How do we make writing workshops, well, work?

by Amanda Fiore

Writing is a solitary activity, and let’s face it: as writers, with our noses buried in our elaborately created worlds, it is easy to be imbued with a false sense of arrogance about our work. Yes, I said it. Writers are arrogant

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking arrogance! It is, in part, arrogance that gets us to sign up for workshops! It is arrogance that pushes us to keep writing through the seemingly impossible pile of rejection letters, and the general feeling of malaise that follows us after every feedback session about what we need to improve, pointing out that our hearts and souls, which we’ve poured out for people to pass judgment on, are just not good enough. Arrogance, make no mistake, is what gets us through.

No matter what has come before, somehow every time we walk into a group of well-meaning peers with a piece of writing, we’re thinking: I know I can make this better, but I also know I’m onto something, and I can’t wait to hear everyone else say so!

Otherwise–let’s be honest–why sign up? Why bother?

This makes the job of the workshop not just about making you a better writer; it is also about breaking some difficult news: Look, what you’ve got here has promise, but it needs work, and honestly  . . . you have a long way to go. Face the facts. Put on your gardening gloves, your welder's mask, your protective gear, and get to work!

Okay, but how do we do it? Especially when the traditional writing workshop basically consists of:

1.  Reading participants work, and
2.  Discussing what is wrong.

With this model, writers are handed a bullet-point list of what isn’t working. This leaves them feeling, at best, defensive and unhappy, and at worst, totally dismissive of all the advice they just heard.

They’re thinking: Nobody understands me! What I wrote was great! And worst of all: I’m never coming back to another workshop.

Without context, I think this is a perfectly understandable human response: After all, what proof have you been given that their assessment of your writing is any more real than your own? The person who gave you the best critique might be the person whose work you thought was especially horrible! Why on earth would you listen to them, when they obviously have no idea what they’re talking about?

What service are we doing for writers if all we read, and all we talk about, is how to improve imperfect work?

The answer is deceivingly simple: Incorporate excellent, published work into the workshop.

When I teach a writing workshop, we spend the first 30 - 45 minutes talking about an excellent, published piece, but we don’t just talk about how great it is. In fact, we don’t talk much about that at all, because we’re not reading it as readers. We’re not trying to enjoy it. We’re trying to study it, so that we can learn! We talk about why the piece works: structure, word choice, movement . . . Then, when we switch over to the work of the participants and someone points out what isn’t working, there is context for it!

Suddenly, writers have more to go on than the opinions of their similarly unpublished peers. Instead of getting defensive, writers are nodding their heads, looking back at the published piece, and saying “Oh!”  

In writing, as in life, sometimes the simplest answers, the ones we’ve heard a million times, can be the hardest to admit. Everyone knows it already: If you want to write, you have to read, and you have to read like a writer.

I would take it one step further, and say: If you want to understand your own writing, you need to understand the writing you love.

And if you want to teach writing, first teach writing that works.


I heartily agree with these ideas. I have a blog of my own (workshopheretic at blogspot) that develops this same theme often. I don’t think I ever attended a workshop in graduate school where we ever “went back to the book” and discussed an important concept of good writing. We just wrote our stuff, handed it in, talked about it, then rinse and repeat.

Another problem not discussed here is that with the model of read and correct, you’re going to get a lot of ideas for corrections. But in a workshop of ten people, probably eight will be untalented, six not particularly good readers, and most were probably distracted while approaching your work. The majority of the suggestions you’ll get are red herrings. It’s just math.

Ideally, you’d like to get some of the good examples from the instructor, who could then maybe talk about how she/he came to develop the knack for writing like that. Alas, with so many writing programs, there are quite a few mediocre writers leading the workshop.

By Jake on Jul 17 2015