The Bubble Method: How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Workshop

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Community

There are many types of writing workshops out there, some more effective than others at giving you useful feedback on your writing.  Whether you’re new to the workshop scene or have been participating in critique sessions for a long time, there’s one workshop method that’s been proven time and again to help writers improve their writing.  Fast.  I call it the Bubble Method (though it has many names) and its purpose is to take the pressure off of the writer (that’s you) during the critique process so you can focus on what really matters: improving your writing.

Defending Your Work is Counterproductive

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced this.  You work really hard on a piece of writing.  You polish it, edit it, proofread it eight zillion times.  Your pour your heart and soul onto the page nurturing this fledgling idea into a mature, full-grown work.  Then you take it to your writing workshop or critique group, lay it gently on the altar of critique and watch as the vultures tear your baby apart.

OK, I’m being a little melodramatic.  But haven’t you ever had that knee-jerk reaction to swoop in and protect your writing when other writers start listing all the things they didn’t like about it?  Haven’t you ever feel like you needed to clarify what you “really meant” in your piece because those critiquing it didn’t “get” what you were trying to say?  Ever felt that impulse to defend your work?  Trust me, we’ve all been there.

But the thing to remember is that getting on the defensive–jumping in and trying to explain your work to those critiquing it–is counterproductive.  The reason it’s counterproductive is simple: when you’re busy defending your work, you’re not focusing on the feedback.

Think about it.  If you’re focused on rebutting or explaining away the points made during the critique, you’re not focused on listening.  In our multitasking culture, we’re taught to believe that it’s possible to do more than one thing at a time without sacrificing quality.  This belief is a lie.  If you’re dividing your attention between two or more tasks, then you’re not giving 100% to any of them.  The whole point of getting feedback on your work is to hear what other people have to say about your writing.  Wouldn’t it make sense to focus 100% of your energy on taking in and understanding that feedback?

When you’re busy defending your work, you’re not focusing on the feedback.
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Don’t Get Defensive, Get Active

The best way to focus 100% of your energy on the feedback is to listen.  That’s where the Bubble Method comes in.  In this style of workshop, the writer being critiqued is placed inside a “bubble” and is not allowed to talk during the discussion.  This means that while this writer can hear everything that is being said, he or she cannot participate in the critique.  The writer’s only job is to listen to the feedback and take it in.

Her are some tips to make the Bubble Method work for you:

1) Don’t speak for your piece.

Remember, you’re in the bubble, you’re not allowed to talk anyway.  Don’t worry about explaining or defending your piece.  Just listen.  After all, when your book or short story is all grown up and out in the world, you won’t be able to speak for it then either.  Ultimately, the writing has to speak for itself.

2)  Take LOTS of notes.

The best way to distract yourself from having that defensive impulse is to stay busy during the critique.  When I have my work critiqued, I become a note-taking fiend.  I write as fast as I can and I write down everything.  I label each comment with the initials of the person who said it, because when I come back and sort through my notes from the critique it’s useful to know who said what.  When you take notes, your focus is to capture everything down on paper so you don’t have time to get defensive.

3)  Ask questions at the end.

If any comments from the discussion seem confusing, make a note and ask for clarification at the end.  When I teach workshops, we always let the writer out of the bubble at the end of a critique so he or she can ask questions about things that came up during the discussion.  One caveat: if you do ask questions, make sure they are actual questions.  No fair camouflaging a defense or explanation of your work by tacking a question mark at the end.  Also, I’ve found that the best questions are ones that ask for clarification and suggestions.  Use your question time to make sure you walk away from the critique understanding exactly what was said and what you need to do next.

DIY MFA Workshop

We’ve launched a DIY MFA Workshop!  In this workshop, you’ll have a chance to get feedback from other writers on your first 500 words.  Any genre or type of writing is fair game and the workshop welcomes writers of all levels of experience.  We encourage you all to participate both by sending in your first 500 words and also by offering comments on other writers’ work.

To learn more about the DIY MFA Workshop, check out this post introducing the workshop then follow these instructions to submit your work for critique.  Finally, visit the notes section of the DIY MFA Facebook page to read posted pieces and offer your comments.  Workshop is officially open for submissions and the first piece will go up this weekend.


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