How to Workshop: Part One (General Overview)

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

-Winston Churchill

A writing workshop is a place for creative folks to come together and share their work with the intention of giving and receiving constructive feedback. Workshops can take place in a classroom, a community, library, neighborhood, or even over lunch with a small circle of writer friends. What’s important is that all participants in workshops understand the proper etiquette for how to write, read, and review work.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing how to workshop in parts (see end of post); to start off, let’s talk about some general points for how a workshop should go so that everyone gets the most out of the experience. Keep in mind that many of these points will be elaborated on later, but feel free to comment on any points you’d like me to discuss further!

Workshop Sizes

When working with a bigger group, a little more organization is necessary. You’re dealing with more people, and in public settings it’s likely that you’ll be experiencing a wide range of skill levels, writing/publishing knowledge, and interests. Classroom and community writing workshops tend to be bigger groups that can divide into smaller groups over time as writers and editors improve and find their niche genres and audiences. An introductory class may have twenty participants, whereas an intermediate class specifically for writing picture books or plays may be five or six people. Friends who meet in writing workshops also often branch off into their own little groups.

Common Points of a Workshop

In a typical workshop, a writer delivers his or her piece—usually no more than 30 pages at a time—to the other members of the group ahead of time. This may be as hard copies or digital. Everyone reads the piece, often making notes and/or line edits, and occasionally writing a response letter to the writer. When everyone meets up for the workshop, the group discusses the good points of the piece and then places for improvement. Writers can ask about certain points they were worried about as well as answer questions and clarify things for editors. A workshop may be for one person at a time but is usually two or three at a time in bigger groups. Workshop duration can be anywhere from an hour to an afternoon.

Workshops are for Helping Writers to Improve

This is the number one reminder in any workshop, but especially for a bigger group. Even if you’re a long-time writer and experienced editor, remember that not everyone in the group may be on the same level and that some may be above it. Treat everyone with respect. People come to workshops looking to improve upon their writing skills—and, yes, occasionally to hear that they’re on the right track. Offer other writers the help you’d like to receive when reviewing your own work!

If you like something, say so! Tell writers what they did well, what’s working in the piece. This is a great way to kick off a workshop. Talk about characters you related to, settings you could picture in your mind, and specific lines of dialogue that stayed with you long after you’d read them. Writers are often sensitive about their work, so let them know when they succeed.

You have to be more careful about criticism. The golden rule of workshopping is that all criticism must be constructive. Keep in mind the difference between personal preference and a legitimate problem; just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an audience somewhere. If you don’t like something, be able to explain why or suggest a way for the author to improve the section; a general comment may be enough for praise (“I like this character”), but when it comes to criticism, it’s better to communicate why something isn’t working so that the author can fix it with a better idea of what’s wrong.

Moderators

In classrooms, libraries, or community settings, a workshop will likely be run by an instructor or  moderator of some sort. For smaller circles, it’s probably not necessary to have someone moderating, but it can help to organize the time spent. Having someone run the workshop allows structure: the person acts as a discussion leader to move the group through points such as first impressions, positive remarks, and revision suggestions. However, the moderator also has the responsibility of keeping everyone polite and on-topic.

To Speak or Not to Speak: Writers

Some workshops allow writers to have dialogue with the editors during the workshop; this is a more successful method in smaller groups, since those tend to be made up of writers who know each other well and can work together efficiently. For bigger groups, the more common setup is to have the writer listen and take notes while the other members of the group discuss, and then afterward respond to questions/concerns and ask questions of his/her own.

My reason for preferring that authors stay quiet until the end is twofold. One, some authors will talk a point to death and/or engage in long back-and-forths when they don’t like the feedback they’re getting, which wastes a lot of time and affects both the editors’ willingness to help and author’s willingness to listen. Two, the author doesn’t get to jump in and explain or defend his or her work when it’s published and any given person is reading it, so when he or she hears editors having questions or concerns, the author understands that this is how people genuinely react to the piece upon reading for the first time. It’s a learning experience.

Again, I’ve got more to say on this topic for a future part on how writers should participate in workshops, but let’s stay on the speaking versus silence part of this topic with…

To Speak or Not to Speak: Editors

For praise, everyone is welcome to jump in, even with the smallest comment. It’s always appreciated! Think about how happy it makes you to get even a simple compliment on something you’ve worked hard on. Pass that happiness on to other writers!

Once the workshop has moved past the niceties segment, though, choose your words carefully. Editorial feedback must always progress the discussion. If someone has already made the point you wanted to make, don’t restate it, but feel free to agree with the person to show the author that it isn’t an isolated problem, then add something new to the conversation. If you can’t explain why something isn’t working or recognize one of your issues as a pet peeve (example: the ever-polarizing Oxford Comma), don’t bring it up. Writing workshops are either classes or activities that people take part in during their spare time, so the time you have to discuss each piece is precious. Offering feedback and editing are just like writing: choose your words and how you spend your time wisely.

How to Find Writing Workshops to Take Part in

Many colleges offer at least introductory writing workshops, and community establishments like libraries are known to run them as well. Check out the websites of local community colleges, neighborhood locations of flyers or notices, community newsletters, and your local library for information. Some workshops are divided by skill level, so whether you’re a long-time writer looking for fellow experienced writers or a beginner, you can find a group that suits your needs.

How to Start Your Own Writing Workshop

Can’t find a local workshop that is nearby and works with your schedule? Try organizing one of your own! Speak with your local librarian or community center to see if you can organize a workshop through them. Put up fliers in your neighborhood to advertise, or put an ad in the local paper. If you and your friends are all interested in writing, start a workshop that meets, say, every Saturday for brunch and editing?

“Work” is the first part of the word “workshop,” yes, but it’s meant to be an enjoyable experience that allows writers to improve their work while interacting socially with others who share their creative passions. Taking part in a workshop is an accessible way to strengthen your abilities as a writer and/or editor and prepares you for the professional world of publishing.

Over the next few weeks, I will be discussing the following aspects of workshopping in-depth:

  • How to Write for a Workshop
  • How to Edit for a Workshop
  • How to Moderate a Workshop
  • Starting and Maintaining a Writing Workshop
  • Writing Workshops with Friends

If you have any questions, suggestions, or workshop experiences/stories to share, though, don’t hesitate to leave comments!

xo P

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