Feedback and Workshopping


When writing a first draft, most writers feel that privacy helps.

You want the freedom to write without hearing opinions that might interfere. Your mother's criticism, or your best friend saying it didn't make any sense, might stop your flow of words. Conversely, you might have rave reviews from family and friends that turn off your own critical eye, and make you less inclined to improve your first draft. But after you have had the chance to read your draft and make your own changes, it's helpful to get a trusted reader's response.

After editing, comes sharing. But you might be afraid to show your work to anyone. After all, your fragile, tender heart is on the page, and someone's going to come and walk all over it. That's how it can feel when you first show your work to another reader for feedback. Often when we first have an audience, what we really want is praise and acceptance, because we're human. We need love. But if we are serious about becoming writers — whose attention needs to remain on the work at hand, and at bettering the writing — then we need to take one important step: we need to make sure that we know the difference between ourselves and our writing.

I am not my poem. I am a human who's written a poem…

Say that a few times to yourself. The sooner this becomes embedded in your mind, the easier receiving feedback will become.

HOWEVER. There are various ways of offering feedback. If done with kindness and genuine support, then it can be most helpful. If done in a way which seems to be more about putting the writer down personally, or belittling the writer and his or her work, then it can often be damaging, not to mention hurtful. For this reason it is very important that you trust who you show your work to, and know that their intention is to offer their honest opinion in order to make your writing better. In this course, one of your readers is your instructor, a person whose focus is on making suggestions to strengthen the work. But you will most likely want to have another person look at your work, too, to offer their opinions on whether the poems are working.

Some suggestions around this:

  • Choose someone who wants to do this.
  • Give them time to look at the poem, read it, take it away and make comments on it. Pressure to do so on the spot is not helpful.
  • You can direct the feedback. Ask them to go beyond "It's good, I like it," or "I don’t like it." Ask them to point out the places that they enjoyed, say why they like it, or what isn't working for them. It's perfectly reasonable to ask for praise when you need it — and you're probably already aware of the places that may not quite work yet. Ask if there are any spots in the piece that they don't understand or that they wanted to skip over as they read it. You can tell them to ask questions!
  • Thank them!

Then, what do you do with feedback?

You read it, and let it sink in a bit. Then you look at it again, and imagine doing what has been suggested. How does that feel to you? If, for example, the person giving feedback has suggested that the real heart of your poem begins in the second stanza, therefore cutting out the first four lines entirely, does that make sense to you when you give it a try? (A word of advice: if you are afraid of making such drastic cuts, just keep the words you discard in another file, for potential use later. Sometimes it feels like you're cutting the best words, your favourite images, etc., and they might be useful in another piece) Make a second file, and try a new version of the same piece. Save your work as you go, with titles marked for easy reference (i.e., "Salad Poem, version 2").

Remember, too, that what you've been offered is the reader's opinion, just as you have had an opinion about all the writing that you've ever read. You may disagree, and that's okay. This is not about "writing by committee." But honest and helpful feedback can be so valuable in the process of editing work, because someone has taken the time to help identify places in your writing that don't quite work for them, places that lay low when you want them to rise up.

Once you've received feedback from your instructor, workshop-mate (or anyone else that you've trusted with your work), read it carefully. Then get up, walk around, get a drink of water, read a couple of poems or stories by your favourite writer, and come back to your desk. Read what they've said again. Then, open a new document and paste in the old poem, script, or prose. Try making the changes they've suggested, try diving into it a little deeper. See what comes.

Go back to the lists you will find in each genre that guide you to ask questions of your work:

Do any of these questions clarify the challenges you have now with your piece?

Writers' Groups

Writing is, by its nature, a solitary kind of art-making. Most writers need quiet and solitude in order to write, although others do end up being quite creative on trains, in cafes, in kitchens surrounded by chaos.

Sometimes, though, writers get together and write. They might meet once a week or once a month, and one poet might offer a prompt or exercise for them to try. Then, they might read what they've written aloud, and then talk about the writing process, submissions — really, anything at all to do with the writing life. This is one type of writers' group.


You might think about starting your own workshop. If you'd like to start that up, take a look at the General and Videos section on "Workshopping/Writers' Groups."

Before sharing your writing, offer your reader some direction. Let them know your work is still in progress. You may give your reader a little context for what you've written. For example, "This poem is written based on an exercise and the sense imagery is supposed to be forefront." You can also ask your reader to pay attention to something that you want them to think about. To get an idea of what you want feedback on, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are you concerned about in your draft?
  • What do you get the feeling isn't working just yet?
  • What stands out for you?

Here are some sample writing workshop rules you could work with.

Rules for Workshopping

During the workshop, you'll be contributing feedback to others writers' works in progress. Follow these rules to keep the feedback constructive:

  1. Be specific: not "I liked it," or "Needs work." You must specifically name what you are commenting on.
  2. Sandwich your feedback: begin with something positive, and then introduce what needs further work. End with a specific, positive comment.
  3. Direct all feedback to the piece, not the writer. For example, instead of saying "you don't have any character standing out as a protagonist," you would write, "The story doesn't have a clear protagonist."
  4. Pair your critique with suggestion. From the example in number three, you could offer a specific suggestion to the author: "Try writing a list of what each character does in the action, to see if one of them feels like the main driver behind the story — then write a version from that character's point of view."

Have you thought about blogging your creative writing? You can post your reworked drafts, and invite helpful comments from your readers. You can have effective feedback circles online that work just as well as in-person writers' groups.