I wanted to write a follow up to my guest post, “How to Start a Successful Writers’ Workshop” featured on WritingForward.com. Once you get your new writers’ workshop off the ground, there are many factors that will go into making it successful, productive, and enjoyable for you and your members. You want to create a fun, safe space for writers to share their work that will also accommodate critique and constructive feedback.
I joined my very first writers’ workshop four years ago and started my own almost a year and a half ago. Here are some important lessons I’ve learned about running a writers’ workshop over the years:
1. Establish workshop guidelines: This is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure that your writers’ workshop runs smoothly. It’s your responsibility as the workshop leader to set the tone for your group and to decide how it will run. I suggest writing and printing a sheet of guidelines to give your members at the first meeting, and have copies on hand for new members as they join.
The guidelines don’t have to be very long or involved. If you’re running a smaller weekly group, be sure to establish any rules you want to have about attendance. Do you want people to contact you when they won’t make it, or is it a more casual, drop-in kind of workshop where no notice is necessary? If you’re using meetup.com, mention any rules you have about RSVPing on the site. You’ll also want to discuss how you want work to be distributed. Will members bring work in and have it read at the meeting, or will work be brought in or emailed out in advance? Practical stuff like that. You can also include some guidelines for critique (see #2).
2. Decide how critique will be conducted: There are many ways you can conduct the critique portion of your workshop. I highly recommend having an initial discussion about the piece you are critiquing without the author’s input. You ask the author not to talk, comment, or even answer questions during this initial discussion. It’s natural for writers to get defensive about their work or want to explain themselves, but this takes away from the quality of the feedback your members will provide.
When a writer’s work is being read outside of the workshop, they won’t be there to give explanations or excuses to their readers. The workshop is a way for them to be a fly on the wall, to see how their work is being read organically. Once the members all make their comments and observations, the author is allowed to join the conversation to ask and answer any questions that came up during the critique.
I also recommend structuring the critique sessions in the following way: First, ask the group what they thought worked in the poem/story. Starting with the positive aspects of the work makes the less positive critique easier to handle. After all of the members have had a chance to talk about the strengths of the piece, ask what they thought needed work or attention.
Both you and your members should try to avoid using the words “like” and “dislike.” Opinions are valid, but should be given carefully, as they are opinions and not objective feedback on the piece. If a member says they “like” or “dislike” something in a piece, ask for them to be more specific. Why specifically did they like it or not like it? What about it worked for them or wasn’t working for them? That kind of feedback is much more helpful than someone just saying that they liked or didn’t like something in the piece.
3. To read out loud or not to read out loud? My recommendation – read poetry out loud, but not prose. Because poetry is short and also often functions as a spoken medium, it makes sense to have it read out loud during the meeting. I suggest having a workshop member read it once, and then have the author read it once. That way you can get a feel for how a stranger would read the piece and compare it with how the author intended the piece to be read.
I think reading prose out loud takes a great deal of time and most likely isn’t the format that readers will be approaching the piece. If you choose to have prose read out loud, be sure to also have the member provide paper copies for the other members to follow along with. That way they can spot any grammatical or structural errors.
4. Finally, a tip on how to have fun while still being productive: If your group is anything like mine, we all enjoy chatting with each other about writing in addition to many topics that have nothing to do with writing. When I first started my workshop, meetings would run for three or four hours because we’d end up going off on tangents about everything under the sun and get distracted from the work we were critiquing.
I learned that the best way to solve this problem is to have some time before the meeting starts to chat, catch up, and wait for people to arrive (about 20-30 minutes). Then, conduct your focused critique session, discouraging any tangents or chatting about things that aren’t related to the work being discussed. If you find your group getting off track, gently steer them back to the piece. Once the critique session is finished, people have the choice to stay and socialize more, or leave if they have other obligations.
These are just a few suggestions on how to run a successful writers’ workshop. Best of luck to any of you thinking of starting your own writing group. It’s an incredibly fun and worthwhile endeavor.