Why Workshop? The Benefits of a Fresh Perspective
by Matthew Howard
“Workshop” often means a paid seminar or a creative writing session, but today we look at a different kind of workshop: local groups of writers meeting to read each others’ manuscripts and provide suggestions on how to revise their works before publishing. In Phoenix, many of these feedback groups meet weekly or more often. This summer, I’ve attended a dozen sessions at three locations with the Central Phoenix Writing Workshop, and the constructive criticism and insightful suggestions I’ve received have been transformative for my work. If you’ve never been to a workshop like this, or you’re on the fence about whether you could get something out of it, let me share what I’ve discovered.
Family, friends, and colleagues can provide valuable feedback on our manuscripts. But unless we work or live with professional writers, these personal feedback groups lack the attention to the craft of writing that editors and other authors bring to the table. When we ask for our best friend’s opinion or hire a “branding guru,” we are unlikely to receive guidance on the fundamentals of story structure, the mechanics of punctuation, or examples of relevant works we could study. For those, we need writers.
Writers in a workshop don’t know us like the people in our social circles do, so they can give more impartial feedback. They focus on our writing, where friends and coworkers also consider how their feedback might affect our personal or professional relationship. People who love us can inadvertently turn a blind eye to the flaws in our writing, but a workshop will examine them and offer possible solutions.
Getting outside our social network gives us an opportunity to see how total strangers react to our work. Why is this important? Because people who buy our books will be strangers, too. They won’t have the context of having known us for years, and we won’t have a chance to stand beside them and explain any parts of the work that aren’t clear.
It can be a challenge to our egos to get honest feedback on the manuscripts many of us consider our “babies” – or a part of who we are. But it’s best to do it in a supportive workshop environment before publishing – not after. We want to work out any problems readers may have before those problems create negative reviews or lackluster sales. Testing the waters in a workshop beats jumping into the marketplace unprepared! Sand down the rough spots before they get published for everyone to see.
The greatest gift a workshop provides is the ability to see into our blind spots. All writers develop bad habits they can’t see. We are too close to our work or too comfortable with our own approach. It can take someone with a completely fresh perspective to point out what, in retrospect, was obvious to everyone but us. These blind spots include words and punctuation we overuse or misuse. They could be ineffective stylistic choices we never thought to question. We don’t know what we don’t know, as the saying goes, and discovering these things takes input from other writers.
The biggest blind spot writers share is taking for granted that readers know something when they don’t. Because we spend so long on our manuscripts, we know exactly what we are trying to say. Only when we get feedback from a fresh perspective will we know if we have said it well enough that a new reader will know, too.
Fresh perspectives are helpful, and so are varied perspectives. Does a poem convey its meaning and emotion even to someone who does not like poetry? What advice could a screenwriter give about structuring a short story? Does an essay make compelling arguments even to people who are not experts on the topic? In a writing workshop, you may find people from all these backgrounds and more. Every one of them has a uniquely useful insight into our work.
Varied perspective also means meeting people from all walks of life and different parts of the country. Someone raised in the South, for example, could tell you whether or not dialogue for a southern character feels authentic. Someone with combat training could have insight into the shoot-outs in an action script. Serendipitous insights abound in workshops with a diverse group of writers.
Getting honest feedback can require a thick skin, but workshops can be fun, too. We are in the company of authors who, just like us, want to take their work to the next level. Remember: They want our help as much as we want theirs. In a supportive environment, it is fun to see what other people are currently working on. What new forms are they experimenting with? Where do their interests and ours overlap? What can we learn about our own writing by evaluating how others are solving their challenges?
If that sounds appealing, then grab a cup of coffee or a pint of beer, join the group at the table, and get ready to take your writing to the next level. Print six or seven copies of your work in progress and find a writing workshop in your neighborhood. Or start one! While it’s good to get outside your circle of friends to get honest feedback, you might find that workshops become a new circle of friends, one that will help you grow stronger in the craft of writing.
Matthew Howard is a self-publishing author who supports award-winning authors and business professionals in writing, editing, designing, and self-publishing their work for global distribution in paperback and ebook formats.