Saturday, 22 August 2015

The art of workshopping

Work in progress
Giving feedback is quite a tricky business. Writers get very attached to their work. Some people are impatient with hearing the good stuff and just want to get to suggestions for improvement. Others seem to only want to hear praise for their efforts. I find it quite difficult to provide feedback in a vacuum. I feel that I need to know the person a bit better before I can judge how to most usefully offer my thoughts. And I need to know their writing in order to appreciate where they are coming from and what they are trying to achieve. In the classroom where you hear a piece for the first time and you have limited time to respond I find it challenging to actively participate. There is always someone who is quicker off the mark and more confident about putting their comments out there.

Under maintenance
I prefer to work one on one or in small groups. I did meet up with Helen and we had a very constructive conversation about our respective pieces. I felt like a real writer, arranging to get feedback from a potential reader and a fellow writer, very mature. Of course it was also good fun. We met in a pub and had beers and chips to help with our very serious deliberations.

When I got back to the piece a couple of days later I felt invigorated. I had some new ideas for where I could go. I clearly needed to work on the transitions between ideas. There is a bit of jumping to the next subject without much lead in or signposting for the reader. It was also a great opportunity to talk about the piece more broadly. Helen posed a very simple question to me ‘What’s the story?’ I had written just over 3,000 words and yet I stumbled over my answer to this. It seems I had spent my words on telling bits of the story, painting pictures of what had happened but I didn’t have a clear understanding of what the point was. And so there was some fundamental information missing – the stuff I was still dancing around, the words not on the page, the thoughts I hadn’t yet nailed. And so back to the draft I went.

Leaving things out
In contrast, after the workshop with the Melbourne based Hardcopy participants I found myself cutting material from my draft. The feedback I received was about tightening up what was on the page, making sure it all served a purpose. I had included too much reflection on the action and needed to stay more firmly in the present tense, more effectively keeping the reader beside me rather than behind a glass partition. An awful lot is revealed when someone reads your piece out loud. Clunky wording and sentences are stumbled over. I also discovered there were paragraphs and ideas that were simply in the wrong spot.

Let it wash over you
My own ability to take on board feedback has been honed through years of writing for work, with managers reviewing my briefs, reports, submissions, and articles and almost always finding something to comment on. I have been on the receiving end of some poorly delivered feedback at work but most people exercise some degree of sensitivity. But I am curious about whether there is a difference with more personal writing? When I am closer to the piece is it harder to hear the criticism, does it hurt more? And my early conclusion is not really. I care about all my writing. What makes the biggest difference is how the feedback is given – with or without concern for how the receiver will feel. I still have more to learn about the art of workshopping, and hopefully there will be lots of opportunities to do so.