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Getting the Most Out of Workshopping: A Writing 201 Primer

Writing 201 begins on Monday, July 21. Since this Blogging U. course is based around the writing workshop format, we’ll talk about how to share your material and give feedback to others in a collaborative environment.

In just a few days, our next Blogging U. course, Writing 201: Finding Your Story, begins! As mentioned in our announcement, Writing 201 is much different in structure from Writing 101: there will be four workshops over four weeks, which you’ll absorb at your own pace, and no official assignments. The focus of the course is not on daily publishing, but sharing your material, giving and receiving feedback, and rewriting.

Because “workshopping” your writing in the Commons is a key component to the course, we wanted to offer tips on how to get the most out of this format.

What’s a writing workshop?

Examples of writing workshop-style learning: small group work in language arts classes in grade school, craft seminars in an MFA program, and breakout sessions at a writing conference.

Writing workshops come in different flavors. Participants benefit from the close reading of their work and focused, constructive feedback on their writing.

Typically, a workshop is looser in format than a traditional class, with an instructor acting more as a mentor, rather than teacher: to guide discussions and model how to give helpful critiques to fellow writers. In the Commons, the idea is similar: fellow participants and staff will be present to engage in conversations and help provide input.

Over the month, we’ll encourage you to think deeper about the stories you’d like to tell, and when asking for feedback, to go beyond simply dropping a link to a post for people to click on.

In Writing 201, posing specific questions about your own work and giving concrete feedback is crucial to the experience as a whole. With this course, we hope to create breathing space for you — four weeks to reflect, revisit, and revise some of your writing — and to foster a safe place for brainstorming.

Workshopping in the Commons

At the top of the Commons site, you can create a new post. To share your writing for feedback, please use this template with four specific fields:

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 10.31.25 AM

You’ll always be able to grab the template from the sticky post at the top of the Commons, so you can cut and paste it easily. Here’s what you need for each field:

Excerpt: A passage you’d like us to read and focus on, providing just the right amount of text we need to consider your questions. A paragraph or two is ideal; please do not paste entire posts here.

Goal: A one-to-two line summary of the goal of this particular piece. What do you want to say and achieve with this piece of writing?

My Questions: One or two questions about this excerpt. You can ask something specific about your grammar or focus on a problematic sentence, or you can ask larger questions about theme and structure. The more specific you are, the more focused your responses. Please limit your questions to two to keep the conversation manageable and so readers can provide meaningful feedback.

Link: An optional URL for reference or background — it could be the published piece in full on your blog (if any), another post on your blog for more context, or something else.

We expect that you’ll share a variety of writing, and know that each piece is unique. While we can’t anticipate every type of workshopping request, we can show examples of how to present material and provide feedback.

An example of how to share your writing:

Here’s an example of someone revising a personal post they once wrote about a friend.

Excerpt: 

In 2001, near the end of our years in Los Angeles, an unexpected turn took my dear friend to the middle of Ohio. Aside from a single spontaneous meeting in Chicago sometime between then and now, I lost touch with him after he left California. We talked on the phone a few times — attempts at reconnecting that he initiated, not me. (And I love him for that, among many other things.) He was now married, had two young sons, and built a new network of friends.

Once our digital iterations found each other on MySpace, and later on Facebook, our paths had diverged so much that, despite the online reconnection and knowledge that he was right there, he wasn’t really there, just as much as I wasn’t really there to him. To see the life he had built, laid out on his profile, was at once comforting and alienating: What a beautiful life he had created. But how unfortunate that I was no longer a part of it, given that we used to be so close.

Goal: I’d like to restructure this older post I wrote about online mourning on Facebook, after one of my best friends died, and open it with a scene with the two of us — to better introduce our friendship.

My Questions: These paragraphs appear early on in my original draft. I like them, but I think I gloss over a lot of history. As an outsider, do you see any opportunities for crafting a scene between us to give you a better idea of our relationship?

Link: Here’s the original post, for context.

Examples of feedback you might give to the writer above:

Be succinct. Ask clarifying questions. Use quotes or blockquotes to highlight certain parts to which you refer.

“In 2001, near the end of our years in Los Angeles, an unexpected turn took my dear friend to the middle of Ohio.” What unexpected turn? This makes me curious — I want to know more, and if that affected your friendship.

* * *

Ask follow-up questions to also help the writer zoom in on the right details. Don’t be afraid to act like an investigative journalist — your pair of fresh eyes might just be what this writer needs.

You mention that your friend was the one who attempted to reconnect with you, and not the other way around. Why? Was there a falling out? Did something happen? Despite his efforts, sounds like you two did not keep in touch. What were these telephone conversations like? Maybe you can recreate one of them.

* * *

Be empathetic as much as possible. Can you relate to this material in some way? Brainstorming is about sharing our ideas and own experiences, too.

Some of your lines are very moving — and remind me of my own friendships I watch from afar. I’m really drawn to the last two lines about seeing the beautiful life he had built, but also feeling sad because you were no longer a part of it.

What was your friendship like in Los Angeles? Could you think of a time when things were really good, and maybe experiment writing about that? Maybe you can build up those early years to show how close you were, and then explore how you slowly grew apart — and watched it happen through Facebook.

Examples of the types feedback to avoid:

We love positive feedback, period. But we want you to think critically about writing and offer more substantial input. If you simply want to show your support, click “Like”; if you have more detailed feedback, hit “Reply.”

This is really great! I like it.

* * *

Be respectful yet constructive. The comments to the right aren’t necessarily mean-spirited, but there’s no suggestion for improvement. Remember: it’s hard to put our writing out there.

You could have done a better job with explanations in paragraph one. You “tell” instead of “show,” and your reader doesn’t really get anything out of it. The writing is generally poor.

Avoid vague language. What is “it”? Which sentence is confusing?

I couldn’t follow it at all. That sentence doesn’t make sense either.

* * *

Stay on topic! While this feedback is specific, positive, and offers suggestions, it doesn’t consider and answer the question the writer asks in the original request.

I love this excerpt, but I think there are issues here when you talk about Facebook. Not everyone uses Facebook, or social media in general, so you need to describe how it all works — what a profile looks like, what a network is, etc.

Feedback dos and don’ts

A summary of tips to keep in mind:

  • Be succinct.
  • Be curious: ask clarifying and follow-up questions, and don’t be afraid to act like an investigative journalist.
  • Be specific: use quotes or blockquotes to highlight parts of an excerpt to which you’re referring. Also, avoid vague language.
  • Be empathetic as much as possible. Can you relate to this material in some way?
  • Share your own experiences and stories — this is what brainstorming is all about.
  • Be positive, but thoughtful: if you simply want to show your support, click “Like”; if you have more detailed feedback, hit “Reply.”
  • Be respectful yet constructive: kindly offer suggestions for improvement.
  • Stay on topic: focus on the specific questions the writer asks.

Other things to consider

  • Use the template introduced above for workshopping requests. If you have a message, general feedback, or another question for the group, simply publish a new post without the template.
  • You can share more than one excerpt from a piece, or share a revised excerpt with follow-up questions. While there is no maximum number of times you can ask for feedback on a single piece, please don’t publish duplicate requests.
  • There are no right or wrong answers. Feedback is meant to help focus your writing process and give you new ideas and directions to take your work. Ultimately, you don’t have to incorporate any edits or suggestions you’re given.
  • When replying to feedback, don’t feel you must answer every comment or question, or must defend your writing or explain why you wrote something a certain way. Approach feedback in a similar way you respond to blog comments, and remember we’re all here to improve and learn from each other.

We hope this gives you an idea of what the workshop format might be like. As always, we’ll be on hand to help you during the course, and you’ll be able to ask questions as we go.

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    1. Don’t be scared! We’re all here to learn from each other and bounce ideas off one another (whether a beginning or seasoned writer). I’m especially interested in seeing how others’ stories and ideas might inspire my own.

      Like

  1. I’m excited for the opportunity that is open to all those with an adventuresome spirit. That is how I am approaching this–a chance to spread my wings(I know, cliché) and soar to new writing heights; and join others on their journeys. I appreciate the ideas for constuctive comments.

    Like

  2. Oh dear, I’m stymied by technology before I even start – I can’t understand how to get into class! I can understand the words “At the top of the Commons site, you can create a new post.” but have no idea what this means. How do I access the Commons site? Help!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there — the Commons is the private site that participants will soon have access to. (It’s not available just yet.)

      If you already registered (form is here: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_assignment/announcing-writing-201/), just sit tight. If not, go ahead and register, and we’ll send the details you’ll need to get started soon.

      The instructions in this post (“creating a new post at the top of the Commons iste”) explain how you’ll share your work with others, each week, during this course. There’s nothing you need to do at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The directions for structuring feedback, is highly enlightening, I would
    love to be a part of workshop,,and yes, it is a very exciting way to conduct
    a writing class,,,,

    lilkathy25

    Like

      1. There are actually no “official” assignments — this is a self-directed course focused on revising and rewriting, and thinking about our writing more in-depth.

        The first workshop, for this week, was published: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_assignment/whats-your-angle/

        As you can see, it’s pretty meaty. You’re meant to read/absorb at your own pace, and work on revising or considering your own work on your own. You can share ideas, ask questions, and post excerpts for feedback in the Commons (but it’s not mandatory).

        The three workshops that will be published over the next three weeks will be the same in terms of depth and length, on three different topics/aspects of writing.

        Like

  4. Writing 201 is exactly what my writing needs and if it’s anything like Writing 101, the effort will be extremely rewarding. Thanks WordPress for hosting and inspiring the wandering words within us.

    Like

  5. I appreciate your direct feedback template and examples of what to do and not to do. If I hadn’t seen this, I would have gone another direction.
    Also Thanks for sending this out days before we ‘start’. I’m pushing my comfort zone. I am exorcising demons and exercising courage!

    Like

  6. I would comment on the Writing 201 post, but the comments are closed. I filled out the form to register, a few days ago, but never got an email. I tried it again and it says the form has been sent, but still no e-mail. I’ve checked junk mailboxes just in case. Does it take a few days for instructions for commons to be sent out or are they sent out on the first day of the workshop?

    Like

  7. I am very excited about this. I am only going through the writing 101 now, decided to take on the challenges even though it has closed. Cannot wait for writing 201. :)

    Like

  8. I wish there was a “Like” button with these comments. I want to let people know that I share the same sentiments of anticipation, trepidation and determination.

    Like

  9. Hi,

    I registered yesterday and was notified that my form was sent however I haven’t received a confirmation email and cannot access the commons after today’s ‘What’s your Angle?’ post.

    Could you please tell me if my registration was received? If not is it best for me to try to sign up again?

    Thanks!

    Like

    1. Hi there! “The Commons” is a private site for participants of this course — it’s kind of like a forum where writers can chat, ask questions, and engage with others.

      If you registered, you should receive a welcome email, with information about it.

      Like

  10. I’m nervous too. Having been posting regularly for the past nine months I figure I’m ready to tackle that life story that’s been sitting in a bottom drawer for three years. This is exactly what I need but I’m fearful that the re-writing may be overwhelming. My style has changed quite a lot (for the better). Excited about having company on the journey :)

    Like

  11. I couldn’t participate in Writing 101, as I was new to WordPress then. But, now I’m super excited to participate in Writing 201. I’ll try to make the most of it. Cheers :)

    Like