Guest Post: Does Online Writers Workshopping Slow a Writer’s Growth?

by Jeremiah Tolbert

When I first decided to take up writ­ing as a seri­ous pur­suit, I fig­ured the best way to get started was to ask a writer for advice. My lucky break was that Connie Willis hap­pened to be in town to give a read­ing, and she gave me a won­der­ful tuto­r­ial in the basics; just Connie, her hus­band, and my wife, talk­ing for a cou­ple of hours in a Laramie book­store. I owe a lot to Connie’s early advice. It was basic stuff that I needed, like, sub­mit your work. Keep writ­ing. Go to workshops.

Of course she talked up real world work­shops like Clarion, but at the time, I didn’t think Clarion was some­thing I could ever swing, and I had barely begun to actu­ally write. But she also men­tioned in pass­ing hear­ing about some online writer’s work­shop for SF/F. This, I could do.

So I signed up for what was, at the time, the Del Rey Online Writer’s Workshop, and later was dropped by Del Rey and just became the OWW.

This is not an attack piece on the OWW, which you may be expect­ing after my slightly incen­di­ary title. It’s more about human nature, and how we kill each other with kind­ness sometimes.

I fin­ished my first sto­ries because I was eager to show off what I thought were sparkling ideas. This was before I dis­cov­ered that ideas are a dime a dozen. I was enam­ored with my ideas then. I thought my prose could use a lot of work, prob­a­bly, and it never even occurred to me to bother learn­ing things like plot­ting or characterization.

Boy, was I dumb as rocks. Problem was, my early sub­mis­sions to the work­shop did lit­tle to dis­abuse me of the idea. They had this rat­ing sys­tem where you could give a story 1–5 on a num­ber of cat­e­gories and then give detailed feed­back. And you had to give cri­tiques to be able to post stuff. Most of the other writ­ers were in the same place as me, or a lit­tle fur­ther ahead. Few of us had sold any­thing major.

I gar­nered a lot of 4–5 rat­ings on my early stuff. They had some­thing called the Editor’s Choice where pro­fes­sional authors, or Del Rey’s staff, would pro­vide a detailed cri­tique in the monthly newslet­ter. This was the brass ring you really wanted to gain, and I lucked out with a cou­ple of early pieces get­ting selected. Those cri­tiques were a great bal­ance of encour­ag­ing and help­fully pointed. But the rest of us… I think a lot of us were afraid of being too neg­a­tive to each other. If some­one joined the work­shop and was bru­tally hon­est, they found, over time, few peo­ple would return to read their work. There were a lot of folks to choose from.

I took rejec­tions pretty hard early on. I couldn’t under­stand it; the “work­shop” loved my stuff, didn’t it? How come I couldn’t sell any­thing? I was baf­fled. False con­fi­dence was a bitch to handle.

Also, after some time, I attempted to write things to impress oth­ers on the work­shop more than try­ing to write some­thing mean­ing­ful to myself. I bounced all over in tone, topic, genre. It was a great learn­ing expe­ri­ence, but I wasn’t writ­ing for the right rea­sons after a while. It took sev­eral years for me to start to ques­tion what I really had to say. I’m still ques­tion­ing myself on that quite a bit.

Eventually, I got lucky, sold a cou­ple of things. Continued fail­ing largely, though. I drifted from the work­shop as I matured a bit, but by the time I stopped pay­ing and using the ser­vice, I’d made friends with other writ­ers at my same gen­eral level of career, and we just handed sto­ries around via email.

That’s when things got a lot more pro­duc­tive, I think. After a few years of know­ing each other, we could be more hon­est. Critiques were more pointed. I learned a lot in that period of time, maybe more than when I was an active “struc­tured work­shop” participant.

I won­der if the work­shop slowed me down by giv­ing me too much praise early on from writ­ers like me who didn’t know any bet­ter yet. But maybe not. Too much dis­cour­age­ment would have shut me down entirely, as it did when I was a teen writer. The lead­ers of the work­shop , includ­ing Charles Coleman Finlay, did a great job build­ing a good com­mu­nity for fos­ter­ing tal­ent. Many writers–some I con­sider great friends– have come out of that com­mu­nity and gone on to amaz­ing careers.

Things turned out the way they did, and I can spec­u­late all day on how they could have been dif­fer­ent, but I’m com­fort­able with how things have turned out. I still have plenty of room for growth, and that’s the way I want it. But if a new writer were to ask me for advice, I think I’d tell them to take the early pos­i­tive cri­tiques with more skep­ti­cism than I did, and to also be more will­ing to lis­ten to the neg­a­tive view­points than I was. And write for your­self, above all others.

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Jeremiah Tolbert is a writer, photographer, and web designer living in Northeast Kansas.  His fiction has appeared in magazines including Fantasy,  and Interzone, and anthologies including Way of the Wizard. For additional information, visit his blog, where this post first appeared.

2 Responses

  1. Kaye Draper

    Agree! I’m still a newbie, but the first few things I submitted through on-line workshops just left me confused. For every one person that said I sucked, three more thought the story was awesome. Critiques of certain components were often contradictory and not so helpful (ie: “I really don’t care for first person point of view.”) It’s tough though, because one thing most people don’t have early on is access to any better source of critiques. If nothing else, these awkward times in on-line groups help to build confidence. Maybe we need to flounder through all of that in order to grow :)

  2. Karl

    Interesting. The format of OWW may indeed encourage “too-soft” critiques as you say, since the number of critiques you get may go down if you’re widely despised (or just slightly resented) for giving negative critiques. Critters.org may encourage more honesty, since members there are required to submit a certain number of critiques per month.

    But with any workshop made up of beginning writers, part of the problem is that you’re in a workshop made up of beginning writers — i.e. people who don’t know much of whence they speak. Critiquing, and reading for the purpose of critiquing is a learned skill in itself, and not an easy one.

    But still, even as i creep into the realm of “pro,” I’m more than a little wary of leaving OWW and Critters.org behind. The feedback I receive continues to be — on balance — helpful and interesting, and has occasionally saved my rear end from embarrassing blunders.

    Just as critiquing is a learned skill, so is learning to glean through the confusing jumble of contradictory and often flat-out wrong opinions you may get in reader critiques.