Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 7: What to Do Afterwards

OK, your workshop is over, and you want to revise the piece that you brought to the group. Where do you begin? I think every writer handles this differently, but I can tell you the process I go through after a workshop, in the hope that it might be helpful to you.

First of all, I write down every single comment I get in a workshop that might possibly be of use, and mark it with the name or initials of the person who made the suggestion. That helps me sort through which comments are applicable to the particular work I’m revising. As I mentioned in a previous blog, you have to know the taste, preferences, and biases of your workshop members to absorb their comments most usefully.

Second, I wait one to three months before I look at the comments I’ve written down. Sometimes after a workshop I’m reeling from all the information I’ve assimilated in just a few minutes. I work on a piece for months, maybe years and when I finally show it to my writing group, and I hear all sorts of suggestions in the space of only a few minutes. Many of the ideas I didn’t anticipate at all, and one or two might take this piece of writing in a very different direction.

Even though I usually wait a couple of months to sort out all the information, if there’s something that was pointed out that I know is flat-out wrong, such as a misspelling or a dangling modifier, I usually fix that immediately.

To begin the revisions, I wait for a moment when I have no distractions and a stretch of time with nothing to do in front of me. Revision is a process that requires a lot of concentration. If it involves a poem, I try to allow an hour for the first round of edits after the workshop.

I start by carefully reading every single comment, sometimes recalling the tone of the person making the suggestion, and sometimes I remember my own reaction at the time I received the comment. I include those recollections in gauging how much weight to give to a suggestion. There are also certain comments I may have starred with an asterisk or underlined during the workshop, because the comments felt particularly useful. Those are usually the ones I begin with when I make my edits.

There are sometimes comments that would take my work in a completely different direction. Those are the ones I weigh most deliberately. Often those comments seem to me to be about a different work from the one I brought to the workshop—that wasn’t what I was trying to do, I’m not sure why that person interjected an idea that has nothing to do with the impulse behind this work of mine. Maybe it was a random idea. I discard that suggestion.

But every once in a while, a comment that takes a work of mine in a significantly different direction seems like the best one to me. A member of my workshop has given me a huge gift, a way to rework a problematic piece that otherwise might never gel into a work I’d like to an audience or try to publish. After weighing the alternatives, I rework the whole piece to incorporate that comment.

Just the process of sorting through the comments almost always stimulates other ideas that help me revise the piece in ways that the comments didn’t even suggest. Those fresh thoughts can be really useful in revisions.

One important thing to keep in mind is that a work of literature is a living organism. If you change one thing, you almost always have to change something else to restore the balance. For instance, you might add a line or a sentence that includes a word that you repeat just below the new edit, in which case you might have to find a replacement for that word when you use it for the second time. But this principle can also exist on a larger scale, in the plot of a novel, for instance. You might add a scene at the beginning that then requires adjustments several chapters later, to make the action consistent. Until you get to the very last round of edits, it’s almost impossible to make one change without making another tweak somewhere else. But that's a good thing. It means that your piece of writing is alive, that it is reacting to the work you are doing in revising it.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

How to Get Published
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer