9 Guidelines for Creating a Healthy Workshopping Environment
So you want to lead a workshop. Whether you’re running a classroom, starting a writing group with friends, or working with a local chapter, the challenges will be similar. This article explores ways you can address the core dilemmas of workshopping and create a productive, enjoyable workshopping environment.
The Big Problem: Navigating the Losada Line
The tricky part of workshopping is navigating the Losada line. Don’t know what that is? The Losada line is the ratio of positive to negative interactions required for an environment to feel basically positive. In short, if people experience three or more positive interactions for every negative interaction, they will experience the environment as positive and nurturing. Anything less than that 3 to 1 ratio and people will dread the environment and start thinking in ways that are self-protective rather than expressive.
So, how can you take a situation like a workshop, where critical comments are going to be—and likely should—be more common than positive comments? While we’ve seen some people and groups try to compensate by giving inauthentic praise or emphasizing that they liked the piece, our experiences have taught us that there are better options.
The Losada line would be impossible if critical comments were inherently negative. Those of us wearing our editor’s eyes will find it almost impossible to find three items to praise for every suggested correction. The key is to make feedback as positive as is possible. The rest of this article will explore ways to do just that.
1. Help writers focus on the long-term success of the work.
If they do, they will see more feedback as useful and positive. Most of the work for instilling this value and creating this pattern must happen outside of the workshop itself. We recommend discussing this directly with your workshopping group and leading by example. As a note for professors, while we understand wanting to remove your work from the equation—for fear of intimidating students or making your own authority vulnerable—we strongly believe the benefits of providing an active example outweigh the risks.
2. Express feedback with “I statements.”
Beginning writers are often quite good at this. They lack the confidence needed for condescension. However, as they climb the ranks it’s common to see ego entering the scene accompanied by an absolutist concept of what makes writing “correct.” (The notion, of course, is that they really get it, while the person they’re giving feedback to does not.)
We can say with confidence that using non-I statements is counterproductive. Even if the reader giving feedback is verifiably correct in their statement, people simply aren’t receptive if they feel threatened. To avoid that sense of threat, problems with the text must be “This didn’t work for me” (which helps give the writer valuable information about the values of a readership that this reader represents) as opposed to “This is bad writing” (an attack on the identity and effort of the writer).
(Note that this isn’t always applicable for grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues, although you certainly can use a statement like, “I believe you’ll want to add a comma here.” We’ll discuss grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues at greater length in item #7 of this article.)
3. Stylistic suggestions must be made carefully and consciously.
Writers at all levels often fall into the trap of suggesting revisions based on their own style and voice. Sometimes these stylistic suggestions can be useful. However, to state these suggestions as if they were concrete, objective improvements on the text is a claim of authority over the text and can easily veer into condescension. Most people can appreciate these types of suggestions—but it’s best to actively acknowledge that the suggestion is stylistic.
For example, a reader suggested changing “No one in their right mind” to “No one sane,” and he made the side-note that the sentence was “cleaner as reworded.” While a word like “cleaner” makes steps toward acknowledging that different values are at play, it still implies that the suggestion is superior—which is an unproductive stylistic claim.
One way to effectively make suggestions like these is to use “take it or leave it” language. For example, you could say “try this out and see if you like it” or even just “consider this.” In the above example, it could have been as simple as saying “Consider ‘sane’ instead of ‘in their right mind.'” It’s a neutral statement that doesn’t attempt to claim authority over the work’s voice. We’ve found that neutral stylistic suggestions are more likely to be taken as helpful comments, and also more likely to be taken seriously and implemented by the writer.
4. The reader must provide reasons for both their praise and criticism.
Each piece of feedback should be given in the form of, “This worked for me because” or “This didn’t work for me because.” It doesn’t have to be a complex explanation, but it does have to give a reason. This improves both positive feedback and criticism: “I liked this” pales in comparison to “I liked this because it made me laugh,” and “This didn’t work for me” seems petty compared to “This didn’t work for me because I was confused about what was actually happening.”
Studies on recognition have found that empty praise is as useless as neutral comments. Praise that provides substance and engages with the person being praised is far more significant. Further, while studies haven’t been done on this, we would argue that substance-based critiques are far more valuable than empty praise.
5. Praise strengths and progress.
Each writer is at a different stage in their development. In helping beginning writers, recognizing progress and strengths becomes far more important than recognizing a highly developed craft. When a writer is good at something, try to recognize that and let them know. However, that “good” shouldn’t be in comparison to the best writers in the world or even the best in the workshopping group. Letting writers know which elements worked best for you can be extremely helpful.
As an example, a student in a workshop group wrote a poem with closely placed exact rhymes, no strong sensory details, no powerful metaphors, and no lyrical language—which were all disagreeable aspects to the reader. However, the poem’s rhythm was strong. Since the rhythm was not enough to “redeem” the poem, it would be tempting to focus only on what needed to be improved. However, bringing up the strength of the rhythm is sure to make workshopping more effective: It prevents the writer from feeling like they’re simply a “bad writer,” it gives them a positive to focus on, and it creates a guaranteed positive interaction to help out with the Losada ratio.
It’s rare that there won’t be at least one strength to focus on, and even in those instances, there will certainly be progress worth noting.
6. Make the relationship between reader and writer collaborative, not competitive.
Each workshop is developed for the sake of helping all participating writers improve their craft. While many of the other items on this list will help set a collaborative tone, the overall sense of the group can destroy the spirit of the workshop even if the letter of the law is kept.
Note that “instructive” workshopping is not a third option when set alongside collaborative and competitive. Within instruction, the sense that the teacher or group leader is trying to help as opposed to demonstrating their authority will dramatically change a student’s behavior and outlook.
Even some great writers behave in ways that turn workshopping into a pissing contest. There are subtle ways writers can try to show that their work is getting a better response or needs less work than that of other writers. Addressing these issues can be difficult, and there is no single way to address the problem—but keep behaviors like these on your radar and acknowledge them as problems worth addressing.
7. Check in on the writer’s objectives prior to giving feedback.
Not every piece is ready for sentence-level revisions. Time spent proofing rough drafts is almost certain to be wasted. Some writers are really only trying to get feedback on a couple of core facets of their work. How can you address this? In the simplest possible way: By asking.
Asking about the writer’s objectives and keeping your feedback focused on those goals has numerous benefits, but there are two worth bringing up here. First, the focus on the writer’s objectives helps frame the feedback as being about helping the writer rather than criticizing them. And second, the writer will have a chance to prepare for the feedback; knowing basically what to expect makes it easier to keep your ego in check.
(As a side-note, if the writer does want feedback on spelling, grammar, and punctuation, it’s usually a good idea to do this by making notes—digital or physical—on the work and keeping your in-workshop comments to, “I’ve made note of a few places where you may want to make changes to spelling, grammar, and punctuation.”)
8. Help writers check their ego at the door.
That’s hard, to be sure. Hardcore writers are often under the illusion that they’re already great. They’re not. Even the stars of the literary canon were only great once they’d revised their work over and over again. Even Shakespeare revised; the myth that “in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line” is debunked by the existence of multiple versions of some of his plays. Even if the myth were true, however, I would side with Ben Jonson: “Would he had blotted a thousand!”
In the end, all participants need to remember that workshops are for work. It’s fine to share your work for the sake of getting an ego stroke, but if that’s the goal of your group, a workshop is probably not the place to share. Consider an open mic, or just handing your work off to your mother.
Again, the work of an instructor or workshop guide needs to happen outside of the workshop itself. Instilling this mentality is rarely instantaneous. Some egos just won’t be checked. Sadly, there’s a limit to how much can be done about that. However, within the boundaries of possibility, groups should seize the credo: “It’s a workshop, not a wankshop.”
9. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
Before you launch into workshopping, help resolve questions and prevent potential issues by having a discussion about what, how, and why you are workshopping. In addition to whatever house rules you feel are appropriate, if you feel the guidelines provided in this article are useful, we encourage you to go through this article with your workshopping group.
The testament to the success of Guild workshops is that participants stay after hours to continue working, that they actively seek critiques from their peers, and that feedback on the workshop often uses the same terminology: This was helpful, this was useful, this was good.
We don’t just workshop, of course, and it’s certain that much of the success we’ve seen is due to what happens outside of workshops. The philosophy of the Guild is very much based on establishing strong social ties to underpin everything else we do. However, while people sometimes talk about the workshop being fun or the group being fun, the main point is that the workshop has provided something useful to the writers who participated.
We sincerely hope that these guidelines help you hold more enjoyable and more effective workshops. Have any thoughts, experiences, or suggestions to share? Don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments, below.