A Shy Writer’s Guide to Surviving Workshops

Workshopping—some people love it, others not so much. Maybe it’s the nerves about how your class will treat your story. Maybe it’s the fact that you forgot to read somebody’s work. For me and any number of other shy writers out there—it’s hard to say how many because some of them are pretty quiet—the mere thought of trying to launch into the uncontrolled chaos of class discussion is the tallest mountain to climb.

Seeing as, for many people, classes are about to begin, I thought it might be nice to spend a day talking about something I wished I could find information on when I was in grad school:

Everyone talks about workshop etiquette, but what about the difficult task of navigating fast-changing discussions? How do you find the right time to jump in?

I did a lot of searching to see what experts had to say about this, but I’m going to be totally honest here and say, shy people, we’re pretty much on our own. Most articles are about how you’d really better read your classmates’ work and how being nice to other people is the best way to go—no brainers.

But one way or another, we’ve got to find a way to participate. So…here we go:

  1. Prepare
    • Write out exactly what you hope to say. You can have it right in front of you during workshop. That helps to take out the stress of potential embarrassment.
  2. Piggyback
    • That’s right. Somebody else said what you wanted to say? Before you panic (like me), wait—Add something. Agree. It can help a writer to hear someone’s opinion seconded by showing that more than one person thought a certain way about their work.
  3. Disagree
    • Sometimes, somebody says the exact opposite of what you were going to say. That can feel like a bit of a letdown, but it’s also a great opportunity to jump in and comment on what you were thinking. Plus, it’s food for thought for the writer when readers have opposing feelings on what they read.

Congratulations, participation achieved.

In his article A Guide to Public Speaking for Introverted and Shy People,” Jonathon Colman writes, “No one’s going to think less of you for not knowing something than they will if you pretend to know something you don’t.”

Just ask the question. You might be right. If you are, you’ve helped a fellow writer. If not, well, everybody misreads things sometimes. I asked a classmate a question about her work this semester, only to have someone else tell me to go a couple pages back. And voilà! There was the answer, staring me in the face. Embarrassing—super embarrassing—but it pays to speak up. My flub led to other discussion that was more useful to the writer.

Finally, remember that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters. Offer the insights you have, but, like Tammy Everts suggests in “A Conference Survival Guide for Introverts,” do it on terms you’re comfortable with. Maybe there is just one thing that you badly want to say to the writer. Say it. Maybe that’s all you say to them this time, but, the more comfortable you get making yourself say just one thing that stood out to you, the more likely you are to say two things in the future.

Being comfortable in workshops can be a process, and it’s one that I’m still figuring out. I hope these tips were helpful, and if there’s something I missed, I’d love to hear about it.

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