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How to Run a Workshop

I've talked about how to build a writing community a lot and tried to give tips on how to meet people and grow a creative collective, but one thing I haven't talked about yet is how to have a workshop. Workshops are incredibly common and useful tools when building your writing community, and they help to give you a fresh perspective on your work. Some people are terrified of workshopping their writing because of bad experiences, or just the fear of sharing their work with other people. I want to teach you how to have a constructive and uplifting workshop, while still getting meaningful notes for change out of it. If everyone just told us our work was great all the time, we wouldn't get any better. It's important to put your work out there and gain feedback.

I want to start off by saying you shouldn't host or join a workshop until you're ready for your work to be edited on some level. Meaning, I wouldn't submit a first draft to a workshop knowing how many things I want to change still. There's no point in doing that. You should workshop a piece when you feel it's ready to be seen, and/or you're a little lost for direction on how to grow the work. You may get some feedback that rubs you the wrong way, or that you might reject point blank, and that's okay and totally common. That's why you need to be able to stand by your piece and defend what you love about it, while also being open to critiques that will help it get better.

I've been in a lot of different workshops throughout my undergrad and graduate careers, and I now run them as a teacher of creative writing. There have been plenty of workshops that left me feeling deflated and like I didn't have a reason to be writing in the first place. Those workshops were not well managed by the teachers in my classes. It takes care and finesse to keep a workshop focused and helpful to everyone present. When I run my workshops, I focus on three key elements the evaluators need to answer.

  1. What purpose is the author trying to achieve?

This isn't asking what is the story about, or looking for a plot summary. Instead, it's asking the reader to dig deeper and ask what is the author trying to convey to their audience by writing this piece? Is it a story about self-discovery, family bonds, escape, etc? What is the author trying to make the reader feel or connect with in their writing?

2. How does the author achieve this purpose?

What are some of the things they are doing well in relation to their purpose? This isn't going to be what you "liked" about the piece. What you like or dislike as a reader is irrelevant when editing in a workshop setting. This isn't about you as a reader, it's about helping the writing. So, what did they do well to help you understand and connect with their purpose? Was the dialogue clear, or did a character stand out, etc?

3. What is distracting from the purpose?

Again, this isn't what you "disliked" about the story. When we get into likes and dislikes, it becomes personal, which can lead down a dangerous road in workshops. Instead thinking about what was distracting from the purpose is going to be more helpful. Was there a tangent plot that was confusing? Did the pacing feel rushed or too slow, etc?

The reason I focus so much on helping the author achieve their purpose is twofold. One, it makes us think outside of ourselves. I tell my students all the time, they are not the target audience for everything. There are things that are good and have value that they might not like because it isn't made for them. Just because something isn't made for you, does not mean it doesn't have value. The second reason is that by thinking about the purpose, the author might realize the message they thought they were delivering isn't actually the message coming across. 

Sometimes we are so focused on what we're writing and how it makes perfect sense in our head, we can't see it for what it really is. We need outside perspectives to help us understand what's being gained from our writing. I had an old mentor who told us that you can't follow readers around and tell them what you actually meant. Your writing has to be able to stand up and speak for itself. By doing a workshop, you're giving your work the opportunity to stand on its own in a safe space and see how well it does. If no one in the group is getting what you're trying to say, the work might not be strong enough yet.

That being said, there is certainly bad feedback that comes from writing groups. I was once in a workshop with four middle-aged, white men. My story was about a woman trying to manage her family. Every single one of those men thought my main character was a bitch and just unlikable. Obviously, they were not my target audience and they were unable to back away from their personal outlook and give useful feedback. It's okay to reject some of the feedback given during workshops. You'll know what's actually helpful and what isn't when you go back to edit the text. If you're putting in an edit and it doesn't feel right, or it disrupts the purpose of your story, it isn't a good edit.

The point of my story was to talk about the unseen labor of women. So if I took out my character complaining or standing up for herself– it made her less of a "bitch" in those men's eyes, it would have changed the point of the story. 

There is a new thought in the writing world that workshops are only harmful or pointless. I think that's because so many workshops aren't run properly. Yes, I acknowledge they can be toxic spaces if not managed well, but when done correctly, workshops are incredibly useful resources to get helpful feedback from peers. Your writing cannot exist in a vacuum. You need a community to share with and get perspective from. One of the best ways to get that feedback is through a well-run workshop.

My writing group in grad school at UT

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