Six Ways To Improve Discussions

We thrive on good discussions.

There’s nothing as stimulating as a debate about an element of the craft of writing. As workshop participants, we’re encouraged to talk about these elements of craft with passion and tact.

As witness to and leader of nearly 200 workshop meetings, I’ve figured out a few things that help discussions flow. Our discussions are usually stellar, but, since we’re always trying to improve ourselves and our writing, I’d like to offer these six suggestions for improving our discussions as well.

1. Talk to each other, not the writer.

It’s tempting to talk to the writer, but don’t. The writer can’t respond, so when you address your comments to the writer, you’re creating a one-sided conversation. Talk to the other workshop participants. Better yet, see #2.

2. Ask questions.

This opens the floor for a debate. For example, if you say, “I think the use of the word lamb gave the poem a religious/Christian undertone. Did anyone else think that?” Workshop members now have a chance to weigh in.

3. Challenge each other to dig deeper.

If someone says something you don’t quite understand, ask him/her to clarify. Sometimes a simple “What do you mean by that?” will expose assumptions about a text—and this kind of stuff is very helpful to writers.

4. Do not give a laundry list of your responses.

You’ve read the story/essay/poem and written a ton of comments. Great! Do not feel compelled to read them all aloud. Use one at a time. If you recite a list, nobody will listen.

5. Focus on elements of craft, not line edits.

Most of the time, line edits aren’t fun to talk about. When you discuss line edits, you run the risk of rewriting the piece for the author, and that’s not what we’ve gathered here to do. It’s usually better to talk about character development, plot, setting, dialogue, and, in the case of poetry, meter, rhythm, rhyme, form, and sound.

6. Listen.

It’s not as easy as you think. If you’re too busy thinking about the next thing you want to say, you won’t listen. And if you’re not listening, you’re not going to ask questions or challenge the speaker or move the conversation forward. So here’s a tip: Write down the thoughts that occur to you during the discussion and save them for a moment when the conversation naturally pauses. At the very least, you’ve written it down for the author—the only person who really needs to hear it.

I’d love to hear from you about your techniques for good discussions. How should we talk about writing in the context of a writing workshop? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.