What Are Workshop Rules, and Why Do We Need Them?

  • By Meg Opperman
  • May 4, 2015

Part 2 of a scintillating four-part series...

What Are Workshop Rules, and Why Do We Need Them?

Writers need rules. Whether it’s learning the rules of a particular genre, the rules of grammar, or how to be a good critique partner, rules are just part of the package. That doesn’t mean we can’t ever bend or break them, but it’s important to know what they are before we do.

My own writing group has a set of 10 simple rules we follow…mostly. It keeps us mindful of our purpose. If you’re interested in starting a writing group, joining one, or just curious what the rules might look like, read on.

We are a writing group. Everybody’s gotta write. The term “writing group” should make this rule self-evident. Apparently, for some groups, it’s not.

Remember to say something positive; don’t just criticize. Chances are, we’ve worked hard on whatever we’re presenting, and as thick of a skin as we’ve developed, it still hurts to hear criticism — even constructive criticism. Hearing what we did well ensures we won’t throw ourselves from the Key Bridge, especially if we’ve been handed a whole lotta revisions.

No page or word quotas for submissions — they are what they are. We tried a page limit at one point, but there were so many exceptions, depending on what each member was working on, that we said to hell with it. If we can read it all, we will. If not, we’ll get to it next time.

Submissions for the next critique session must be sent by the Friday before that meeting. We didn’t have this rule early on. Big mistake. The night before the meeting, submissions would start pouring into our inboxes. I might have been guilty of this once or twice (a month). Look, I get it. I want as much time as possible to tweak my draft, too. But expecting them to read my work and give it their full attention at the 11th hour is asking too much. If I’m on a deadline and need a final read-through, usually a couple members of my group volunteer to take a quick look, but that’s a special circumstance. For our regular meetings (about every three weeks or so), we submit the Friday before we meet so that we have the weekend and one or two days more to work on it.

Name, title of work, and the page number must be on every page of each submission. We might as well practice good manuscript habits now. We want to be professionals, so we act like professionals. That doesn’t mean we don’t joke around. We do. But if — Goddess, forbid — one of our manuscripts fell out of our bags on the Metro, whoever found it would be treated to a perfectly professional presentation. I can’t comment on the quality of said pages, but damn it, they would look good.

In general, critiques should be limited to 45 minutes for each member if three submissions are presented at a session. This is a simple time constraint. We’re busy people coming from Maryland, Northern Virginia, and the District, so we need to ensure that one person’s submission doesn’t get two hours and then only have 15 minutes for another member’s. Forty-five minutes is about all the criticism and praise one person can take anyway.

If a submitter has particular questions/issues for the group, please attach them to the submission. This streamlines the process so we save precious workshop time not having to explain the issues. This is the rule we break most often.

Periodically, we should review whole works as key drafts are completed. That way, we know what’s changed in the work, and it gives us the whole picture. For short stories, we always do this. For novels, we review as much as we can at a time.

Our focus is the mystery/suspense genre. Reviewing any other member writing is optional. I know some groups mix their genres and like it that way. But each genre has a different set of rules — those pesky rules again! — and it can be confusing. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable in suspense to lose/kill the main love interest at the end, but if you rob me of a happily-ever-after in a romance, I’m gonna chuck your book across the room. With attitude.

We are not therapists. During the critique sessions, we focus on the work. Too many groups morph into therapy groups and move away from critiquing the work. We aren’t heartless. If one of our members has had a bad day, we offer kind words, commiseration, and maybe even hugs. We like each other. A lot. But we didn’t get together to talk about all the things that aren’t going right in our lives. We’re here to help make each others’ writing the best it can be.

Now you know the rules of my group. You may have others. I’d love to hear some. Write away!

Stay tuned for next month’s exciting installment: Accepting and Giving Critiques.

Meg Opperman is a recovering academic. Her column appears monthly in the Independent.

comments powered by Disqus