Writing workshops have been at the heart of creative writing courses since the dawn of time itself – and are a major feature of our online writing courses and our London writing courses. For the benefit of the uninitiated, this is where writers get comment on extracts from their novels-in-progress (or indeed on short stories or poems) from a group of peers and a tutor or group leader. The workshop can be nerve-wracking, energising, terrifying, glorious – or all of these at once. It should also be useful – and it’s up to you to make sure you get the best out of it.
The writing workshop has two main aims. First, there’s the obvious one…
· To help you to write better: This happens through receiving constructive feedback from the group – line by line and word by word. The better workshops will also address the bigger picture: issues of plot, characterisation, narrative point of view, genre expectations, reader sympathies and much more can be discussed. The writer can learn what their strengths and weaknesses are from this group of close readers, and figure out how to play to those strengths.
But there’s another aim – and this second one is why the workshop has become such a seminal component of creative writing courses across the world.
· To help you to read better: Good writers should also be great readers. The process of delivering feedback can be as useful as receiving it. In scrutinising other people’s work, you develop your ‘inner editor’; you’ll challenge your preconceptions, sharpen your critical faculties and begin to spot issues with your peers’ writing, which will in turn make you reflect on weak-spots in your own.
Not all workshops are the same. And frankly, some are not very good at all.
Here are some key features to look out for:
· The group should be big enough to offer a variety of voices, but small enough that everyone can be heard. (At Curtis Brown Creative our three- and six-month courses have a maximum of 15 people).
· Ideally the group should have been selected or assembled on the basis of proven writing ability. The quality of critical discussion is naturally higher when everyone in the room writes really well. (Note – this doesn’t mean everyone has to be working on literary fiction, though! At CBC, we also love great commercial and genre writing).
· The material to be discussed in the workshop should be distributed in advance so that everyone can read it ahead of time – and ideally feedback should be provided by group members in writing (with contributors giving close annotations and a written critique) and in class discussion. I’ve never understood how course directors can think it’s a good idea to have people reading their work out aloud instead, and asking the group to respond verbally in the moment to what they’ve just heard (which is the way many workshops operate). Doing it this way wastes valuable class-time, makes it hard for writers who aren’t great performers, and doesn’t allow the opportunity for a really close and reflective read.
· If the group has a tutor, make sure he or she is experienced and with a good reputation. They should ensure that all students are given fair and equal amounts of time for their workshops. They should be authoritative – able to hold the room and encourage dynamic discussion, drawing out quieter members of the group while keeping the louder voices in check. A tutor should offer their own comment on the work – but not too soon in the discussion. In my experience, once the tutor has spoken, everyone tends to fall into line, and that’s not actually what should happen in a good workshop. A great tutor or workshop leader will be able to ensure the right balance of praise and critique, kind of like an orchestral conductor.
How to get the best out of the writing workshop:
When handing in your work …
· Format your work correctly: Make your pages look clean and professional – use an unfussy font (eg Times New Roman 12 point), indent your paragraphs, and set out your dialogue correctly. Use 1.5 or double spacing between your lines, check your spelling, punctuation and grammar, number your pages and make sure your name is on them. Doing this makes a big difference to the experience of reading your work.
· Keep to the schedule!: Hand in on time, or the workshop won’t happen!
· Questions and context: At CBC, we encourage students to add a short (but it must be short) note to their workshop submissions, to tell readers how far through the novel the extract appears and explain any necessary context so the group can understand what’s happening in the scene. And writers can put questions to the group to ensure they get feedback on points they’re concerned about.
· Keep to word limits: If you’re given a maximum word count, don’t exceed it! It’s infuriating when people start to hand in more than they’re supposed to. Before you know it, the extracts are all creeping longer and longer, and the group members who are toeing the line start seething with resentment.
· Be brave: It’s tempting to hand in your best party-piece, but you’ll get the most use out of the workshop if you give in something you’re struggling with, and where you could do with some feedback.
When giving feedback…
· Read the work on time and read it closely: it might seem like a chore to spend so much time on other people’s work when you want to be getting on with your own, but remember that the workshop depends on positive, generous contributions. And turn up on time to the workshop too!
· Start your feedback with the positive: Make sure that in both your written and verbal comments, you begin by focusing on what’s working. What does the writer do well? Say it, even if it seems obvious to you. It may not be obvious to him/her and it can make so much difference to how the writer feels about their workshop and their writing.
· Offer rigorous, constructive feedback: You need to do your best to really grapple with the work you’re reading and offer something tangible to the writer. It’s just as unhelpful to be told, simply, ‘I loved your work – it’s brilliant’ as to be told ‘This isn’t my kind of thing.’ Explain each point you’re making fully, and with close reference to the text. Think about the kind of feedback you would find useful, and remember your turn will be coming soon enough.
· Engage with the work on the writer’s own terms: If it’s a police procedural, don’t criticise it for not being literary fiction. If it’s a piece of gritty social realism, don’t suggest it could be more glamorous. See what I mean? And above all, don’t write ‘This isn’t my kind of thing’. Your challenge is to deal effectively with what’s before you, and to be as helpful as possible. If the writer has asked you some questions, answer them.
· Too loud or too quiet: When it comes to verbal discussion, it’s very likely that there’ll be a couple of people in the group who seem to value the sound of their own important pronouncements above all else – don’t be one of them. Conversely, there’s likely to be one or two people who don’t talk at all: It can be intimidating to speak out in a writing workshop, and you may be worried that your comments are unsophisticated or just plain wrong. But force yourself to overcome your nerves and speak out. Chances are your thoughts will be as useful as other people’s – and your fellow workshopees are more likely to be annoyed by a lack of contribution than by a daft remark.
When receiving feedback …
· Sit back and listen: When people start talking about your work, it’s hard to just say nothing. You’ll probably feel like you want to answer each point and defend your writing. After all, they’re wrong! All of them! (Aren’t they?). My advice is, don’t. Just listen. It’s not very clever to take up your workshop time by talking all through it. If there’s anything you need to pick up on and ask for further clarification, do it – but keep that to a minimum.
· Don’t panic!: If you feel you’ve had a rough ride in the workshop, bear in mind that you’re likely to be reacting in a hyper-sensitive way. It’s all different when it’s your own work being discussed – that’s just how it is. Other people’s workshop sessions might have seemed fine to you, but perhaps they’ve come out of it feeling the same way you do. It could be a good idea to put your written feedback and any notes you made in the workshop away till you’re ready to think editorially about what you’ve produced, and keep moving forward with your project in the meantime. Or, if the workshop has made you want to rethink and do some rewriting straight away, do at least give yourself a chance to settle your thoughts first. You’ll need to figure out which of the suggestions really chimes with you, and then work out your own writerly solutions. Inevitably some of the group will turn out to be more helpful readers for you than others.
Writing workshops aren’t for everyone. If you feel that you want to keep your work to yourself until it’s finished and ready, then nobody should try to compel you to do anything else. But for the rest of us, if you join the right workshop and handle the process well, you can hone your writing and find your tribe. And sometimes, at its best, a writing workshop can feel – well – just a little bit magical.
If you’re currently writing a novel, and would like to experience creative writing workshops with a select group of fourteen other committed writers, take a look at our upcoming Novel-Writing Course in London, based in our offices in Haymarket.