There are writers’ workshops and there are writers’ workshops. A “workshop” means different things to different people. Essentially, a workshop is a place where you come together with other writers for the sake of furthering your writing. The right workshop will emphasize craft, voice, and process, while offering ample opportunities for you to write, either onsite or at home.
In some workshops, you'll write on site before receiving and offering feedback. In others, you'll bring previously written pieces to each session for critique. Variations on the workshop format exist. A well-run workshop will help you develop confidence while strengthening your writing skills.
Here are a five skills you’ll be sure to pick up at a well-run workshop:
How to shut down the editor’s voice
If you are writing first drafts, as you would be in any method-based workshop, you’ll be writing multiple pieces in response to prompts. Each workshop writing segment may range from three to 20 minutes, so you’ll develop a sense of pushing through any self doubt or inner criticism as you write. Your goal should be to write down your ideas, observations, and thoughts as they come. There is little room for overthinking or hesitation.
In fact, there is no time for anything other than the writing. The opportunity for revision and that inner instinctive editor, which in the right context is an awesome resource, will have its due. You’ll learn to quiet the voice of your inner critic and enable your imaginative writer's voice. Doing so will be invaluable for your practice of producing viable first drafts.
How to give in to the writing
Anyone who has workshopped with me over the years knows that I frequently encourage writers to, “just go with it.” In fact, colleagues once presented me with a thoughtfully hand drawn poster of an image of me saying the same. I know there is much truth in this seemingly simple line of writing advice.
To begin writing is to often begin in medias res., in the middle of things. You start where you can. For many writers, especially those who are inexperienced, jumping right into the midst of a first draft and staying with it requires the letting go of any doubts, and insecurities. You have to just go with it.
If you are writing concrete and detailed images, good for you. Just go with it. If the only words that come are reminders that you have to get gas on your way home from the workshop, just go with it. The trick is to keep writing and to keep on writing though the sinkholes and rambling avenues of your mind where the words can get stuck. They may not come when called upon, and the ones that do may not be even be close to what you were aiming for when you started. Just. go. with. it. Who cares? You are writing a first draft. You are writing.
Push through. Keep at it. The words will come. You have to give into the writing. A well-run writing workshop will reinforce this for you and you will learn by the experience of…writing.
And even if you have written pages of seemingly nothing, there is bound to be one line, one phrasing that is a nugget of potential for a more developed piece. The value of writing to a timed prompt helps develop this sense, especially when the prompt is well designed and structured. In the right workshop, you’ll get ample practice in experiencing what it is like when you don’t push through, and then what can emerge when you do.
How to listen critically
Part of a good workshop experience is the after party of sorts when each writer shares their writing and the other workshop participants offer feedback. In order to offer helpful feedback, you have to sharply listen to a piece as it is being read aloud. In some workshops hard copies of the writing may be available. But, if a freshly written piece is being workshopped, you’ll have to depend on your ability to listen for details and nuances in the writing.
Depending upon the workshop, the feedback can range from being supportive to surprisingly critical. Many method-based workshops, including those which adhere to the Amherst Artists & Writers practices and philosophies, allow for only positive feed back on any first draft piece.
This makes good sense, since first draft writing is pure and newly created. The writer has not had time to make any adjustments or refinements. In turn, the feedback that is given in such situations emphasizes “what works” within the piece. There is an emphasis on citing specifics from the writing to emphasize this. Experienced AWA Affiliate workshop facilitators are practiced in using specifics from the writing as points of reference during feedback sessions. This modeling of this technique helps workshop participants develop a keener sense of listening to the work as it is being read. Pinpointed moments include those which resonate and those in which literary devices and writing technique are evident. Over time, your critical listening skills will evolve.
How to value multiple perspectives
If you are writing and workshopping, you are bound to come away surprised at the manner in which others find moments in your work that resonate with them. Now, realistically, this may not happen every time. But, the chances are, over the course of a workshop series, you will hear insights about your writing that you never before considered yourself. And how wonderful is it when someone is moved enough by your writing to comment on it. Over time, you’ll grow to appreciate how diverse perspectives into your writing can help you develop your writer’s voice and sense of style.
How to develop a sense of what you want for your writing.
As you complete the required workshop assignments, you’ll learn about your writer’s voice. You’ll learn your preferred primary genre. This will emerge the more you write. You'll also learn that you actually have a sense of style and a writer's voice. And with this, should come the desire to further review your first draft work, and begin the process of revision Soon you’ll be working drafts to the point of having finished and hopefully, publishable work.
So go for it. Join a writers’ workshop and pick up some new writing-related skills. Know that these five skills will serve your writing practice well. Seek out a writing community. Doing so will allow you to experience first hand the positive impact a workshop can have on your writing. May the Muses be with you as you do.
“The trick is to keep writing…”