The Writer’s Workshop – What to Expect

This post, in a lot of ways, relates to my previous writing about how to get your poetry out there, because it’s yet another way of sharing your work as a fledgling writer, and something of a rite of passage for many writers of various genres.

OCA students, of course, are distance learners learning individually, just as I am a distance tutor, marking your work, for the most part, on my own.  We all have our reasons for this of course. Perhaps we want to ensure that study fits around work and family commitments, or perhaps distance or access to the learning environment is difficult. Maybe, of course, we just like it this way, and I’m certainly not saying a writer’s workshop has to be for you. But perhaps it’s worth trying just once, to see if it helps produce work or gives you a feeling of community.

So you’ve seen a writing workshop advertised, and you’re keen to give it a go. The writer’s workshop is a way of finding ears and feedback and advice for your writing and there are two main kinds: workshops that generate ideas, and workshops where writers get together and critique work that they have already written (I’m not counting book clubs as they are more about developing as a reader than a writer, but they’re nevertheless a great idea). Both styles can be hugely helpful and useful in your writing development, but it’s definitely worth making sure you know what kind of workshop you’re headed for before you go.

If it’s the first kind, you’ll need a notebook and pen and an open mind. Prompts of all kinds will be set for you to think about and write from. I’ve run workshops like this in all kinds of places – in museums, art galleries and even in a local woodland (thankfully it didn’t rain). You might be given a text to look at, or encouraged to find an exhibit to write about, or prompted with a piece of music or a picture. The aim is to kick your brain into action and have you leave the session having tried (if not finished) some new ideas, styles and shapes of writing.

Depending on the workshop tutor and how much they like you to join in, you may need to be prepared to read some of what you’ve written back to the group. As a workshop attendee my policy is always to volunteer to read back the first half-decent thing I write, just to take the pressure off. Don’t feel pressure to read back at all if you don’t want to though, I’m a firm believer in this being optional.

The second kind of workshop requires a greater amount of trust in your co-readers. After all, this isn’t something you’ve dashed off as a ten-minute exercise, it’s something you’ve crafted and thought deeply about. You’ll need to make sure you take copies of your work (enough for however many people will be at the workshop) and a pen and paper to note down their feedback.

There are a few rules, explicit or implicit, to a critiquing workshop, and I’d like to give you a couple of them here.  Firstly, while your work is being critiqued, talk as little as possible (it may actually be required by rule that you don’t talk at all). Write down what people say, and when they’ve come to the end of their feedback you can ask questions. There’s nothing worse than a writer getting defensive whilst others are critiquing their work. You don’t have to change the piece of writing based on their feedback if you don’t agree, but you do have to listen to what they have to say. The second rule is keep to time. Usually everyone will be allotted ten or fifteen minutes for feedback, and try not to go over that if you can.

The third and probably the most important rule is that of constructive criticism. Don’t make a statement such as ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘it does nothing for me’ but rather think about a specific thing you would change, and why. It will be much more useful to the person whose work you’re critiquing. Sharing criticism as a reader is a huge part of knowing your own work too, and will give you a vital insight that you might be able to make use of in your reflective writing for your OCA assignments.

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