverse is equally true: If you workshop simply to lord over others your knowledge of semicolon usage and esoteric rhyme schemes and meters… just stop. You help no one this way and you come off as a fool with a superiority complex.
  5. Be Flexible and Open. The other half of workshopping is receiving feedback. Sometimes this is harder and more frustrating than you may have initially thought—and that’s natural. Nobody likes to find out their work falls short. But if you aren’t willing to see the trees, you’ll never enjoy the forest. In other words, HONOR what your workshopping group has given you. If a stanza isn’t pulling it’s weight and four people tell you to cut it… you should listen! And be willing to act on it. I’ll never forget one of my first experiences in a workshop where the rule was that the writer whose work was being discussed had to remain silent (it’s a VERY good rule, by the way) until all the commenting was done. When my time to speak came at last, I kept trying hard to justify what I was doing and what my poem was saying… when the leader of the group deftly pointed out that if I had to work so hard to explain the poem verbally, then it must not be working on the page. And he was right. It was a lesson in humility that remains with me and one I try hard to keep in mind when I read others’ comments about my work. I can assure you—without that hard lesson, my work through the rest of that semester (and since!) would never have succeeded as well as it did.

So there you have it. The basics of workshopping. As I’ve explained them, these guidelines focus primarily on workshopping in a larger group, but the essential points carry through to smaller, more individual-oriented formats as well. As we speak, I exchange work with several friends of mine on a monthly basis and I still find all of these points to be what I focus on when I read their work. A final caveat: there are, most definitely, some pitfalls to workshopping that can’t always be avoided. In larger groups, you’ll always encounter that one writer who just doesn’t seem to get it and seems to work hard to make everything about his or her own work. Or they’ll be inflexible. Or, worst of all, their intellect just doesn’t seem to rise to the level where you need it to be. And it can be frustrating. The nice thing is that when you’re workshopping on your own and outside of a classroom setting, those people needn’t be a thorn in your side. You can simply go elsewhere. The most basic idea of workshopping is engaging in give-and-take for the betterment of your work. If you aren’t getting that from the folks you’re working with—and if you find yourself unable to return the favor to them as well—it’s best to break away if you can and find another group. But keep in mind: feedback is essential to your success. A good workshop group or partner is worth their weight in acceptance letters. Be that partner for someone else, and I guarantee you’ll find good partners for yourself.

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  1. #1 by disdainfulbeauty on September 13, 2015 - 5:18 pm

    Bravo! I join you in the ranks of literary snobs.

  2. #2 by ambershockley on September 13, 2015 - 5:53 pm

    Nice one, Ron. I regret that I didn’t get to workshop with you at Queens. We were ships passing in the night.

  3. #3 by Bonny Millard on September 15, 2015 - 9:21 am

    Hi Ron,

    My English composition students are workshopping their first essay this week. I’m going to read them a quote from your blog about revision being grueling! Most novice writers think they get it right the first time. Unfortunately I was one of these early on until I grew wiser. Bonny

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