How to Workshop: Part Four (Starting and Maintaining a Workshop)

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

– St. Francis of Assisi

The fourth and final segment on my Writing Workshop blogging has arrived! Hopefully the theme of this past month has helped writers and editors looking to participate further in the writing community. The last step focuses on the process of running a workshop, which combines the role of the moderator with the founder/workshop leader—as they can often be the same person.

Joining a Workshop

Check out your library, community center, and local schools to see if any of these outlets offer writing workshops, clubs, or classes. Also check your city or town’s website to see if there are any meetings or events listed there. Community workshops will likely let you join for a small fee or else will be completely free to the public. Classes will have higher tuition, so keep that in mind when planning. Look ahead at least a few weeks to make sure that you can get a seat in case there is a limit on availability.

Starting Your Own Workshop

Let’s say you’ve checked out local classes and your library only to find that no writing workshops are available to you. If you’re ready to jump in and feel like you can take on the commitment, why not start your own?

Visit your local library or community center and speak with the folks there to see if it’s possible for you to organize a workshop, and what steps you should take next if so. Guidelines for setting up events and meetings can vary from place to place. Here are some general tips:

  • Don’t go in on Monday expecting your workshop to happen Tuesday. Give yourself at least two weeks, maybe even a month. It allows you and the folks at the library/community center to plan and organize. If you come in early enough, your meeting times could be included on their events calendar and/or website, and you’ll have time to put up fliers and attract more members.
  • Advertise wherever you can. Put up fliers at the location where your workshop will take place and any nearby locations that permit them. Try coffee shops and local restaurants; many independent businesses are open to supporting community activity. Ask if the library/community center will advertise through their social media, and advertise yourself! Facebook, Twitter, and the blogging community are great places to start. Consider making a Facebook group or fan page for your workshop, getting a creative Twitter hashtag (like #librarynamewriters), or setting up a blog specifically to communicate with the group.
  • Have an agenda planned. Below is another list of tips for your first meeting, but have a plan for what you plan to accomplish right from the beginning. Giving people specifics is more enticing when it comes to booking space, advertising, and recruiting members.

Say that you’ve accomplished this. You spoke with a librarian or community events planner and set up a writing workshop, put up fliers, and have some interest. Great! What do you do at your first meeting, then? Here are some ideas for organizing your first meeting:

  • Take attendance. Since a lot of folks will be in and out in a community workshop, you should probably do this at every meeting. If you’re planning on staying in contact online, give folks the link to a social media page or ask for their e-mail addresses. Beware messy handwriting!
  • Talk a little bit about what the workshop will be like. Don’t go on and on—it’ll help to have a short-and-sweet version that you can remind people of weekly, something like: “Welcome to our writing workshop. Each week, we’ll read pieces from two people and discuss them at these meetings. We also do writing prompts and talk about our current projects.” Workshops aren’t limited to just writing and editing, after all–this is a time to build up your relationships within the writing community.
  • Have some discussion topics ready. For the first meeting in particular, you won’t have any writing to review, so consider talking about what kinds of projects people are working on, or what they hope to work on, or even talk about your favorite books. It’s not a bad idea to come prepared with some writing prompts and materials like paper, pens, and a timer to keep the team to a five- or ten-minute writing burst. Using a cell phone or watch is also OK.

Moderating a Workshop

Once the workshop is off and running, you’ll have people reading and editing every week. As the person who started the organization, you are most likely to be moderating when you aren’t the one being workshopped.

The moderator doesn’t have to be the founder, though, particularly if you’ve joined an already-established workshop. You could still take on this role, of course. Some workshops will have a different person leading every meeting. In a classroom setting, the professor takes on this role.

Basically, the purpose of the moderator is to make sure that the workshop is proceeding correctly. A moderator may open by summarizing the piece that the group read or just diving into directing feedback.

A good way to run a workshop is for the moderator to ask what the group liked about the piece. People can jump in and talk about the parts that are working well and the author’s successes; if folks are shy or not jumping in right away, it’s the moderator’s job to say something to get the ball rolling, so the first compliment could be yours.

Once the positive feedback starts to peter out, the moderator should steer the conversation towards constructive criticism. Try phrasing it like, “That’s great. Now, what are some ideas for revisions?” or “All right, good we know what’s working. Where would we like to see this piece in a future draft?” Always cushion the critiques by emphasizing that this part of the workshop is about helping the author. Drop his or her name, if it helps (i.e., “What  suggestions do we have for Susan for revision?”). Reminding the group that this is a draft and will be revised is also good. It sets a professional tone and hopefully curbs unkind comments.

If the criticism starts to lose its constructiveness, it’s the moderator’s job to spin a comment more positively or rephrase it so that it’s more palatable for the author. Tact is the ultimate quality a moderator needs. Be aware of the author’s feelings and be willing to step in and take control of a self-indulgent editor. Also be sure to keep the conversation on-topic; don’t let folks forget that workshop time is precious to the author and that they wouldn’t like it if the editors decided to talk about something other than their pieces on their time.

Workshopping with Friends

Rather than go the community/library/classroom route—or maybe after you’ve done so—you may find that you work better with a small group of folks you already know. In that case, there’s no need to organize any big workshop; put together your own little workshop with your pals. If your friends are also interested in writing and reading, definitely bring them into the mix. E-mail each other stories that you edit on your lunch breaks, or meet up regularly to hang out and talk writing.

As a sophomore, I took a writing workshop and ended up continuing to swap stories with a few of my friends who were in the class with me. In the months leading up to graduation, we agreed that we had to stick together and keep editing each other’s work, which is what we’re up to now! We e-mail back and forth with revisions and notes, and we’re going to try to get together at the end of each month to workshop and talk writing in person.

Building your own little writing community means editing can be more laid-back. Be sure to find people with similar interests, whose writing you also enjoy reading. In a smaller group, be sure that you feel comfortable jumping into the conversation. It’s more likely that the author will take part in the discussion, as well. Workshopping with friends can often be like having a conversation, just taking the time to focus on your work.

Conclusion

Workshops are a great way to get involved in the writing community and make friends with other writers, readers, and editors. They also motivate writers to stop thinking about writing and talking about writing…and actually write! The workshops I’ve taken part in over the past few years have improved my writing exponentially, so to any serious writers and editors out there, I recommend that you look into taking part.

xo P

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