“Don’t Write Off the Comments of Workshop Readers—Even If They Are All Idiots”

In her article “Workshopping,” Stephanie Vanderlice sums up the phenomenon of the writing workshop in a four-word sentence: “Writer, meet your reader” (147). Until I came across this article, I hadn’t really grasped the full potential of the workshop experience: my story returned to me with all those marks, all those questions, all that confusion, and (as I saw it) misreadings. And it was until very recently that I figured out how I might best use those reader comments in the story itself.

In a recent story, I had the following exchange between a dog trainer and a potential apprentice:

    “Is there anything you can do?” Jack asked her.
     “Some days you have ‘dog,’ and some days you don’t.” Susan said this looking at Jack, not the dog at his feet.
     “I do this thing for you—with Elinor—help you sort things out and—well, what do I need?” She paused while the dog rubbed her face against Jack’s thighs. “How about you take her outside.” She explained where to find the collar, a leash, pointed out a trail that wound behind the hill. Part of a nature retreat. “It should be empty.”

Next to this paragraph, a reader had written, “Confusing. I don’t know that Susan means about having dog. And I’m not sure how it applies.” Now, in the past, I might’ve had this imaginary conversation with the commenter, “How can anyone not know what this means?! Clearly, this story is not being written for illiterate idiots such as yourself. Go on your merry way.” But imagine—as Grover discovered at the end of his book—that I am the monster! I am the idiot! I have let down my reader! I have confused her! What should I do?

Well, I just took it for granted that these readers know what they are talking about, and I likely screwed something up in the translation from idea to draft. So, as part of the revision process, I decided to add her comment directly to the story. Here is the rewritten version:

     “Is there anything you can do?” Jack asked her.
     “Some days you have ‘dog,’ and some days you don’t.” She said this looking at Jack, not the dog at his feet.
     “I don’t know what that means.”
     “It means I’m used to being surrounded by animals that can’t be counted on.”
     “How does that apply to this situation?”
     “You are kind of lame.” She bent down and brushed some lingering dirt off of the dog. “Tunnel. Aunt. You aren’t exactly a superhero, warrior type, are you?”
     “Got it. Thanks for explaining.”
     “I do this thing for you—with Elinor—help you sort things out and—well, what do I need?” She paused while the dog rubbed her face against Jack’s thighs. “How about you take her outside.” She explained where to find the collar, a leash, pointed out a trail that wound behind the hill. Part of a nature retreat. “It should be empty.”

So, in short, when readers express their confusion, don’t write them off; instead, write them in.

Works Cited

Vanderslice, Stephanie. “Workshopping.” Teaching Creative Writing. Edited by Graame Harper. New York: Continuum, 2006. 147-157.

Randall Brown

About Randall Brown

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and teaches at the MFA in Creative Program at Rosemont College.