one of the most important traits you need to become a published writer



I’m taking part in a memoir/novel workshop that starts this Saturday, and I’m psyched.

Although in general, I have mixed feelings about workshops.

The right workshop can be a thing of wonders, but I never found the ‘right’ one: I found, instead, nooks of ‘right’ scattered both online and off.

I would start a class with enthusiasm and then, at some point, drop out, not because I thought it was a waste of time (it wasn’t) or because the other writers were stupid and untalented (they weren’t), but because critiquing others’ work ate up so much time and energy that the benefits didn’t seem to justify the compulsive-obsessive effort I put in.

I’ve always found it a bit odd that aspiring writers would seek advice and guidance from other aspiring writers. If you’re an aspiring brain surgeon, do you go to another aspiring brain surgeon and ask, “Hey, can you show me how to saw open this guy’s head?” Or do you go to the best brain surgeon you have access to, who has accomplished what you want to accomplish?

Admittedly, it’s a flawed – and extreme – analogy, and doesn’t take into account the other reasons for participating in a workshop, such as the sense of community, the support, the commitment to produce the required work, as well as the pleasure of talking about writing.

Critiquing is a skill like anything else, and the way to get better at anything is of course to practice practice practice. But when it comes down to learning the craft – and not just the craft but how to make it serve your vision – I can’t help thinking that the better investment is to seek professional help.

Seek out mentors: published, accomplished writers and editors who hire out their services; you can pay them to give a critique of your stuff. Revising a novel with a professional’s one-on-one assistance will teach you the most in the shortest amount of time.

It will also hurt in a way that workshops tend not to.

Real growth – and this applies to writing as much as anything else – is painful. The only way you can make your story better is to fix the things that are wrong with it, and often the only way you can learn what’s wrong with it is by getting somebody else to tell you.

This means, however, that that same person has to a) have the depth and knowledge of craft to be able to recognize what’s not working b) convey that to you in a constructive manner and c) not care overmuch about hurting your feelings, either because they know we’re all professionals here, putting aside our egos to get the job done…or because they’re a sadistic sociopath.

My advice is to avoid the sociopaths.

Also avoid family members and friends (some of whom may be sociopathic themselves, although that’s beside the point).

Learn to love and seek out the tough, constructive criticism delivered by knowing professionals. After all, that’s part of the job description: once you’re published, that criticism will come from agents and editors whose own careers are riding on the quality of what you produce.

In my experience – and keep in mind this is only my experience – many aspiring writers can’t do it.

And it’s not a question of talent – often the most talented are also the most defensive, so accustomed have they become to ego-stroking. Instead of being open to change, willing to re-envision – re/vision – their work, they throw up excuses and rationalizations for why they shouldn’t have to change anything.

And as a result, they don’t progress.

They don’t progress not because they’re not talented, but because they’re not teachable.

And to be teachable, you have to be open, unarmored, and vulnerable.

That is where the power is, the strength : being able to look at your work through someone else’s eyes, seeing what they see and making decisions according to what is best for the manuscript, not your ego or self-image. Find people who are better than you, who know more than you, who are willing to invest their time and attention in you…and listen to them.

If you can do that, you are way ahead of the game.

You are teachable.

Writers’ Online Workshops (Writer’s Digest)

Zoetrope Virtual Studio


Nov 17, 2009

11 comments · Add Yours

This is exactly why I went to USC. I got to study with Syd Field, Janet Fitch, Rachel Resnick, and Sid Stebel, and their advice was invaluable. One of my favorite moments was when Field discussed at length pages of my screenplay and ended said discussion, “With all due respect, Will, it’s just bullshit.”

One problem I have found is that not all writers can so easily set aside their egos, nor separate themselves from their work, and that comes through in the workshop environment. The better teachers help facilitate that. I think Syd knew not that I had enough ego to be able to handle my script being called bullshit but rather that I had set it aside well enough to know he was right; I knew he wasn’t calling me bullshit.


I agree with every single word in this post. Thanks for saying them. They should be said more often.


I laughed at the “bullshit” remark.

I remember an article — I think from Poets & Writers — that talked about the softening up of workshops — how a comment like Syd’s would have been typical back then but unusual now. My own tendency in workshops is to be blunt — because I’ve gotten so used to people tearing my own stuff apart, I take it for granted, as part of the process — and I’ve had to remind myself to pull back a bit, that it’s not always appropriate, that some people *will* take it personally, that they’re still learning the process. Good point about how the teacher needs to stress that you are not your work (even if you kind of are…), and in any case the work isn’t set in stone; the whole point is to make it better.

I think the world of Rachel — it’s actually her workshop I’m taking to help me get through this novel — I did a one-day workshop with her a couple of months ago and was impressed by her critiques and the way she handled everybody — and I’m a big fan of Love Junkie. And Janet Fitch — I would love to be in a workshop with her.


I wish I could *find* someone to tear apart my work, because I am fighting to get my fiction published. I’ve had success with my nonfiction (4 books and numerous articles plus several columns), but am still struggling with the fiction. Unfortunately, I am jobless at the moment (a true “starving artist”) and can’t afford to pay anyone. Yet I am the most highly published writer I know who would help me. LOL Most people are too busy to help you unless you are either in a critique or writer’s group with them, or they are your best friend. Unfortunately, I haven’t the luxury of either.

My romance fantasy has had marginal success with agents and a few high end publishers asking to see more. But in the long run there was always something not quite right, even though they all “loved the plot/world/concept.” Tor was going to take it but it had too much romance. Hah! So, I have been drilling through the romance markets.

Your article was good and I agree about the brain surgeon analogy. But what happens when you can’t find or afford a high end “brain surgeon” to check your work? And isn’t it all just speculation and personal opinion anyway?

Christine Church


It sounds like you’re close to publication, which is a very frustrating place to be — the ‘almosts’ and ‘near-misses’ — but everybody (except for the exceptions that only prove the rule) goes through that on the road to publication — if it helps at all, just regard that as merely another check point you have to push through.

Opinion, personal speculation, chance — I remember an editor who loved Bloodangel, but had to turn it down because she had already accepted another book that was in the same vein — yes, definitely, they play a huge role. The way I always viewed it, is that there is a level of objective craft/skill that any writer does need to achieve to be ‘publishable’, but once you get beyond that you are playing in a different arena where you need the ducks of the publishing gods to line up just so. If you know what I mean. Which is why it’s all the more important to persist, persist, persist. I remember reading somewhere that “most people give up only five feet from their goal” — it’s the last mile of any marathon that’s the hardest — and it’s easy to see why. You get exhausted. You start to doubt yourself.

When I was at a point similar to where you are now, I found Zoetrope Virtual Studios (the link is at the bottom of the above post) to be a godsend. I found some fantastic writers on that site, all very talented and working at a high level of craft, a large number of whom went on to be published (and one won a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts), including one who landed the kind of advance that enabled him to quit his job as a fry cook and write full time, and many of whom I am still in touch with today. I would suggest taking full advantage of the opportunities for community that the Internet offers — explore the online forums and workshops — because the talent and knowledge and will to help is all out there, and it’s free (or rather: it comes in exchange for your own effort and insight). You can, over time, develop your own little community of killer beta readers. You might even meet some of them in person.

Someone who really knows her stuff is Jordan Rosenfeld (and she’s a lovely person to boot). She might be able to give you some more advice on this.

You could also check out the writer’s digest community, hang out, connect with other writers you think you could learn from. (And if you do go there, be sure to friend me!).

Hope this helps. Keep me updated. :)


Thanks, I’m so glad to hear that — I never truly know for sure, I just kind of write these things and put them out there.


I like your brain surgery analogy, but while the other workshop attendees may not be experienced writers, they’re probably experienced readers, right? So they’re effectively a focus group.

Having said that, I agree with the article. An objective, knowledgeable viewpoint has immense value.


Getting *anyone’s* reaction & viewpoint is valuable — I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

The difference lies in the level of insight the reader is able to give you about what is and is not working (and the possibilities for fixing it). The nuts-and-bolts shoptalk.

And you’re right, some of the people best able to do that are not writers at all. But the writers (& editors) are probably easier to find.


I have a circle of trusted readers who give it to me with both barrels on critiques. They are all prolific readers and/or consumers of pop culture; a couple are very good at rooting out bad sentence structure, etc. I prefer that to dropping my writing into a room of aspiring writers. Feels too much like throwing a chicken leg in the middle of a pack of wolves.

Of course, I may just be terribly antisocial.

Read Stephen King’s “On Writing” for his take on writers’ groups and workshops. Well worth the read!


Great comment. One of my most trusted beta readers is also an avid reader but not an aspiring writer whatsoever. When I’m writing, she’s one of the people I think about as my Ideal Reader, and it’s effective — if I’m in doubt about a section I’ll think, Could I get this past her? and usually the answer is immediate & definitive.

The problem with many aspiring writers is that they simply don’t *read* enough, and they don’t understand how this handicaps them.


The Ideal Reader concept is so helpful. I never really understood that until King. His wife Tabby is his–and I like to write for min. However, my toughest critic is actually a friend of my wife’s. She once took an entire lunch to kindly go over the holes, inconsistencies, etc. in my MS. Saved me from some real embarrassment, I can tell you. I renamed a small town in my novel in her honor.

Aspiring writers who don’t read are like aspiring marathoners who drive to their mailbox.


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