For those of you who don’t know, I go to college for “writing.” Which is honestly the stupidest thing to say at a party or family gathering, but it’s the truth. I don’t really know what I’m going to do with the degree yet – maybe magazine writing, maybe editing, maybe something totally different? – but I do know something. I love workshopping.
Workshopping is this awesome thing where you write a piece and then you print a million copies of it and you give it out to everyone in your class and then everyone takes it home and gets out their favorite pen and scribbles all over and says things like “oh, this is cool!” or “what’s going on?” or “I don’t understand” or “he’s eating a LIVE FISH??” and stuff like that. And then they bring it back to you and then everyone sits down at a table and discusses it and you jot down all the notes and then you take all of their copies and then you make your piece better. The end.
All my writing classes do this. And it’s AWESOME. But I realize that some people don’t know how to workshop their own work…so I figured I’d write up a little how-to. This should work even if you aren’t necessarily writing creatively – academic papers, work-related things, even letters to grandmas work!
1. Learn to read with your pen. I forget which of my many professors taught me this, but I remember them stating that we should always be holding a pen when we read and use it as an extension of our thought. Let the author know what you’re thinking all along the way, so they know where you’re engaged and where they lost you. Oftentimes I’ll circle a statement or fact and write a bunch of question marks, only to have my confusion answered a few sentences later. It may seem like overkill, but at least then they know they need to clarify their remarks earlier.
2. Keep what works! One of my biggest problems with fellow writing majors is they seem to associate “hard” editors with being “good” editors. True, an excellent editor should be able to be critical of the work, but they also need to point out what should stay in the story. I was once in a workshop and got slammed in the editing room. Everyone seemed to hate my story and I got no positive feedback. I cut a TON of my writing and filled it up with what they asked about. I got reworked the next week and everyone was up in arms about a scene I cut. But you didn’t like it! I wanted to scream. Nope, turns out they did – they didn’t point it out. I usually use check marks to show where a scene/phrase/wording works. That way, they keep the gold and shine up the silver.
3. Where are the holes? My magazine writing professor often asks this question. It’s such a better phrasing than “What’s NOT working?” In most pieces, it’s not that there’s explicitly bad writing: there are just gaps of information. Ask the writer questions and the piece fills out on its own.
4. DON’T write it for them. A common complaint coming out of an workshop session is this: “They didn’t like my vision!” Now, I will be frank: some ideas sorta suck. I’ve read a lot of WEIRD pieces in my days of editing and sometimes stuff is just too out there to wrap your head around. However, a lot of people (especially in college) really do have awesome concepts that they try to apply to writing. So let them write it! Do your best to clean up the writing without losing them completely. If they have a first person, personal, fact-based nonfiction narrative, don’t try and turn it into a third person, magical realism, literary masterpiece. Written pieces are like kids: they’re gonna be what they’re gonna be. You can nurture and feed them and make sure they wear socks, but ultimately you can’t change the inner core of someone’s baby.
5. Read it out loud. Another professor told me that, “Good writing should roll off the tongue of your mind.” Take an unmarked copy of the piece and read it aloud. NOT TO YOURSELF. Read it actually out loud, as if you were telling a friend. Then, every time you stumble, underline that portion and continue. You’ll see which parts are too wordy, where there’s clunky phrasing, and in general what parts aren’t flowing.
6. Step back. Seriously. Put it all away for a while. You can come back to it tomorrow. Fresh eyes are the best eyes and sometimes looking at a piece too long just makes you gloss over the parts that need the most work. I usually edit a piece, then sleep on it, then come back early the next morning when I’m hardly awake. Somehow, being only slightly conscious while you edit is almost better.
So, there you have it! Hopefully everyone can tune up their writing. Meanwhile, I need to go FINISH an essay…