Writing Workshop Etiquette recommended by Ursula K Le Guin

Writing Workshop Etiquette as recommended by Ursula K Le Guin

Hey! Welcome back. Today we’re looking at the etiquette that should be followed when you are part of a writing workshop. Ursula K Le Guin talks about this in her book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing The Sea of Story. The book is packed with useful information on the craft of writing (which I will cover in a future post) and the appendix covers rules for being part of a writing workshop.

If you haven’t participated in a workshop before, it’s made up of a group of writers who want their manuscripts critiqued and who are willing to critique other manuscripts in return. Meetings for these workshops can occur either face-to-face or virtually (and in our current COVID environment they are more likely to be virtual). While I was studying for my Master of Creative Writing, some subjects required we run class workshops. I’ll cover my experience after we look at the etiquette.

A writing workshop is not for everyone

Some people will find that following the rules of a workshop and receiving critique is difficult. They may not be able to commit to regular meetings, may have trouble handling feedback appropriately, or may not be able to assess others’ manuscripts objectively. If any of these points apply to you then you won’t enjoy or benefit from a writing workshop. That’s ok! It’s not for everyone; it’s a matter of temperament.

‘There may be periods in an artist’s life when they need the stimulus and feedback of a group, and periods when they do better working alone.’

There should be an optimum number and skill level of members

The optimum number of writers in any group be between 6 or 7 and 10 or 12. This is to allow enough differing opinions to have an impact on the writing being assessed. Groups with less than 6 may have issues with adequate numbers of members attending meetings, while groups of more than 12 may have too many manuscripts to assess each week. Most groups meet once a month and meetings should be scheduled well in advance. It also works best if everyone in the group is roughly at the same skill level. Too much variation means that more experienced members may resent having to review beginners’ work, while beginners may be intimidated or feel daunted by more experienced writers.

‘A peer group works best if everybody in it is on pretty much the same level of accomplishment.’

Manuscripts should be compiled, sent and read according to group agreement

Manuscripts should be sent to the group at least a week before the upcoming scheduled meeting. This gives members adequate time for review and consideration. Late manuscripts should not receive critique until the following meeting. It is up to the group to decide upfront whether critiquing may begin as soon as a manuscript is sent out (and a correspondence thread established amongst the group) or if it should be limited to a defined period (the meeting for example). In terms of manuscript length, Le Guin recommends that the group agree on a word limit per manuscript and everyone in the group must read each manuscript assigned for the time period. Small errors such as grammar or spelling should be written on the manuscript (whether physically or in mark-up mode) and given directly to the writer to review privately.

‘Careless reading, delay in reading, and failure to read are forgivable only as occasional exceptions.’

Critiquing etiquette should be as follows:

  • For online groups, critique must be written. For face-to-face groups, written feedback should be accompanied by spoken commentary and discussion.
  • Every person must critique every piece: they should be brief, objective and concern only important aspects of the manuscript.
  • Manuscripts should be critiqued in the order they are submitted.
  • Members must take turns speaking and respect and trust should always be at the forefront of discussions. No one should interrupt anyone else and members should avoid challenging another member’s critique.
  • Add to the discussion without repetition.
  • Remember that a reader’s first impressions are valuable – ask questions freely but without animosity.
  • Take care when giving negative criticism; don’t be aggressive or savage as the writer may get angry and refuse to listen. Extreme negative feedback on the overall work may also cause real and lasting damage.
  • Address the writer, not the other reviewers.
  • If you want to ask the writer a question, make it a yes-or-no question and only ask with the permission of the others in the group. This is because others may not want the question answered.
  • Suggestions on how to fix something should be offered respectfully. It’s not your story so even if you think you know how it should be changed, you don’t.
  • Don’t point out similarities with published work or movies. Consider and respect the text as itself.

‘Negative criticism should indicate the possibility of revision’

When being critiqued, remember:

  • You should remain silent; only speak once the discussion is over and only if you feel like it. Don’t be defensive and keep it brief.
  • Don’t offer any extra information to what is contained within the manuscript.
  • If asked to answer a question, ensure it is a yes-or-no and that everyone agrees.
  • Take notes!

‘The Rule of Silence: Before and during the entire session, the author of the story under discussion is silent.’

Following this etiquette is extremely important. In my experience, it was beneficial to receive different opinions on my work and helpful to listen to members discuss my work. However, critiquing has the potential to go very wrong; on one occasion a group member thought it was acceptable to recommend I introduce specific characters into my story and went on to tell me what roles they should play and how I could incorporate them. I was incredibly offended and complained to our tutor, who apologised profusely for not stopping the conversation and who reminded the group verbally and in writing on what was acceptable feedback. At the time I was in the second half of my degree and so had developed a thick skin when it came to critiquing, but others in my class were at the start of their studies and feedback such as what I received could have done lasting damage.

Have you ever been part of a writing workshop? What did you find positive about the experience? Were there any negatives for you? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Nathalie

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