Editing and the Workshop

A workshop is a room or building which provides both the area and tools (or machinery) that may be required for the manufacture or repair of manufactured goods.

(from Wikipedia)

The Creative Writing program at UBC is primarily a workshop-based program. That is to say that my classes in the program involve 12-18 students and a professor sitting around a big table and talking about the students’ pieces. Each week 1-3 students bring in copies of a piece they’ve written and hand them out. We all take them home, read them, edit them, write notes all over them, and bring them back the next week. That two-hour class is then devoted to discussing those pieces. And then the next students hand out and we do it all again.

I wanted to take a moment to briefly talk about how useful this process is to a writer. First of all, you get 18 people to edit 2-4 pieces of yours per class per year, which is always useful. But it’s also interesting because the group is so large and so varied–we’re not looking at my three closest friends editing the work. This means that everyone in the class is coming from a very different background of reading and writing. So if I write something that could be called science fiction, it’s interesting to see the different responses from those who read science fiction and those who don’t. Ultimately, you get a real look at the story, rather than preconceived notions about a genre, as well as how the story might be received by those who may not be the intended audience–and this is invaluable to a writer.

We don’t have lectures about writing, except for the occasional time when a professor takes five minutes to talk about a particular concept. And yet, I learned more in my first year in the program and my writing improved more than it ever has. When you look at that many different stories and pieces, you get a great sense for what you can do with words. If you edit something and say, “No, that didn’t work,” then you know what not to do in your own writing. And the discussions that happen bring up all sorts of interesting issues you never would have thought about.

The discussions are actually what might be most interesting–18 people bouncing ideas off of each other. Things come up in the discussions that no one person would ever have thought of–whether it’s ideas for the story, or insights into what it means or what it could mean, etc. It’s also great because you get people who say, “No, this story didn’t work for me,” and then others who jump to its defence–all while the author just sits there and listens. Because of course you’re not going to please everyone. But maybe if you listen to both what some people didn’t like and what others liked, you can tweak the story and please everyone a little more–reach the greatest audience you can.

And you end up finding people in the group you consistently disagree with, and maybe as a result you don’t usually take their advice into account–some people just have fundamentally different ideas of what a given story should accomplish. But that’s okay–they’re just not your intended audience.

I think the most important part of the workshop, though, is this: it’s a place where we put out for others to see first drafts of pieces, works in progress, raw ideas that haven’t been refined, that aren’t ready for publication. I usually go into a workshop thinking, I know there’s something wrong with this piece, it’s not ready–I just might not know what it is that needs help.

But because they’re still raw, the workshop needs to be, in the words of my fiction professor Linda Svendsen, a safe environment. The writer needs to feel safe putting their work out there for others to see, needs to be able to trust the other people in the room with their baby. That means that while they’re looking for constructive help with the work, it’s too raw to take anything too harsh.

I’ve found this a lot with friends I ask to edit my work outside of a workshop. I give them a piece and they come back with all sorts of criticism, and I go home crying. (Not really. Just inside.) And then they say that if I’m going to be a writer, I need to learn to take criticism.


When a piece is completed, when it’s been edited and slaved over and I’m happy with the final product, and a publisher has said that they like it enough to publish it, and it’s been sent out into the public sphere like a child leaving the nest, ready to be consumed by the masses, then yes–people can say what they want about it, and I have to be able to withstand criticism.

But when the piece is still in its fledgeling state, when it’s a newborn without protection, when it’s a raw product, a tentative idea, a tender beginning, then it doesn’t require criticism. Yes, it needs commentary, it needs analysis and critique–it needs direction, schooling, it needs someone to help it grow up. But it requires nurturing, it requires encouragement. It’s too raw, too weak to withstand the harsh realities of the world.

A blatant criticism could kill it before it can fly.

So if you’re reading a rough draft of a work for me, or for a friend, or for a class, be nice. Help give it direction, absolutely help fix its flaws. But a writer needs to have a safe environment in which to let a piece take its first steps. It can’t be dashed before it even sees realization.

Otherwise you might just find that the writer simply doesn’t ask you for help anymore.

Writing , ,


  1. Devin

    All this is true, and it’s not restricted to creative writing, either. Anything in the arts, anything creative – visual art, music, etc.

    You ask for constructive criticism, but that’s rarely what you get. Which is why it’s imperative you ensure you’re asking the right people – people who struggle with the same thing on a daily basis and understand how to get past the meaningless cosmetic things and look at what really counts. You friends are there to support you, and of course they mean a lot to you and you respect their opinions, but the reality is that because of this, most of the time they can’t give you the kind of professional/creative advice you are seeking. You have an emotional attachment to your friends, and unfortunately you usually take their advice on an emotional level.
    It’s not ‘needs less treble on the guitar’, it’s ‘it has a country twang and he hates it’.

    And we will always have our days of weakness when we’re really excited about something we’re working on and we splurge and showcase it to our buddies, but when they scratch their heads at what we’ve done and grunt to express their confusion at what we’ve done so far it should serve as a stern reminder that your friends are not always your peers.

    • Lucas J.W. Johnson

      Sometimes it’s the friend’s opinion that you need, though. Someone to say, “It’s good, great start. What about trying this? Do you think this might help? My tastes say this, what do you think?” As opposed to the outright criticism you might get from others (this could be a. the friends mentioned in the above post who give you reams of criticism in an effort to be a ‘good editor’ or b. peers and critics outside of a safe workshop environment) like, “It’s not good, I don’t like it, this part needs to be fixed.”

      In my most recent post on Style, I talk about that a bit, too–just because you as a friend might not like what I’ve written, doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it and try to give good advice to make it better at being what the author intended it to be.

      And of course, any suggestions given are just suggestions–I often find myself disagreeing with a comment because it’s not what I want from a piece. But it’s still valuable to know that that’s what someone thought when they read it.

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