6 Steps to a Winning Writing Workshop

When you’re just starting to share your work as a creative writer, you hear people say they’ve been “workshopped.” When, you might ask, did the word workshop become a verb? It sounds painful, like you’ve been bent over a sawhorse and violated with a jigsaw. When done right a workshop is far more pleasant than that, but the process of having your writing critiqued by peers and instructors is an inexact science. Someone who has been “workshopped” could find themselves bursting with new ideas for their writing. Or they simply could feel happy that nice people said nice things to them about their writing without learning anything new. Or they could feel resentment and anger.

Don't let these cute penguins fool you; they're leading you to Santa's Workshop, not a writing workshop. There are no elves in a writer's workshop (unless it's a fantasy fiction group) but there can be magic. (Taken at the Gaylord ICE show Dec 2009 at National Harbor)

Conducting a writing workshop is delicate, because the human ego is delicate. Last month I was blessed to participate in an amazing week-long workshop at my first MFA residency in Montpelier, Vermont. The Vermont College of Fine Arts all but invented the low-residency format back in 1981, and has had 30 years to fine-tune a workshop experience designed to maximize the time students spend on campus, a mere 20 days per year.

Below I’m going to list the 6 key characteristics of the VCFA residency I experienced. Please note that these basic strategies could apply in any setting in which writers are offering other writers feedback on their work, whether it’s in an academic setting or among friends at a coffee shop or living room. I’ve been in various formal (but mostly informal) workshop experiences over the last 20 years, and I never experienced anything as magical or powerful as the VCFA workshop. My local writer’s group has since adopted these basic principles and we’re loving every minute of it. Here goes:

  1. Submit something a bit rough. We all want to look our best, but if your work is perfect, what are you hoping to learn? The writers who seemed to get the most out of their workshop were those who submitted something that wasn’t final but was clean of typos and grammatical challenges; solidly structured; with some passages of true beauty. Knowing it wasn’t a final draft left them open to valuable feedback for improvement.
  2. Give your time and energy in advance. Several weeks before the workshop all of us received the workshop packet, 220 pages of submissions (11 participants, 20 pages apiece). We were expected to read each submission several times before arriving on campus, and encouraged to mark up the manuscripts with notes, questions, etc., with the idea that they would be given to the writer after the workshop. It took a lot of time to analyze that packet, but what a great gift to the writer to be critiqued by 10 well-prepared peers.
  3. Honor the clock. We gave each writer one full hour, always starting precisely on time. The writer would begin by reading a paragraph or two of his/her choosing, then 55 minutes of discussion would commence, with the last 5 minutes left for the writer to respond.
  4. Impose a gag rule. In other words, once the critique begins the writer doesn’t say a word. This can be very difficult indeed, especially when as the writer it’s tempting to explain, elaborate, correct, dispute. The key reason for writer silence is to encourage candid discussion; if there’s no defensiveness that can come from the writer, commentators will be less likely to be intimidated. What if you’re biting your tongue and they go off on some ridiculous tangent? Do you let them? Yes. This is their honest response as readers, so there are no tangents.
  5. I mentioned a workshop could be conducted in your living room. In December of last year I reproduced Santa's workshop in my living room when I created the Crustacean Christmas tree (click image to learn more).

    Encourage free flow of conversation. When the critique session begins, each participant takes a brief moment to mention key points and then passes it on to the next person. This leaves the bulk of the time free for a back-and-forth discussion. Just as in a panel discussion, the real nuggets often occur when someone says something surprising, another responds, and a debate ensues. Long monologues, one after the other, are not the goal here.

  6. At the end the writer has the floor. Just as the writer must remain quiet during the critique, when the critique is done the writer can do with their five minutes what they like. They can ask questions. They can say what they agreed with and point out where they differed. Or they could do what several writers did at VCFA, which was to simply say “Oh. My. God. Um, thank you, that was overwhelming and wonderful and now my brain is dead.”

I mentioned that my writing group has adopted this model, by and large. What I mean by that is that we recognize we have our own realities in terms of how often we meet, the amount of time we have to be together when we do meet, how often people can produce work they can submit, the length of works we have time to read, etc. We’ve done two meetings now with our own hybridization of these guidelines, with some tweaking the second time, and I’m sure we’ll continue to tweak. But we’re all loving it, especially the gag rule.

VCFA’s guidelines are designed to encourage workshop participants to take their responsibilities seriously, to offer criticism in a constructive manner, and to receive criticism in a respectful manner. Any workshop system that embraces those three principles will be a success.

What has worked for you as a workshop participant?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

10 Responses to “6 Steps to a Winning Writing Workshop”

  1. This sounds like a very healthy (though I can imagine challenging for the writer keeping their mouth shut!) way of critiquing each others work, not unlike how we as fine artists critiqued each others work in college. The only difference is the preparation in advance … we only had a minute or two to figure out what we wanted to say for each piece, as it was more about the immediate response to the work rather than going over it with a fine toothed comb.

    Just like the sentence structure and grammar in writing, there are sets of guidelines and road maps that are used (or not) in creating a piece of fine art. The artist’s choices are discussed, people say what they like and don’t like, what works for them or not, and there are LOTS of varying, often disparate thoughts and opinions. Art critiques can feel brutal. When done right, they can be amazingly enlightening.

    I am not currently part of a critique group, though sometimes I do have the opportunity to show my work in front of peers (outside of an exhibition). Funny thing is that now, these meetings seem more of a love fest than an intensely honest look at the work itself and what might be done to make it stronger. (It’s all about what was done right.) Although you are truly putting your heart, soul and guts on the line in a critique group, some honesty (even the not-so-pretty kind) is welcome. I kind of miss that.

    • I’m always curious how the various forms of art vary in all aspects. It’s interesting to read how with a work of visual art you give a quick response. That makes sense, because with a written work the reader takes awhile to work through it, but with visual art the impact for the viewer is immediate. Thanks for sharing, Amy!

  2. This is pretty much exactly how my workshops for my MA were run. The most important rule is the gag rule – if your words confuse the reader you need to know. The words ought to do the work, without the author explaining their intentions.

    • The gag rule is what my local group has really embraced. Glad to hear this is the format of your MA program, I suspect there’s a lot of consistency across Masters programs. What I’ve found as I share my residency experience is that those not yet blessed with that experience (like me for the first 43 years of my life!) really appreciate me sharing how the workshops are structured at VCFA.

  3. Thanks Patrick for describing this workshop process. I hope many writers know and have experienced the valve of this. I’ll share your post with my writers group.

    We use a process suggested by Peter Elbow in “Writing Without Teachers.” We read short passages (up to 5 pages) then give members time to read & make notes on each draft. Then the writer listens to each of us as we focus on what he or she did well, what we believe to the the “center of gravity” in the work, what we felt during our reading, and any questions we have about structure or meaning. We actually don’t give much time to response, except for questions and thanks. This process has improved my writing. I am now willing to submit to contests, I have started and maintain my first blog. Also I’m in the process of polishing my WIP and finding a publisher for my first novel.

    Workshops with solid positive structure provide writers with intelligent, alert, and encouraging readers. We all need thoughtful readers.

    Lately, our group seems tends to drift into discussion on our differing or similar points of view, so I think this would be a productive section to add.

    • Thanks, Deborah! That’s the technique my instructor used in a creative nonfiction class I took earlier this year at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I found it of real value, and a piece I wrote and workshopped in that class was published a couple of months ago! If you aren’t submitting in advance, that’s a great process.

      I’m happy to learn you’re submitting to contests now, and are looking to shop your first novel. Congratulations and best of luck!🙂

  4. I’m was encouraged to read “submit something a bit rough” here. It helps to know that a writer’s group is a learning process, not the step before publication.
    And that Christmas tree? AWESOME! You totally won Christmas.

    • Hi Callie! I figure I can take what I consider to be a finished work and read it to my neighbor’s dog. I can then choose to interpret her barks or non-barks as an enthusiastic endorsement.

      I won Christmas! It sounds like a Dr. Seuss sequel, I like that.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 Steps to Meeting Self-Imposed Deadlines « The Artist's Road - November 15, 2011

    […] a packet of about a dozen other students’ 20-page writing submissions, which I’ll need to read and critique before we’re all workshopped at our next 10-day residency in Montpelier, Vermont over New […]

  2. MFA Nugget: Standing Naked Before Your Peers « The Artist's Road - June 30, 2012

    […] first residency last year, I was really struck with the structure they use for workshop here, and provided their format in a blog post. I use a similar format in the blog-writing workshop I teach at The Writer’s Center. I learn […]

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