Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Writers Need to Listen

Who gets the most from the workshop session? Writer A keeps quiet and listens to what is being said, only commenting to make sure they've understood exactly what the feedback means.  Writer B, on the other hand, rushes in to explain what they've done, why they've done it, how it all fits together, why your comments are (in effect) wrong.  

That's roughly the two sorts of response when a writer is getting feedback.  I think Writer A's response is the most effective. Writer A gets to decide whether to act on the feedback because they've taken the trouble to listen to it and understand where it's coming from, even if they disagree with it. Writer B can't have listened to much beyond the first comment - and may have deterred the rest of the group from bothering to make comments.  

Writer A tends to be a much better writer than Writer B because Writer A listens, and not just to feedback.  Writer A doesn't need to be centre of attention, Writer A knows when to shut up and observe.  Writer A is interested in other people and what they have to say, and that shows in their writing.  I also suspect that Writer A is, underneath, more confident about their writing so they can accept criticism of it in a way that the defensive Writer B can not.  

I've heard of several writing workshops where the writer is banned from even asking questions of clarification.  That seems too extreme, but I think writers should generally keep quiet. Sometimes in class I have to stop Writer B mid-explanation because they need to understand that they can't be there to explain to every reader.  If it's not on the page, it's not on the page and no amount of verbal explanations are going to make up for that.  

If you suspect you're inclined to being a Writer B - and let's face it, we all have our moments of defensiveness - then try to control your impulses and just listen.  One of my breakthrough moments came when my work was being workshopped by someone who I knew held very strong political opinions.  They didn't like what they were reading, which was hardly surprising since it was contrary to their beliefs. I started to defend my characters then suddenly realised that it was a waste of time because they were never going to agree with what my characters were doing.  But if I argued or defended my writing, I wasted time that I could use to get feedback from other members of the group, and that's what I wanted.  So I stopped being defensive, thanked them for their feedback, then asked the rest of the group for their comments.   Which were plentiful, and very useful to me in improving my writing.  

If you're being workshopped, try to be like Writer A not Writer B.  You'll get so much more from the session.  


rodgriff said...

Yes, true up to a point, but it could just be that writer A is an introvert and writer B is an extrovert. It's worth looking at something like the MBTI personality inventory and the theories behind such things. Extrovert tend to have to verbalism their thoughts in order to make sense of things, whereas with an introvert more of the processing is internal.
It's not the complete answer to everything but it does give some explanation to the ways that one kind can annoy the other, as I'm sure would have happened in your mythical workshop.
Two lessons from this, one is that such analyses a can be helpful in forming character, the other is that awareness of these traits can help a person to make the best of their talents. It may be worth writer A finding some time to tell the others what he of she got out of the session, just to check that they didn't get the wrong end of the stick. Equally writer B might try to develop the habit of making notes rather than verbalizing as they went along, partly to avoid annoying the others and partly so as to have a record for later reference.
Finally it has to be said that the two types working together would probably make a better job for both of them, which is why MBTI ins used such a lot in team development, something writers don't do much, but they can use the lessons.

Sarah Duncan said...

I agree that the personality type of the writer will affect their reaction in class. But whatever their personality, they'll get more from workshopping if they keep quiet, listen attentively and take notes.

I love doing personality tests and in the past I've had characters take them - which is another jolly form of working on the book without actually writing it.

rodgriff said...

Sure, I agree about listening, and I'm glad to find someone else who knows about personality tests.