Non-Billable Hours
By Mary Hutchings Reed
February 1, 2013

We’ve been writing together since April and have written past any blocks; returned to the path fromdiversionary research frolics; and been inspired by the writings of our favorite authors. But even as the manuscript grows, we might be feeling a bit of insecurity. Is it any good? Will anybody want to read it? If they read it, will they get it?

The only way to answer these questions is to let someone else — many someone elses — read it. But who? And when? We’ve said before that our usual first readers — friends and/or family — are not the right folks to give feedback. There are more critics in this world than there are true friends. Keep the latter and hire the former. Useful feedback must be objective and can be purchased from several different sources: a class, a writing group or a paid editor.

The start of the year, when resolutions are made and broken, might be a good time to consider either a class or a workshop. There are a number of college writing programs in this city, and most offer night or Saturday classes or workshops, most of which will include a critique of 10 or so pages as part of the class. This is a good starting point, and you are likely to meet writers at your level, some of whom may belong to writing groups and may invite you to join theirs. Writing groups typically are like book clubs — informal groups of writers who exchange manuscripts and come together weekly or so to critique each other and share ideas. Some writing groups are more like workshops, meeting regularly with a paid leader who guides the discussion and offers a written critique; others are more like some book clubs, more social than literary.

Now is also a good time to plan summer vacations, and literary magazines such as Poets and Writers and Writers Digest are full of ads this time of year for summer literary workshops — usually weeklong intensive festivals of writing, with critique workshops led by published authors, panel discussions on writing issues, author readings and a chance to pitch your manuscript to agents and editors. Some admit members based on submission of about 10 pages of manuscript; others are open admission. Don’t hesitate to apply to those that are “juried” — they don’t expect that you’ve already got a Pulitzer — but if you are admitted, you can rest assured your writing is in the ballpark.

We’re lucky to be so close to Iowa City, home of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. This festival is first-come, first-served and includes both weekend and weeklong sessions. It’s a great introduction to the world of writing workshops, and you’ll meet lots of fellow writers. I got my first third-party validation for my writing from an instructor at my first Iowa session, and a very useful critique. He told me I had a strong “voice,” but that I had to learn to write against it — meaning, I couldn’t rely on my voice to get me through a novel. I had to work on the other aspects, especially building scenes through the use of telling details. It was great advice because it told me where to look to improve my second, third and subsequent drafts.

A good instructor, workshop leader or group will give you encouragement and criticism. Attorney-writers have a great advantage in knowing how to accept and evaluate criticism.

It does take some courage to participate in a workshop, either a one-time session or an ongoing one. You’ll be baring your soul as well as your writing. No matter how strong your ego, you will feel a bit vulnerable. You risk being misunderstood. You risk failure. You will be confused. A scene you’ve slaved over still doesn’t work. There will be several different opinions as to why it doesn’t. Some are right; some are wrong. All you will know for sure is that it doesn’t work, and you, the author, are the only one who can fix it.

Too many writers become wedded to every precious word they’re written. When someone suggests it doesn’t work, or that they take away something totally different than what was intended, the writer who becomes defensive misses the opportunity to improve his or her work. Workshop criticism is not a personal attack; it’s a comment on the work. “I’m not a bad writer, I just wrote a sentence that can be improved.” A favorite aphorism of experienced workshoppers: “You’ve got to kill your darlings.”

Accustomed to the team approach to redrafting, tweaking and wordsmithing for exactitude, we lawyers should be able to bring a positive attitude to the workshop process. (We’re not known for having weak egos.)

Workshopping is the baby step you need to take on the path toward publication and sharing your work. It is the step that turns the hobby of writing into the craft. And it is also the step that turns a sometimes lonely, solitary business, into a convivial and communal one.