Jennifer Hillier

With a little help from my friends

Apr 23, 2009 | Uncategorized

I got inspiration for another post after making a comment to my Aunt Peggy.

Writer needs editors.  But do writers need workshops?  And if so, how much workshopping is too much?

I’ve taken two writing workshops so far, one that focused on short stories and one that focused on novels.  Altogether, thirty-two writers have read my stuff, at various stages of completion.

Critiques widely differ.  The purpose of a workshop is to keep poking at a piece to find its weaknesses, and poke we did.  Everyone discussed everyone’s work.  We questioned each other’s character motivation, plot structure, prose.  We gleefully pointed out clichés and called each other out on being lazy writers when too many were used.  We obsessed over dialogue tags (said Jimmy? or Jimmy said?) and whether a piece worked better in first person or third.  Past tense or present.  When to show and when to tell.

There was one lady in my class, let’s call her Andrea, who wrote an ambitious piece.  It was an historical action/adventure love story (how’s that for genre blending?).  Her first draft was a helluva fun read, but pretty raw, and we jumped all over it like sharks who smelled blood in the water.   It got ripped apart.

She resubmitted the same piece when her turn came around again a few weeks later.  Andrea had taken our feedback to heart and the second draft was much cleaner.  Tighter.  But there were still imperfections, and so we picked and picked and picked.

Her third draft was perfect. Hardly any of us could find flaws.  Compliments abounded – Andrea had finally succeeded!  She’d proved she was good at taking direction, that she was hard-working, humble, devoid of ego.  In other words, the perfect workshop participant.

But that final draft?  It was… bland.  Generic.  It made everybody happy, sure, but it was missing the edge and rawness that had made it so much fun to read in the first place.  It totally.  Lacked.  Style.

It was the work of 16 people, not Andrea.  I can’t imagine she’ll ever get it published.  It reads like a college essay.  (Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)

In hindsight, she shouldn’t have listened to us.   She should have told us to take a flying leap off a tall bridge.  (Ha!  Cliché!)  Because in the end, we didn’t do her any favors.  We took away her voice.

And a writer with no voice is not a writer.

Andrea should have waited till her piece was closer to completion, and then asked us for feedback.  Only she knew what her intentions were for the story, and by then, she would have known what advice to take and what to throw away.

Editors, yes.

But workshops?  They’re like a pool with no lifeguard.  Swim at your own risk.