Workshop Guidelines as Relationship Advice


I overheard a student of mine mention that my workshop guidelines were very different than any she’d encountered before, in a good way. I got a little puffed up when I heard the comment. I’ve worked hard, read many books, and tried lots of strategies to come up with a workshop protocol that allows the writer to keep moving on her manuscript.  The last thing I ever want is to shut someone down. I imagine in my early days as a workshop attendee I did just that, pointing out faults and speaking with the unbearable pomposity of youth! I’m cringing right now and wish I knew to whom I owe an apology. I’m sorry…
My student went on to say that my workshop guidelines are actually good marital advice! Who knew? i certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I can see what she meant.

In an effort to contribute to good relationships and workshops, here’s what little I have!


Workshop Guidelines

The primary job of workshop is not only to help the writer recognize what may need attention in their pages, but also to describe, appreciate, analyze, and illuminate the pages as accurately, carefully and generously as possible. Reflecting back to the writer what the words on the page seem to say or want to be allows her to understand whether or not the work is conveying her intention. I am of the belief that we learn equally from what we do well and from our failed attempts. And yet, often we cannot tell which is which. Thus careful reading is not only for the writer’s benefit but for the benefit of the entire group. Ideally, the workshop should sharpen one’s ability to read, understand, and explicate any work, including your own.

Appreciate, illuminate, reflect back, be generous! We have to let our partners know that we see them, right? Pay Attention. 

The greatest problem with a fault finding workshop is that it’s discouraging! It reverses the writer’s momentum driving her back upon what has been written rather than forward toward continuing the work or toward development of her essential vision. Bitching and nagging are ultimately barren, in love and in criticism. Partners and manuscripts become hostile resentful, inhibited, fearful and depressed. They slam doors, pout and refuse to talk. Revision is a continuous, incessant, vital part of writing, it is the effort to see and to develop further what’s right about a piece, what is good and successful and engaging. Only finding fault is not necessarily supporting the writers vision.

Focusing on faults (though I get that it’s tempting…I’ve been married 30 years) is discouraging. And, criticism may prop you up for a second, as in feeling a bump of superiority when you’re the one who remembered to buy soap, send your mother-in-law a card, maintain your boundaries, but it won’t last and it won’t build anything. You want to support what you love about your partner, and hold yourself up to the spirit of revision as well.  

Read your colleague’s manuscript through twice. (I recognize that few of us will do this…it’s about hours in the day, but if you have time, please do. You will be amazed at what you notice and you will learn so much about writing.) The first time, do so with the intention of absorbing the story. Read slowly and carefully. The second time, read through with pencil in hand to make notations in the margins. underline or draw circles around what is working, what sparkles, is memorable, evocative, effective or fun, vivid, rich in sensory details, language that says the right thing in the right way. Explain in the margins why you liked what you’ve marked. Be celebratory and generous and true. Believe in the best of the story.

Celebrate what’s working. (Thank you for bringing me coffee in bed! Thanks for going to that obscure French film you probably would never choose on your own! Thanks for reminding me to laugh and let it go…) Give compliments. Be generous. Believe in the best in your partner. 

Put question marks in the margins where things aren’t going well, where you get lost, bored or confused, where the writing seems too shallow or oblique. Add a brief statement about what wasn’t working, why you were confused. These places that are sticky, stuck, or not working are often growth edges. It may be blurry but there may be good energy as well. Troubles are doorways. Ask questions in the margins.

Make your complaints brief and clear. Troubles are doorways to better understanding your partner, yourself, and your relationship.

Do not worry about grammar mishaps, misspellings, etc… This is rough draft material.

I know this one is abundantly clear! Is it worth it to complain about the way your partner slices the apple? Makes, or doesn’t make, the bed? Chews gum? You may not change them, ever. So you’ll have to learn to live with this rough draft material. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

It takes far greater maturity to notice the words that shimmer, far greater generosity and vulnerability to admit when you’ve been touched. When reading someone’s work: REVEAL rather than revile. ILLUMINATE rather than deride and dismiss.

Let your partner know when they shimmer. Reveal what upsets you, discuss, listen to what upsets them. Be curious not cursory.

Finally, what are some questions or concerns you have at this point?  Based on a question or concern, offer one suggestion for revision. Give your comments to the writer.

Don’t overwhelm your partner with suggestions for revision! Maybe ask of them one thing that you’d like to be different.

Workshop Protocol

  • Select a time keeper
  • Writer reads a short passage from their story/essay
  • Writer remains silent
  • Responders discuss the work, beginning with a description
  • We begin with positive comments. Let them run dry
  • Shift to questions about the work. Of course positive comments will continue to come forth as we discuss what is and is not working.
  • Understand that as we continue to talk about the work, our own opinions may shift, grow and change. That is the alchemy of worshop.
  • Ask the writer if they want ideas in the vein of “Maybe this will work…”
  • After an allotted time, the timekeeper gives the 5 minute warning and writer gets to redirect discussion if s/he has a pressing question about their work

P.S.  Notes to Self During WorkshopOr argument w/partner

  • Strive for a personal balance between listening & talking. (Quiet people, this is your chance to shine. Surprise us with your wisdom and insight. Talkers, this is your chance to listen.)
  • Respond to one another.
  • Show compassion to one another.
  • Be helpfully critical.