I read some really interesting work from one of my favorite authors over the weekend. Brandon Sanderson, who writes amazing fantasy novels and stories, just published an anthology with three colleagues that demonstrates how they supported one another in developing a set of short stories. The book is called Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, and in addition to the final piece, the anthology contains transcripts from brainstorming and critique sessions as well as “track changes” documents that show the differences between the first draft and final version.
From what I’ve seen, many novelists have strong writing groups that they rely on as first readers and candid critics for draft material; the writing groups point out flaws and help authors think through writers block. They help each other to learn the craft. Brandon Sanderson has said that he has a reliable group of fellow authors and prime readers who know his writing, his characters, and his complex world-building as well as he does, and they help him shape his work. The involvement of this group doesn’t diminish Brandon’s brilliance, or make his novels co-authored works.
Reading Shadows Beneath got me wishing intently that we did more of that kind of workshopping in our own field. Even in organizations that have large learning and development teams, I haven’t often heard of practices that include regular sharing of works-in-progress. And it can be very difficult to get deep reviews and critiques when you are relatively independent in your work.
The idea of workshopping our work is in alignment with the “working out loud” mantra (see Jane Bozarth’s Show Your Work) and advice offered by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace in Creativity, Inc. (longer discussions of each forthcoming).
Working out loud (often by posting about projects in social venues) gives others the opportunity to support our work and opens the door to collaboration on areas of mutual interest. Just as importantly, it exposes the thought process – the why of work – so that others may learn from (or influence) that as well.
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull shares the “brain trust” practice at Pixar where emerging material is screened and discussed at length, often dramatically changing films from original concept to final project. These discussions are not seen as “slowing down” the process or as interfering with a director’s creative vision, but they are largely responsible for the exceptional quality and innovation of Pixar’s products.
The value of this kind of critique is well-known. Back in 1987, Donald Schon advocated for a practicum approach to teaching professional practice in Educating the Reflective Practitioner:
“Perhaps, then, learning all forms of professional artistry depends, at least in part, on conditions similar to those created in the studios and conservatories: freedom to learn by doing in a setting relatively low in risk, with access to coaches who initiate students into the “traditions of the calling” and help them, by “the right kind of telling” to see on their own behalf and in their own way what they need most to see” (p. 17).
Schon’s advice might be directed at those who teach graduate programs in our field, but Ed Catmull shows us that the same kind of environment can be created in the workplace. In truth, we need both – our graduate programs often need more embedded practice and critique, and our workplaces need to have safe avenues for collaborative creative discussions.
While we might agree a workshopping process would be beneficial, there are actually a lot of headwinds. Most professionals in our field are rewarded for their individual efforts, and are working in environments characterized by tight deadlines and scant resources. Graduate courses educate people with a wide range of backgrounds and practice areas in the same course, so defining projects and scoping them within the confines of a term can be tricky.
I can see the barriers that need to be overcome in my own work… the fact that I have a solo consulting practice, the particulars around some of my course design work, and the time constraints I am under (and that potential collaborators are under as well).
Nonetheless, it’s worth considering how we might workshop our designs and our writings more often and more thoroughly. The practice would support the development of professionals in our field , improve the quality of our outcomes, and accelerate adoption of new techniques and tools. I’d love to hear how you find ways to workshop your work.
We can do more, I think, to help each other learn our craft.