Apologies in advance to the creative writers among you, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that all writers — yes, journalists, copywriters, marketers-who-write, etc. — should take a creative writing workshop. One where your content gets picked apart by a group of skilled peers while you cower, mortified and angry, in the corner.
Actually, the point of this exercise is to not do that — the cowering part. But you’ll cower regardless.
The problem is your ego. I know this because I have a particularly insatiable ego. (Most writers do.) I actually think my story, whatever it is, is worth telling — all the time. In my voice. And this ego of mine ran unchecked for years, which means my writing never improved.
It just… idled.
Until I took my first real poetry workshop, that is. Granted, I like to write poetry — it’s the great love of my life. But the hours I spent workshopping poems have been even more useful to me as a copywriter and editor.
- Third-party feedback is king. There is nothing like a roomful of your peers questioning every line break. Most writers write; we don’t think we’re “choosing.” Especially in creative writing — we believe the muse has visited. (That’s your ego talking.) But writing is communication — and communication is about making smart choices. You can’t make better choices if you don’t know how.
- Accountability shortens the learning curve. In a workshop, you are expected to give great, critical feedback while maintaining eye contact; your peers then do the same for you. You must be both an editor and a writer and accountable for your choices in both capacities. When you’re accountable to others, you work harder and learn faster.
- Critical instinct is honed, not inborn. It’s hard to be objective about your own work — to “kill your darlings” and get rid of those 50-cent words and worn cliches — but getting better at it is a learned trait. The workshopping process is something you can take with you: Write. Review it quietly later. Red-pen the shit out of it. Read it out loud. Revise. Now rinse, repeat, and repeat again — alone, or with a writing partner.
- Egos shrink after repeated exposure. After my first really great writing workshop — with an instructor who thankfully shunned the “everybody’s special” approach endemic in certain writing circles — I cried all the way home. I ranted to my boyfriend, friends, parents. I even wrote to my mentor to ask if I was crazy to drop the course. She asked one pointed question: “Is she being critical for the sake of criticizing you, or is she trying to make you a better writer?” So I stayed — and stopped crying. And wrote some of the best stuff of my life up until that point.
- Learn to embrace risk — and new approaches. A good writing instructor is a constructive editor who can give you real solutions — who can teach you the art of the worthy risk. Likewise, your peers can provide writing insights that simply don’t occur to you. (After all, we don’t know what we don’t know.) One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, “Turn every poem upside down. Then revise, revise, revise.” Turns out I had a habit of writing pear-shaped poems, but until I started looking at my work upside-down, I neither recognized nor was able to resolve this pesky quirk.
There’s a dirty secret no one tells you when you decide to write for a living: you are never going to not need an editor. (As both an editor and a writer who needs editing, I can vouch for this.) You’re not perfect. You are going to have to be ruthless. Inspiration is not enough.
But as with all crafts, we can get better if we try.
Step one: leave your ego at the door.