Last Saturday I went to Birkbeck University to take part in an event Making the Most of Writing Groups with The Mechanics’ Institute Review. (MIR)
You know that sinking sensation when you enter a room, see a crowd of unknown faces, knowing you have to share time and space with these people for 4 hours? I had it in spade-fulls. Of course, I needn’t have worried.
The three young women chairing the afternoon introduced themselves. One was working with The Institute, one was a student on a writing BA with Birkbeck and the third worked with the government helping MPs and the like to improve their speeches and general public image. Rather her than me!
After introducing ourselves, we were instructed in the rules of workshopping.
For rules, as much as some people don’t welcome them, are essential.
The overwhelming principle is that all the participants are polite, positive about the reading of other readers’ work and enthusiastic in the discussion following.
I have worked with 3 different workshops. One was during my MA in Creative Writing, one was formed with those I’d met during the MA and the other one was formed from writers asked to read at an event Pitching Your Novel run by Spread the Word. That event happened seven years ago and we three are still meeting. We must be doing something right.
Here are my guiding rules for a productive writers’ workshop.
Agree a regular routine and stick to it. Every week might be too often; once a month might suit some. We meet once in two months.
Send work in advance. Not at the last minute.
Agree a word limit and stick to that. We write 2,000 words.
Agree the procedure for the workshop. Before meeting, we read the piece, mark-up with suggestions, amendments, and corrections.
Open your contribution by being complimentary about the piece. Not gushing with praise. The writer needs helpful comments in order to take the work forward. Otherwise, why are they there?
But neither condemn. Even if the writing is not in your favourite style, or about your favourite subject, there will always be something positive to say. Look for the best in the piece, the elements which work and refer to that before you express doubts or point out paragraphs which do not work.
Remember, this is a piece of fiction (if that is what has been agreed). Don’t assume the writer is writing about himself. If the plot seems unlikely, say so, but do it by saying that it doesn’t convince you, so might not convince other readers.
Remember that you are reading a work in progress. Your part in this is to clarify what comes over to a reader, to make suggestions, but, above all to encourage.
Don’t wade in with your own experiences of similar events in the narrative. Put yourself in the author’s head, try to see what they are saying.
Don’t assume your experience is more helpful than others in the workshop. This is a group activity.
Finally, rules for the writer of the piece.
Don’t take suggestions and comments as criticism.
Don’t be too ready to argue. In fact, don’t argue at all. If you don’t agree with a comment or suggestion, note it down to consider later.
If necessary, ask your readers questions.
At the end of the day, this is your piece of writing. You are free to accept or reject anything anyone else says. However, look for the benefits in belonging to a workshop.
Finally, have fun and enjoy!
I left the MRI workshop re-energised and keen to get back to the re-writing (in total, not a piecemeal re-draft) of my novel.
Imagine my delight, when the MIR emailed me to ask if I’d submit work both for their on-line publication and for the forthcoming anthology.
The Mechanics’ Institute Review is a rewarding organisation to follow.