Writing workshops: the good, the bad and the brilliant!

I’m currently developing a new workshop: Writing for Children and Young Adults. It’s got me thinking about the writing workshops I’ve attended over the years – and there have been many! Some good. Some not so good. Some brilliant. After attending so many, I’m gaining an insight into what works and what doesn’t.

Workshop on Finding and Re-using Public Information II’ve realised that being able to write doesn’t mean you can teach. The skills are very different. Writers are often introverts, hiding behind their computers, but that’s not much use if you want to help others!

Running workshops has also given me a heightened appreciation for school teachers. You have to be a cross between an entertainer, motivational speaker, life coach and professor. Fortunately writing tutors have a willing audience (unlike many school teachers!). Even so, by the end of an all-day gig I am utterly drained … but happy. Workshops are the ideal way to escape the isolation of writing and meet like-minded people.

What works

As a workshop participant, I like to receive practical information. I’m not a fan of waffle, meanderings and padding. Must be the lawyer in me! Tell me something I don’t know, then tell me what to do with the information.

A good balance between information and activities is also important. Listening to too much tutor-talk can be boring – participants need to participate. I like it when tutors provide guidance for a writing exercise, then encourage participants to share their responses with the group. And I mean encourage! Not bully or shame, which unfortunately happens sometimes. In my workshops, I never press anyone to share if they don’t want to. If they do, I provide constructive feedback. Many participants who start the day feeling uncertain about their writing leave with new confidence – and that makes it all worthwhile!

What doesn’t work

I must admit I don’t want to hear too much about the tutor. Just enough to set the stage and inspire the group by showing that writing success is possible. It’s not meant to be all about them!

Structure is important and I find a lack of direction frustrating. Workshops that wander and jump around too much indicate a lack of preparation. Creating slideshow presentations, planning activities and creating tip sheets takes a lot of time, but you can’t run a good workshop without preparation.

The best I’ve seen

Some workshops I’ve attended have been brilliant and I’m not saying that lightly. I’ve left them feeling enlightened and motivated. I’m only going to mention the most recent, as I don’t know if some of the older ones are still running. I’d highly recommend any writing workshop run by Kate Forsyth http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/ and Brian Falkner http://www.brianfalkner.com/ Both of these successful authors are approachable, informative, and extremely giving.

Care to share?

Have you attended a writing workshop that you would like to recommend to others? Please share in the comments section!

Photo credit: jwyg / Foter / CC BY-SA Sean MacEntee / Foter / CC BY

10 comments

    • Hi Melinda. Libraries and bookstores, yes. Some might also be run after-hours at local schools. Do you have any community colleges nearby? Have a look in your local newspaper for ads. There are plenty of online workshops, of course, but it’s nice getting to meet other writers in person!

  1. Here in California one of the best conferences I attended is organized by SCBWI (Society Children Books Writers and Illustrators) in Pacific Grove at the Asilomar Institute. SCBWI organizes many conferences, but this one is a yearly event especially interesting since agents, editors and at least one renowned author attend. The format is friendly so you can eat with them, which gives you a unique opportunity to talk about books and the business around writing in a pretty laid-back ambiance. In addition you can send some work for critique and get to meet an agent or editor of your choice who will discuss your project.
    Besides the coast of California is gorgeous and the setting very inspirational for writers and illustrators alike.
    Cheers!

    • Thanks Evelyne! There are SCBWIs all over the place, including one here in Oz. I’ll give them a try, on your recommendation!

  2. For fiction writing (not just screenwriting), Karel Segers is good at describing the common structures and motifs of time-tested successful stories. His website is http://www.thestorydepartment.com. Stella’s own workshop (I dare say) is particularly good at informing on the business side of writing – including contracts and residuals (which is a much-neglected area in teaching). In addition, much like the case of writers’ groups (which I have already commented on some time ago), the value of a given writing workshop depends, in part, on where you are at as a writer and how seriously/commercially focused you are about writing. A more ‘fluffy’ and basic course would suit a hobbyist, or someone just seeking social interaction with like-minded people. (Not meaning to denigrate these people, mind you, as they are the lifeblood of all workshop presenters, including myself.) Whereas someone who is already on a committed career path (for example, is well into their first or second novel manuscript) would require a more specialised workshop with a presenter that has a proven track record in the genre they are working in. In other words, a more focused participant requires a more focused workshop.
    Steven Fernandez

    • Steven, thanks for mentioning my workshops, I was beginning to worry! As for the rest, you’re as insightful as ever. Thanks 🙂

  3. Like you, Stella, I like a workshop to be focused (both as an instructor and participant). As well as the problems you mention, I have to admit I get upset (when I’m a participant) when another participant explains at length all the problems they have with writing. While I sympathize, I think they are sometimes so fearful about having to write that they want to delay the moment of being given the instruction! My wish is that we all go to workshops open minded and ready to overcome whatever our individual problems are (self consciousness, fear, not having enough time, what’s the point I’ll never get published, etc.).

    Last year I was lucky enough to go to Kenyon Summer Writers Workshop in Gambier, Ohio – a major investment but so worth it because I found myself in the workshop group with Nancy Zafris (series editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, author of ‘The Home Jar’). If anyone is in the U.S. and has the opportunity to go to a workshop given by Nancy – don’t hesitate, sign up immediately. I really liked her intense focus and challenges.

    Good luck with your fall schedule of giving workshops. Looking forward to hearing how they went in your blog.
    Susi

    • Thanks, Susie. I agree it’s frustrating when some participants try to monopolise the classes. I’ve had my share of those! It’s hard as a tutor, because I can see the other participants getting upset. The skill is to bring them in line while keeping them happy! Rather like being a primary school teacher, I imagine! Thanks also for sharing your recommendation 🙂

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