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Components of a Good Writing Workshop

Recently, a friend of mine asked for advice on starting a workshop for writers. I quickly went back to my days in the MFA program, where the major part of the program was the weekly fiction workshop. The advice I gave my friend closely adhered to those things learned from the MFA program as I learned a great deal about myself as a writer and as a critic within our fiction workshops. For anyone that's interested in starting a writer's workshop, I hope this information proves useful.

In my experience, there are three components that are necessary for a good writing workshop, and they are:
1- A great moderator
2- Appropriate size for the workshop
3- Rules for the workshop

MODERATOR. A moderator has to be kind yet firm and have a great knowledge of storytelling. This is the person that the workshop participants are relying on to guide them as writers. It also doesn't hurt that the moderator has some publishing credits. Participants want to feel that they are learning from someone who has experience in the field. A moderator also has to know when to speak and when to sit back and let the participants guide the workshop.

SIZE OF WORKSHOP. This can be debated, but I wouldn't have more than 15 people in any one workshop. When I pursued my MFA, we had 10 students in the fiction program. It was large enough so that each writer received ample reads, write-ups, and suggestions for his or her work, yet it was small enough so that writers were able to connect with one another beyond the stories. That connection ultimately helped us to see more of what a writer was trying to do in a work; therefore, our critiques were more likely to help a writer.

WORKSHOP RULES. Yes, some might say that rules cramp their style, but for a workshop, it is important to have rules set. Rules not only protect the writers, but they also protect the integrity of the workshop and its mission. The rules we had for our MFA fiction workshop were more aligned to how the workshop would be structured and what each participant would be obligated to do during the workshop.

Workshop met one a week for approximately 2, 2.5 hours. During that workshop, we discussed works from two writers, so each writer received an hour of discussion on his/her work, and there was a short break in between sessions.

During the week, our job was to read and mark up each reading and write a one-page letter to the writer that addressed what we liked, what our concerns were, and what suggestions we offered. We would then meet up for the workshop.

During the workshop, the moderator did just that--moderate. To begin each workshop session, our professor would ask, "So, what would you like to talk about today regarding X's work?" He then would take notes as we went around the circle, each of us adding something to the agenda. We would say things like "Dialogue," "Character development," "The heart of the story." Once that was done, our professor would ask if anyone wanted to jump in first, and then we would begin. The professor remained silent for most of the session. He would jump in if he thought we stayed on a topic too long or if we were moving beyond the purpose of the session: to help the writer better his/her writing. Aside from keeping us on track, our professor made sure we touched upon all components addressed in the agenda.

Once a session was complete, the writer would receive a huge packet complete with all the marked-up versions of his/her work and critique letters written by workshop participants. The moderator, too, would mark up the story and write a letter, and the writer would receive that material then as well.

One important component of the workshop, one that might seem weird but proved to be a necessity, was that at no time did the writer speak; we played "The Author Is Dead." During his/her session, the writer would take notes of what others had to say, but sessions were not treated as trials. The writer did not have an opportunity to jump up and defend his/her work. And the reason behind this was a simple one. The minute a writer jumps in and tries to tell participants what he/she meant to do with the story, the dynamics of the workshop shifts. Participants start to feel attacks for their thoughts and speak less. Silence, and lots of it, quickly builds. In my experience, keeping the author "dead" is a great thing. It teaches the writer humility--learning to accept his/her issues within a story without attacking. It forces the writer to listen and to be open to the idea that a story isn't perfect just because it's done. There is always something that can be fixed, and you (as writer) might be too close to the work to see where those changes need to be made. Also, it teaches the writer that sometimes there is no need to build a defense. If there are 9 or more people reading your work and the majority believes X is a big problem in your work, the problem isn't that the reader didn't "get" what were you trying to do. The problem is you as writer failed to develop X in a way that makes for a solid read. That's not a debate. There's nothing to defend, typically. It means it's time to get back to the drawing board with revisions and rewrites.

There was one time in which the writer could speak, and this came at the end of a session. Once all comments were made by the participants, the writer was allowed to speak, to ask questions about concerns he/she had in the story that wasn’t addressed during the session.

I'm a big fan of writing workshops. I've participated in formal and informal workshops, and even with the informal workshops, having rules are important. Participants need to know what's expected of them and what they will get out of the workshop. In the end, a workshop needs to have a purpose, and typically, that purpose is to help writers better their writing. Everything that is done in preparation for the workshop and what is done during the workshop should directly connect to that purpose.

Have you had experience with writing workshops? What great things did you learn through the workshop? What problems did you find, if any?

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell, will be released June 2010; you can read an excerpt here. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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  1. There's one more element to a good workshop--qualifications in relation to subject matter. I ran across a site for a regional writing organization in my area that was over 80 years old. I was impressed with the time they'd existed and figured they'd have some prestigious members. They were offering workshops, so I took a look. The topics were along the lines of how the publishing business works. Checked the credentials of the people giving the workshop--all published by a POD company poorly regarded in the industry. This, after I'd been to ones where the authors were making six figures freelancing or an editor of a major magazine!

    I've not had much luck with fiction workshops--tough topic when you don't have even a remotely similar writing process to everyone else.

  2. I attended a 2-day workshop on plotting a novel, with James N. Frey (the How to Write a Damn Good Novel one, not the Oprah one).

    We had about fifty people there, but of those, I'd say only about twenty seemed to want to get involved in a hands-on way, the rest took copius notes.

    I think I learned more in those two days than I'd learned in the previous five years. I can't wait for the next one.

  3. Wow, Linda. Qualifications definitely matter. If you're paying money to attend a workshop, you at least want the people presenting to have credible qualifications.

    Jon, that sounds like a BIG workshop. I guess I always saw workshops as more personal, intimate than 50 of your closest friends, :-) What did you take notes of? Frey? What was going on around you with the other participants? Was it more like a seminar atmosphere?

  4. It might be worth pointing our that the word "workshop" is bandied about a lot in the writing community, and has several meanings. I belong to one writing group which offers workshops, but that simply means a teaching session in which some hands-on writing will be done. The James Frey workshop Jon mentioned in an example of this.

    The Philadelphia Writers' Conference says it offers workshops, for instance, which is a constant source of confusion for the presenters, who think that people will be bringing in work for critique and discussion. These are really conference "sessions" in which the main focus is lecturing.

    I believe the meaning Shon was shooting for here is a workshop in which the main focus is the presentation of material for discussion and critique. It is different than a critique group because it is led by an experienced author/writing teacher who can keep the critique on track and hammer home the lessons learned. Such programs are found at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in TN and Bread Loaf in VT, but it could also be an ongoing program. You often must provide a sample of your work to get in.

  5. I just want to point out how critical that "kind but firm" moderator is. I went to Sewanee Writers' Conference one year, and in my workshop each manuscript was pounced upon like a slab of meat thrown to the lions. This kind of unruly free-for-all builds on a gang mentality and does no one any good.

    Many writers have stopped writing forever after such an experience. What did our moderator do? Stood there watching the melee with a quiet smile on her face--and did nothing but check her watch for when it was time to move to the next "critique." Leaving me thinking, THIS is what I paid so much for?

    Our workshops were every other day (for 12 days) and we were allowed to audit workshops run by other moderators on our days off. I stopped in to Alice McDermott's workshop to see how it went. Alice was the epitome of "kind but firm"--and extremely knowledgeable, to boot. She reined in the comments when they went astray or became too biting, reiterated cogent points we all could learn from, and amplified these lessons with anecdotes from her own experience. Her constant emphasis: "What can we all learn from this?"

    I left with pages upon pages of notes from her workshop, to which I had not been assigned, to which I hadn't submitted, and the work for which I had not read. I still reference and pass along brilliant tidbits learned in Alice's workshop.

    From mine, I took away no notes at all.

    THAT is the importance of a good moderator.

  6. This kind of sounds like our critique sessions at Chicago-North RWA. A person brings 20 pages, with copies for everyone. That person reads the pages out loud, then everyone writes down the good points and points that need to be improved. Then the pages are discussed. The writer might be asked questions about the work, but make some explanations, but not defend the choices.

    It works very well. We have many published authors in our group that didn't start out that way!

    Morgan Mandel

  7. I was a student at The University of East Anglia (UK) on the BA Creative Writing degree, and this sounds very much the same as our workshops! (Ah, how I miss them!)

    Totally agree about the writing keeping quiet throughout the discussion. Sometimes that didn't happen in our workshops and it got a little strange.

  8. Hey there, Kathryn.

    That's exactly what I thought about when writing of workshops.

    "What can we learn from this?" is a great question for any writing workshop. Though I did learn by having my work critiqued within the MFA program workshop [@ McNeese State U. in Louisiana], I think I learned just as much, if not more, from having to critique others' works and actually think about the craft of writing.

  9. The most exciting workshop I attended last year was the Donald Maass all afternoon event sponsored by Sisters in Crime the day before Bouchercon. Donald was more speaker/lecturer than moderator, but he paused from time to time and gave us writing prompts, asked for questions and feedback. I would highly recommend his programs to anyone who has a chance to attend.

  10. I was lucky enough to attend a Donald Maass 50-minute 'workshop' at the BEA NY, back in '07.

    He's excellent :)


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