To Share Your Writing—or Not?

I recently attended two productive and gratifying writing events: one a week-long workshop, the other a three-day retreat. These events were, at once, similar yet very different from one another. On my long drive home from North Carolina, I contemplated those differences, as well as the impacts of these two events on my writing habits and my current project.


The major difference in those two events was the respective instructor/teacher’s philosophy about sharing our writing, which could be a current work-in-progress (WIP) such as a short story or novel, or something produced that day for a writing exercise.

Sharing Shutdown

The instructor for the first event is resolute in his opinion that sharing can often shut writers down. We too easily step into the comparison trap and the “I’m not good enough” chatter begins in our heads. It can leave us feeling exposed and raw if we don’t get what we want or expect from it.

So he presented each exercise for our own contemplation and response in the privacy, comfort, and shelter of our own minds and notebooks. The time between workshop sessions was spent independently working on our own manuscripts.

As a group, the attendees seemed pleased with this approach and everyone was massively productive during the week. We learned a great deal about one another’s projects, but no one read their work aloud or handed off printed pages to other attendees. We left satisfied with what we had accomplished on our respective writing projects.

Sharing As Validation

At the second event, we rounded out every session with each person reading her written response to that session’s exercise. Additionally, each day ended with a shared evening meal, followed by the chance to read a piece of our work aloud. Reading aloud was never required, but the opportunity was there for everyone who wanted to take it. By the end of the four days, nearly all of us had shared words we had written, either in a writing exercise or from our WIP.

On the last night, I shared a scene from my novel that I had been avoiding writing for . . . well, let’s just say, a long time. I knew it was going to tax my writing skills and be emotionally draining, too. But I had started it at the earlier workshop, and I got exactly the reaction I hoped for from the small audience that night. It still needed work, but now I knew I was heading in the right direction.

First-Time Trembles

I’ve been writing and attending events like these long enough that I see value in both approaches and am comfortable either way. But they can be intimidating for any writer who has never had a chance to share their work.

I recall my trembling hands, holding my short story manuscript the first time I read aloud to a group. I wasn’t sure the words would come. I also remember participating in my first critique group, wondering if I had “what it takes” to be a writer.

Unpredictable Outcomes

I’ve observed how individuals respond differently to the feedback they’re given–some becoming defensive and angry, some accepting it, as uplifting, with an open heart and an intention to improve. And I’ve seen how that feedback can be delivered with vitriol or with love, kindness, and honorable intent.

I have listened to writers share their opinions on a manuscript when the author never requested advice in the first place.

I have seen writers who–given the chance, but not required to read aloud–felt shamed into reading, obligated to share with the group or else be the only one “too chicken” or embarrassed to show their work.

I’ve heard about an author who shared a piece of writing in confidence with fellow authors and found out later they had discussed it, without permission, outside the original, and supposedly trusted, circle of sharing.

I know authors who have wilted and stopped writing completely after they were courageous enough to open themselves up to judgment from other writers.

I know writers who have grown and improved at their craft, their passion, because they shared their WIPs among a trusted and supportive group of kindred spirits.

Knowing if and when to share your work and with whom is an important decision that only you can make for yourself.

What has your experience been with sharing your work? Are you eager or uncomfortable doing it? Do you see benefits or disadvantages? Do you and/or your critique group have a set of rules or guidelines you follow when sharing your work and reading or hearing the work of others?

I’d love to hear your opinion and experiences in the comments below.


Comments

To Share Your Writing—or Not? — 8 Comments

  1. Roberta Burton on said:

    I’m assuming you went to the retreat I went to last year near Waynesville. I’ve never been in a class or retreat where I was forced to share my work. I love to share my work because I always come away with helpful comments. From those comments, I have learned that some people don’t get what I’m writing, or I have opened a wound the reader would have preferred to leave closed. I have also had a person in one of my critique groups write about me (not flattering) in a class where most everyone knew who he was writing about.

    What I have learned from all this is that some people will love my work and others will hate it, but most remember it.

    • Memorability is a good thing to strive for as an author! We must have thick skins in this endeavor and be prepared to receive unexpected reactions. The primary questions to ask ourselves are: Am I satisfied with those words on the page? Are they true and authentic in what I wanted to accomplish with this piece? In all cases, what we finish with will appeal to some and not to others. And we must be okay with that.

  2. William P. Cannon on said:

    I am affected by the way I perceive myself after I submit myself to critique. Most of the time I come away depressed, because no one ever seems to like my writing. I seldom receive any positive reviews and when I do, I often fail to rely on the validity of it. I have come to believe less in myself as a writer as a result of being critiqued. I still offer the stories and poems up to these other writers whose motives I am never quite sure of. I like to believe that they are all like me and willing to say only good things, no matter how I feel. I do not ever want to think I have broken a writer’s spirit.

    • The balance is precarious between encouragement and useful feedback that might not always be positive. When a writer is in a group that provides only negative (or only positive) feedback, they may be in the wrong group. I don’t see how it could be at all helpful to give a writer (or to receive) only one or the other. But I am also uncomfortably aware that some people focus too much (only?) on the negative without any regard for whether or not they are being helpful. A writer who is serious about improving their work won’t be broken by “negative” feedback delivered in a respectful way. If it is presented in a caustic manner, it’s time to move on.

  3. I’ve felt all these reactions at times, but I think the most helpful thing is for the writer to determine in advance what he/she wants from a reader or critique group. It helps to ask a question or state an issue first.

    • This is an excellent piece of advice. When we are clear about the things we need feedback regarding, it is easier to keep the conversation focused and to glean what is helpful (or not).

  4. Marion Burkett on said:

    I have to admit I have not had the pleasure to attend a writing group or retreat. It is on my bucket list because I know I would find it enlightening in many ways. I share my works with other writers and friends, and their critiques, bee it good or bad, is a lesson to improve my craft. A writer must not be so thin skinned to allow negative reviews to lift their pen from the paper, because as a writer it will not always be easy to please certain readers with their stories. Yet, their advice, suggestions and negativity are invaluable. I will say I find that writers are probably the bravest people I know because as a writer you willingly leave a bit of your heart and soul open to be bruised by harshness.

    • You are so right, Marion. We open our souls and bare our hearts when we share. That feels vulnerable but unless we are willing to do that, readers will never know our stories.

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