In some writing workshops, there’s an inverse ratio between how closely someone has read a story and how much they’ve got to say about it. I’m a diligent reader. I pay attention to the stories people have submitted; some might say too much attention. My friends judge me as intense. The judgement of others tends to be more severe. Before workshops, I read each story closely. On my second and third reading, I make notes about what I might say.
I prefer the method where everyone speaks in turn, and where jumping in is discouraged. The benefit is that the author receives a range of views. The downside is that those people who haven’t read the story, or who haven’t read it closely enough, have to find a way to pretend they have. They nod, and then tap into the consensus so far. They repeat the comments made by others and talk for too long. If a sensitive issue has been raised by previous speakers, they talk about this issue and how they feel about this topic instead of the story.
Meanwhile, the person who wrote the story is trying to record what people are saying. Written feedback in these situations is brief, and often next to useless, once you step past the praise. And if there is any criticism, it’s too often an opinion about the issue, and that criticism is unlikely to help you improve your story.
I prefer online workshops. A few years ago, when I lived too far away from a university to attend in person, I enrolled in an online course in creative writing. In each of the subjects I completed, the approach to workshops was similar.
A draft of each story was published online and visible to all members of the class and the tutor. Any student could comment on any draft and many of them did. Obviously, these comments were written and like the draft stories could be seen by all participants. Knowing that other people could see what they’d written about the writing of others seemed to invoke a stronger commitment in most students. Sure, some of the comments were shallow. And flattery was over-present, as always. But most of the feedback was insightful.
In most classes, six people would be named by the tutor, and it was mandatory that they provided detailed comments on a story selected by the tutor. That way, every student received detailed feedback from at least six classmates. Depending on the size of the class, some stories could receive comments from another ten or twenty students. The online feedback generally focussed on why something worked, with suggestions about how something that didn’t work might be improved. After the students had posted their comments, the tutor then gave their opinion. Usually this involved detailed mark-ups within the story, and a summary at the end.
In a face-to-face writing class, you’ll hear the comments other students and the tutor make about the stories of other students. Maybe you’ll get down some notes that might help you. But you never get to see the written comments that are submitted on other people’s stories.
In an online writing class, you see every comment on every story. Your writing improves because you’ve got detailed, thought-through comments on your own work plus you’ve seen the feedback on other people’s stories. The problems with your work are more amenable to improvement when you see similar problems encountered by other writers.
And everything stays up for the whole semester. You can read and re-read the stories and the comments they’ve received. You can read the responses posted by the authors, what they thought they were doing but didn’t achieve, and what they might do next. And because it’s not face-to-face, it’s nowhere near as painful. You don’t have to sit and watch while others bleed.
The best thing about distance learning is the distance.
Kit Scriven has been published in Island and short story anthologies. He won the Olga Master Short Story Award in 2016 and 2017, and the SALA Short Story Prize in 2016. He has been highly commended or shortlisted in several other short story competitions. Kit’s story ‘We’ll stand in that place’ won the 2019 Margaret River short story competition.