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Workshop Your Poetry or Prose

Writers want feedback and workshops are one way to get it. A word of caution first: Don't workshop until you've gained some confidence as a writer. Early feedback might shape a voice or style that isn't true to you. Give yourself time to grope around in the dark to find out how and what you write before asking others for feedback.

There are two general types of workshops, prescriptive and descriptive. The prescriptive method prevails in academic writing programs. It involves hard-core editorial advice. Like a prescription, this method is intended to help cure a manuscript.

The problem with prescriptive feedback is that it sets readers up to read for personal likes and dislikes and to approach a manuscript from the point of view of "If I were the writer, I would…" The problem for the writer is that feedback along these lines can be defeating and unhelpful.

Descriptive feedback, on the other hand, helps illuminate the way in which readers understand a text and the effects it has on them, which can help a writer make decisions regarding revision.

Descriptive Feedback

When you read a manuscript, put yourself in the frame of mind of wanting to help and believing that the writer can succeed. It's easy to slip into a somewhat competitive frame of mind when approaching somebody's work. Be helpful. Be kind.

Your first read should be a pleasure read. Underline stunning language and put question marks near areas of confusion. On the second read, use the following tips to guide you:

  • Answer the question What is this text about?
  • Note the text's structure or poetic form and how this supports the content.
  • Note what affected you and why.
  • Note the point of view and tense. Do they create distance or immediacy?
  • Point out places where you get lost or don't understand the concept, metaphor, or character. Ask questions.
  • Point out places that make you sit up and take notice.
  • Point out places where you lose interest or find yourself wanting more. Be specific about the what and why.
  • Note where the writer is breaking a convention, but don't assume this is a problem. (In most cases, it will be clear whether or not breaks in convention are intentional.)
  • Draw attention to ideas or characters that need further development and explain why.
  • Notice whether or not you sympathize with a character or narrator, whether he or she is likable as a person, believable, realistic, and so on.

Do all the above in writing. Write neatly or type up your notes once you're through.

Appoint a facilitator for each workshop, somebody to keep the group on task and moving along. Plan on spending about thirty to sixty minutes per manuscript.

During the workshop, the readers discuss the manuscript via their responses and the writer listens. Start by discussing what the text is about and move on from there.

What to Do with Feedback

Listen. Take notes. Try not to get defensive or feel the need to explain your choices. At the end of the workshop, ask questions for clarification and bring up any concerns that weren't addressed. Collect your marked-up manuscripts to take with you.

After the workshop, take note of overlapping feedback. Let the questions and comments sink in. Put the manuscript away for a while and work on something else to get some distance. The creative process needs time. Don't rush to make changes.

Once you're ready to revise, if you still aren't sure what to do, start off by answering the questions that came up for your readers. Work on the big problems, issues pointed out by the majority of your readers. Clean up inconsistencies. Read aloud to hear the music and tune it.

Trust yourself to know what's best. Make every word count.

Copyright © 2003–2009 Angela Jane Fountas. All rights reserved.
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