Four Points of Good Workshopping

Over decades of running and participating in writing workshops, I’ve found that the best workshops happen when they include simple but effective guidelines for responding.

This Four Points of Good Workshopping handout has served me well for creating a community of writers. It helps authors take in critiques and it helps participants guide their responses. It uses well-known interpersonal communication principles in order to achieve these goals.

When introducing the Four Points, it helps to hold a brief mock workshop. Give out a brief sample piece, and have someone play the role of author. Everyone then takes turns practicing using the four points below. Then experienced hands will be refreshed and newbies will get up to speed on the guidelines.

The Four Points of Good Workshopping

  1. Discuss what works as well as what needs work. Don’t focus exclusively on one or the other.
  2. Be diplomatic.
    • Phrase positively rather than negatively – “Tag lines should be punctuated this way” rather than “Don’t punctuate tag lines this way.”
    • Consider using “I-based” language and qualifiers – “I think the dialogue will be more effective if…” “It seems the story could use some suspense created at the opening….”
    • But if the relationship allows, you can be less circumspect and more direct.
  3. Critique the writing and not the writer (but compliment the writer).
    • Avoid the pronouns “you” and “your” when critiquing, because they shift the critique to the writer and not the writing, and they also make global judgments.
    • Instead, create emotional objectivity and distance, and keep the focus on the writing, by using the words “the” and “this.”
    • For example, rather than, “Your dialogue needs work,” say, “The dialogue in this scene could be more effective if the characters seemed more individual.”
    • However, when complimenting the writer about what works, feel free to use the pronouns “you” and “your”: “Your dialogue in today’s excerpt is fantastic!” (But be prepared to be asked by the workshop leader to explain in what way it is fantastic!)
  4. If you break it, fix it.
    • When pointing out what needs work, offer a solution.
    • The author is free to take suggestions or not, but can benefit from options.
    • Don’t “over fix” – give suggestions that leave room for the author to find creative solutions.

If you enjoyed this lesson, you might enjoy my lesson, “Four Principles for Beginning Creative Writers

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

Although the lessons are free of charge, you can help support maintaining lessons on this site through the paypal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

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