10 Commandments: How NOT to conduct yourself in a workshop!

I’ve attended a lot of workshops in my time and they’re pretty much always awesome — you should try workshopping yourself if you haven’t already! And generally, workshops run themselves pretty smoothly… but just occasionally something happens and you realise that actually, it’s easy for things to go pear-shaped. If you’re not a workshop regular, or if you’re unsure about workshop etiquette, check out this list of “don’ts”… and make sure you don’t find yourself doing any of them!

1. Don’t interrupt.
Actually, my current workshop group are terrible for interrupting one another, so I need to learn to take my own advice here! But basically, what you have is a roomful of people giving their opinions, and that can often lead to some jostling for position! You need to bear in mind that it’s not just about having your say, it’s about helping the poet whose work you’re discussing… and if the poet can only hear a cloud of voices, they’re going to get nothing out of it. If someone else is making a point and you’re just bursting to agree or disagree or add something, wait til they’re done for goodness sakes! And if someone else interrupts you, wait until they’re finished and then just say “and just to add…” or something — don’t go along the “AS I WAS SAYING BEFORE I WAS RUDELY INTERRUPTED!” route… it won’t do you any favours.

2. Don’t argue.
Sometimes (OK, often) you need to agree to disagree when it comes to suggestions for improving a poem or piece of work. Whether it’s your piece or someone else’s, other people in the workshop will always have their own ideas, and they might not always match up with your own. If the poem in question is one of your own, let people make their suggestions — if you don’t like them, keep it to yourself… you don’t have to use them! If you’re talking about someone else’s poem and it’s suggested that they cut out a line you really like, allow the poet to take that suggestion on board, before offering your counter-argument. Once both points have been made, that should be it — neither party should be allowed to start a slanging match over it! At the end of the day, you are there to provide suggestions… it’s up to the poet which idea (if any) they choose to go with.

3. Don’t hog the limelight.
There’s always one person in every workshop who likes the sound of their own voice, whether they’re aware of it or not. They’re generally the first person to jump into a discussion and they’ll often have a laundry-list of points they’re determined to make. Sound like you? If so, you might be unwittingly annoying the hell out of the rest of your group. If you have a heap of points you want to make, that’s cool — it’s helpful to the poet and it stimulates discussion. But don’t expect everyone else to sit back and say nothing for ten minutes while you pontificate. Make one point, open it up to the floor, and then when there’s a lull, come in with another. That way, every point gets dealt with in detail and the poet isn’t struggling to keep up with your quick-fire suggestions… and no one ends up resenting you for hogging the limelight!

4. Don’t be a wallflower.
At the same time, there’s always one person in every workshop who likes to say as little as possible and let everyone else do the talking. This isn’t allowed either! If you’re expecting other people to give feedback on your work, you need to be willing to give feedback too. It may be that you think your points aren’t worth making, you’re not sure if what you say will be “the right answer,” or someone else (probably the person mentioned above!) always ends up saying what you think before you get a chance. All of these situations are workable, though. Your points are worth making — you don’t have to be TS Eliot in order to comment on someone else’s poem. In a workshop, the poet wants to hear what their readers think, and you’re a reader like everyone else, so your opinion is totally valid. By extension, therefore, there is no right or wrong answer… and if someone else raises your point before you get chance, just say “I thought about that as well,” or “I agree with [insert name here]’s idea.” That might not seem very earth-shattering, but it means the poet in question knows that two readers had the same reaction to their work, rather than just one.

5. Don’t nick someone else’s time slot.
Workshops are generally one or two hours long, and in that time you usually have to discuss the work of several poets. Ideally, the time should be split up equally between each poet, so everyone’s work gets a fair shot. Unfortunately, there are people out there who — consciously or not — abuse this time-division system. Some people insist on submitting more work than can realistically be discussed in, say, fifteen minutes… others draw out discussion by dwelling on certain points or arguing with suggestions. Yes, sometimes you have a million new poems that you’re desperate to workshop, and sometimes someone will say something you need to clarify before you can move on. However, try to hold back and be curteous — watch the clock, and if your time’s up, admit defeat.

6. Don’t raise irrelevant points.
This really gets my goat (yes, I am grumpy, sorry!) and it happens a lot. You’ll be in the middle of a workshop and someone will pipe up “what were you doing when you wrote this poem?”, or something equally irrelevant! This is always a bad idea, as most poets love nothing better than talking about themselves, and particularly their creative process… and you then end up with ten minutes wasted while said poet waxes lyrical about the poem’s conception. Some questions that relate to the poem itself are still irrelevant — “who is the speaker of this poem?” is one that comes up a lot, usually needlessly… “what happens next?” is another, and “did this really happen?” is another. Unless the voice, final line or historical context of the poem is confusing or genuinely problematic, the answer to all of these questions is usually “it doesn’t freaking matter!” Save it for the pub afterwards, people!

7. Don’t be favouritist.
Workshop groups are generally small, so you get to know each other — and each other’s poetry — pretty quickly. There will always be people whose work is stronger than others, and there will always be people whose work you like better than others. However, you should not allow this to impact on your participation in workshops. If someone whose work you don’t particularly like is presenting, treat them the same way you would treat everyone else — the same goes for someone who’s work you really like. There’s no excuse for favouritism, particularly from workshop leaders (something I have experienced), and it’s counterproductive to the whole process. Make sure you’re always fair, and that whatever comments you make are based on your thoughts about the poem… not your thoughts about the poet.

8. Don’t be rude.
No brainer? Maybe, but when opinions are being chucked back and forth, it’s easy for your sweet voice to slip away and be replaced with a sour one. Rude things I have genuinely heard said in workshops: “this is way better than your other stuff”, “you can do better than this”, “why did you write even write this?”, “do you actually know what this word means?”, “what did you think you were trying to do here?”, “I think you should scrap this and start all over again.” With the possible exception of the latter, these are all things that should not be said — or at least, which should not be said in this way — in a workshop. Yes, people are offering up their poems to be criticised, but saying “do you actually know what this word means?” is not exactly constructive (”I’m not sure this is quite the right word, you could maybe try X” is constructive). You’re not being given carte blanche to say whatever you like about someone’s work — you’re being invited to help them. Being rude and denting their confidence is not helpful, and you wouldn’t want to have it done to you… so be nice!

9. Don’t patronise.
However, at the same time, if a poem is majorly flawed or something about it really needs changing (in your opinion), don’t go pretending everything about it is dandy. Saying “this is 100% perfect” is unhelpful and probably patronising, too! You are allowed to say critical things about a poem — you just have to word them in such a way that they’re constructive. You should avoid other patronising (and pointless) phrases like “your work is getting soooo much better!” or “there’s a good poem in here, you just need to bring it out!”, too. If a poet’s work has improved, tell them what you think they’re doing better — is their voice stronger? Are they experimenting with forms successfully? Don’t say “you’re so much better than you were” — apart from anything else, they’ll go home and bin all their old poems! And if the “good poem” needs to be “brought out,” don’t state the obvious — suggest how it could be done instead!

10. Don’t take it too seriously.
Some people find workshopping hard going at first — when you’re not used to criticism, it can feel weird and even hurtful to have people nitpick at your poems. But stick with it! Workshopping is a really valuable exercise in becoming a better writer, and almost everything you hear at the workshopping table is based on opinion and personal taste. Don’t get upset if people make suggestions you don’t agree with… just ignore ‘em! You don’t have to compromise your artistic vision just because one person out there doesn’t like your line breaks! But bear in mind… if you’re finding that you disagree with all or most of the comments you get, you maybe need to loosen up a bit and allow yourself to try out the suggestions that are made. At the end of the day, your workshop group is there to help you, and chances are they want what’s best for your work as much as you do. It should also be fun. If you’ve been there a month or two and it still isn’t, find another group.

Are you a workshopper? A former workshopper? How have you found the whole experience? Got any workshop tips for the uninitiated?

(Photo by Vagabond~ in dreaming mood)

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6 Responses to “10 Commandments: How NOT to conduct yourself in a workshop!”

  1. Crafty Green Poet Says:

    I facilitated a workshop yesterday, from a slightly different angle though. It was a day workshop for countryside rangers and environmental education workers to develop confidence in creative writing so that they can use it in activities with groups. It was a tremendously successful workshop, largely i think because everyone was enthusiastic and wanted to learn from it. It was also with 12 people just the right size. Also it was broken up with a nice walk outside and lots of cups of tea, borth of which helped to keep the energy levels high…

  2. aiko! Says:

    really good list.

    i think #10 is imperative. ultimately the poems are still yours at the end of the day, no matter what anyone else says/thinks.

    man that is a good list… *hangs head sheepishly*

    Unrelated — I was meaning to ask you your thoughts on writing poems which are autobiographical or true-to-life. Namely, I have finished a tattoo poem (you shall see later!) and showed it to Stuart (who is lovely and a very gentle critic), but he was really averse to the characters in it, as they are… a bit too close to reality for him. He said if his friends (in the poem) saw the poem, they’d maybe be offended or at the least embarrassed.
    Now, I respect what he says, but I like my poem and it’s not EXACTLY as it happened or anything like that…
    Should I switch it or should I keep it? (I’m planning a redraft, but just wondering your thoughts.)

  3. Claire Says:

    Juliet — I think I should write a ‘things you absolutely should do in a workshop’ list… and tea drinking would have to be in there! Tea is basically my main fuel, I’m sure I drink far more than is advisable…

    Aiko — Thanks! I emailed you about your dilemma!

  4. Simon Freedman Says:

    very timely Claire, I’m going to my first workshop tomorrow so will have a good read!

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