What is a writers' workshop?

What Is A Writers’ Workshop?

Look, there is no shame in not knowing what a writers’ workshop is. When I had my wisdom teeth pulled in college the nurse tried to stunt on me by telling me her daughter was going to Iowa. I was unimpressed, “Who wants to live in Iowa?” I said with disgust as I drifted into unconsciousness.

I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life and I had no idea that Iowa is home to what many consider to be the best writing program in the nation. Hell, I was in my mid-twenties before I even knew creative nonfiction was a genre. And now, I’m a widely published nonfiction writer and I get to blog over here at Penmob. So, let’s get you up to speed!


What is a writers’ workshop?
There are a lot of different ideas about how to run a writers’ workshop, and we’ll get into those, but essentially every workshop involves a group of writers who exchange work and give each other feedback. Most will also have someone at the helm, an instructor or just a host that keeps things moving.

Size comes down to personal preference. I’ve been in a workshop with as few as three people and as many as 18 people – which for the record, that felt like too many people. I personally prefer smaller, intimate workshops where you can spend a lot of time on each person’s piece. You might like a larger workshop where you get feedback from many different perspectives.

Most of the workshops I’ve attended met around a table, but I’ve also gone to some that were simply a circle of chairs – and the really good ones passed around a bottle of wine.


How does a writers’ workshop work?
There are several different styles of running a workshop. Generally, writers in the workshop will take turns submitting their work for their peers to read and critique. It’s common to submit your work about a week before it will be discussed, sometimes more time is given, sometimes less.

There are also less in depth workshops, where writers show up and read some of their work out loud and their peers offering feedback on the spot. Lots of people feel like they can’t give their best feedback when they’re put on the spot. They need to let your words marinate.

Workshops tend to be genre specific because:

  • Writers feel more confident when providing feedback in a genre they work within – I wouldn’t even begin to know where to begin to give a poet valuable feedback.
  • There are certain mechanics of each genre it’s helpful to be well-versed in when giving feedback.
  • Genre mixing can be confusing. I’ve only been in one all-genre workshop, it allowed everything but poetry. And not only was I not as comfortable critiquing work from other genres, but I also felt like those writers took out-of-genre feedback less seriously, “What do you really know about how to write a TV script?” It definitely was less productive for everyone involved.
  • You’ll even find workshops can be limited within genres. A literary fiction writer and a speculative fiction writer might prefer to be among their own when it comes to intensely workshopping a piece.


Who are writers’ workshops for?
Writers at all experience levels can benefit from writers’ workshops. You can get just as much out of workshops where everyone is at the same stage in their craft as you can in workshops where writers are all over the spectrum when it comes to craft. However, you might feel like the odd-one-out if mostly everyone is in the same place writing wise and you aren’t.

Writers’ workshops are also effective at just about every stage in the writing process, particularly if you have an established group that can see you through a revision or two of the same piece. Most writers will say workshops begin to feel less effective if you’re working on a book-length manuscript. Too much feedback can be disorienting and someone really needs to read the entire project to give the most rigorous feedback.


How can I be a good workshop participant?
It’s always recommend that you read someone’s submission through at least twice. On your first reading, you should be reading to enjoy and note any places where you got tripped up or something didn’t make sense. On your second reading, you’ll be taking a more focused look at craft and attempting to spot issues. You’ll also want to note the writer’s strengths and underline words and sentences you appreciated.

When you’re giving your feedback during workshop, the compliment sandwich can make it easier for the recipient to receive your criticism. You open with a compliment, levy your criticism and then close with another compliment. Trust me, you’ll totally appreciate it when it’s your turn to be workshopped.

When you’re being workshopped, it’s important to take only what you need from the group. Be open to criticism and suggestions and sift through and keep what’s most useful to you. At first, it might be hard to know what to take and what to leave. Over time, you’ll better be able to distinguish between the two. And, if you try a bit of advice and it doesn’t work, scratch it and try again.

Usually in any workshop, there’ll be the person that’s waaaaaaaaay off base, the person whose feedback is dead-on every single time. You might notice multiple people giving you the same note – that’s usually a sign you need to take that note or better execute what you were attempting to do. It might be your instinct to push back against all negative feedback, “THEY JUST DON’T GET WHAT I’M DOING.” Give it a few days. You might feel less defensive. Workshops can be emotionally draining, so no need to rush right home to start your next revision. Give yourself time to recenter and absorb what’s been said.

Remember, your advice shouldn’t be about what you would do if you were writing the piece or tailoring the piece more to your liking – in fact, whether or not you like the piece isn’t important. You want to ask yourself, “What is the writer trying to accomplish?” and then, “Did they accomplish it?” If not, you can give advice that will help them succeed. Also, workshop isn’t the time to nitpick about typos and other minor issues, unless the writer requested them or they are so widespread it makes it difficult to read the piece. Workshop is more big picture feedback.

Your workshop leader may choose to invoke the gag rule. This means while your piece is being workshopped, you are not allowed to speak. This rule does a few different things. Writers have been known to get defensive when their work is critiqued, so the gag rule allows your peers to discuss your work freely without worrying they might have to defend their thoughts to you. This doesn’t fully eliminate disagreement, attendees can disagree with each other, but it does help keep your workshop from being derailed. You’ll be given an opportunity at the end to ask follow up questions.

The gag rule also allows you to get a better sense of what an actual reader might think of your piece because in a real life setting, you won’t be in the same room as your reader to explain things to them. All they’ll have is what’s been written. Some drawbacks of the gag rule is that your workshop can get hung up on some small issue or focus on feedback that you might not find relevant. Because you can’t speak, you can’t redirect the conversation in a more beneficial direction.

Your workshop instructor may ask each writer to write a critique letter for each piece they workshop. That way if you don’t get to share all of your thoughts during the workshop, the writer will still have a copy of your thoughts to reflect on as they make edits. On Penmob, your editor will make inline suggestions on your draft. But they can also add endnotes for overall feedback.

Workshop leaders can go around the circle and give each person a chance to speak or they might just let conversation flow organically. Don’t worry if it sounds like a lot of rules, most instructors will give you an workshop etiquette guide before you all begin to discuss the first piece.


How do I join a writers’ workshop?
You can find a casual writers group to join, enroll in a college class or take a community-based workshop. We actually did an entire post on finding your community as a writer. If none of these options are available where you live or you’re not ready to get face-to-face with other writers, Penmob’s online writers workshop vibe can help you get the feedback you need to improve your writing – sign up now.


Image source: Pexels

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