The Idiot’s Guide To Workshopping
Copyright © by Debra Orton, 3/10/10


Like dumping a chamber pot out of a second story window in medieval times, a favorable outcome at a writer’s workshop requires sure hands, quick reflexes, and a certain talent for ignoring undesired consequences—and that’s just the reviewing part.  Writers, like hapless pedestrians on the cobblestone street, appreciate second-story prudence, as well as a little warning shout before the effluence gets dumped.  So, before taking up—or walking under—any potentially malodorous material, it behooves the aspiring writer-reviewer to become familiar with the proper terminology, trope, and technique in the hopes of avoiding covering one’s self (or one’s peers) in caca.  Those who wish to be Masters of the Mechanics of Metaphorical Manure, read on.  I give you: 


The Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping

First, the lexicon:  

(“Lexicon” is a Greek-sounding word that means “vocabulary”—but implies that your vocabulary, and therefore your education, and therefore your writing, is better than theirs.)  Often times, learning the workshop lingo involves copious nodding and smiling to buy time to decipher unknown acronyms (or the online equivalent in chat-room-based courses: typing a  and googling possible word combinations as other students make inane comments and misuse the word “lexicon”.)  To save the gentle writer any unneeded smileys (or similes, for that matter) let us begin with…

The Dictionary of Writing Workshop Abbreviations

CV: This Latin phrase, Concido Vacuus, loosely translates as “cut the crap.”  This is most often used as an abbreviation for a one-page document, usually fantastical but sometimes simply innane, that is either sorely in need of a reality check, or written in 24 point font. 

MS: Although every writer is familiar with this acronym, no writer’s dictionary would be complete without including it: Microsoft.  MS Word is the de facto standard for all writing (novel, short story, or other crap) these days.  It checks spelling.  It checks grammar.  It checks for misplaced prepositions and dangling subordinate clauses.  It even checks that you put those damn commas inside the double quotations.  Because of this, a seasoned writer no longer refers to the document by name, but rather announces that MS edited (and approved) it.  (The astute reader might wonder why the ‘s’ is capitalized—expecting that the people who make these abbreviations could spell—but that reader would be Mistaken Sorely.) 

PB: Particularly Boring is used with prose in need of something to liven it up.  (“Pb” also happens to be the chemical symbol for lead—implying that one should “get the lead out.”)  Writers often see the letters ‘PB?’ written in the top, right-hand corner of their manuscript to indicate that excitement is lacking.  The best fix for this problem is to add exclamation points (!!) to the prose—the more the better!  Beware: Editors rarely accept books tagged as PB because the market is pint-sized (read “your MS will float like a lead balloon”).  Note that a famous (and expensive) illustrator can sometimes save a PB manuscript: Do you want to get paid, or do you want to get published!?!!

POD: Party On Demand is a welcome addition to the writer’s (and publisher’s) lexicon.  In the interest of saving time and money, publishing-related celebrations are no longer scheduled in advance.  Those rare authors deserving of POD’s are notified by their agents when a party has been called in.  The proud writer simply stands back while the balloons, box wine, and tasteless finger-food arrive on a UPS truck.  Just add hot air.


POV: Probably Optional Verbiage (William Faulkner is known to have struggled with this problem his entire life.)  Write ‘POV?’ in the margin when you have no idea what’s wrong with someone’s writing but find it too boring to continue reviewing.  Bear in mind (yes, it’s ‘bear’ not ‘bare’): Self-help dieting tomes are usually comprised of second POV as the firsts and thirds have been skipped to avoid overindulging.  (Don’t confuse POV with PV!  PV stands for Particularly Vacuous and relates to verbiage that is in search of a definite subject, or, at least, a well-endowed model.)


YA: Yearning for Adverbs (also “Yearning for Adjectives.”)  Adverbs (and their stalwart cousins, adjectives) are sorely missing from most modern manuscripts and should be copiously inserted.  Really.  Really truly.   (N.B.  The exception to this rule is books written for adult masochists—usually labeled with the euphemism, “Literature.”  In this case—and only in this case—any extra words are considered over-the-top: Get to the hopefully-very-sharp point as quickly and succinctly as humanly possible.  Really.  Really truly.)  


Caution: Your fellow (unpublished) workshoppers may try to excise your carefully crafted A-words in the hope of secretly reducing your chances of being published.  Remember: ‘Don’t be a fool; Adverbs rule.’  (Shakespeare was famously workshopped and had his ‘wordy, over-wrought, melodramatic’ Hamlet soliloquy (“To be or not to be?”) chopped down to: ‘Just do it.’  Would you rather be writer or a shoe?  Enough said.


Once the writer is familiar with the necessary terminology (practice with your cat—they are self-cleaning), the next step requires understanding how to employ the common euphemisms used for offering feedback.  This is where good technique really keeps the poop off the people! 

The workshop world is full of distraught reviewers (not to mention humiliated writers!) who gave (or got) honest feedback instead of using pre-defined and well-accepted euphemisms.  Don’t make that stinky and embarrassing mistake!

No one in the writing world gives honest feedback--except editors, and they only do it to fill time lest they show up promptly for dinner, revealing to their spouses how cushy their jobs really are (see MS above).  Use this handy guide to keep everyone unsullied and smiling.  


How to Give Workshop Submission Feedback

To begin with, divide your critique into three parts, plus a closing: 


Part 1) The Good: Make up something nice to say about the submission.  No need for honesty here (see section 3), but impress your classmates by remembering the obscure name of a character—especially one that has been intentionally misspelled by the author!  

Example: “I like how you dive right in and tell us about Bhil and Genaphir standing in the passport renewal line for hours.”

Part 2) The (well-disguised) Bad: Select a few phrases from the list below and use them in the first page or two of the submission.  Expert reviewers never read past the first page (unless the submission is actually publishable, in which case the writer wouldn’t be workshopping it in the first place) so don’t waste your time reviewing anything more!

What to Say = What It Means.

Good Plot = Writing Sucks.

Good Characterization = Plot Sucks.

Good Dialogue = Characters Suck.

Good Description = If you say one more word about the [rug, sky, hair] I’ll barf.

Clever Plot Twist = That makes no sense. 

Neat Trick = That is blatant ruse—no sane reader would believe it.

Interesting = Delete that part.

Add More Dialogue = Delete that part.

A Little Slow = Delete that part.

You Covered a Lot = Delete that part.

This Scene Could Be Stronger = Delete that part.

Really = Delete that part. 

Nice = Everything else is trite, hackneyed or banal.  Did you plagiarize that line? 

You have all the pieces to succeed = The writing, plot, and characters suck. Don’t quit your day job.

Part 3) The Ugly: Begin this section with the words “These are just nit picks” or “Just a few final thoughts”  or “I’m sure you already know this but”  (The actual words don’t matter as long as you give the impression that what follows is not really worth reading.)  After that, you write what you really think—but be sure to preface each comment with a self-deprecating disclaimer:

Example 1: I know nothing about [your genre] so this probably doesn’t matter, but your grammar is dreadful.  

Example 2: I’m hopelessly pedantic so no one else will notice, but why would you waste my time with such poorly written schlock?


Part 4) The Closing: Finally, pick an appropriately descriptive phrase from the choices given below, add a smarmy line (‘Hugs’ works well,) and sign your penname.  It’s that easy.

I hope these comments are helpful = I write so much better than you do. 

Thanks for Sharing = I would never buy this.

I’d love to read your completed manuscript = Thank you for being nice when you reviewed my work.

This was a great read = Thanks for keeping it short.

Good Luck or Best Wishes = You’re going to need all the luck you can get because you have no talent.


Successfully navigating the noxious perils of a writer’s workshop can be challenging for the neophyte chambermaid, but it can be as easy as 1, 2, 3 (plus a touch of smarmy) to expertly toss—and avoid—the shit.  Remember: those who can, do; those who can’t (yet?) workshop; and those in need of fresh frocks, satirize.


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