Productive Workshopping by L.J. Bothell

Whether writing for love or a paycheck, any steady writer experiences a phase in which his/her writing isn’t quite making the grade or goals. This can be an excellent time to consider workshopping to jump the hurdle and take your writing to the next level. Writer’s workshops can come in several forms, such as a regular meeting (weekly) with the same group of creatives; or spotshopping, in which you visit a single workshop (like during a writing conference) Here are a few things you should look for to get the most out of your workshopping experience:

First, know your writing goals so you can target the right kind of experience for you. If you want to improve your writing with the goal of being published, look for a group which aims for publication, not for giving each other strokes. Groups publish often have a screening process to check your resolution, a weekly check-in to see who has submitted what, and market info-swaps so everyone shares new places to submit work. If you want support during the creative process without concern for publication, look for that kind of group. However, be aware you might get a lot of ongoing manuscript assessment but no real sense of ‘completion’ in this kind of group.

Second, look for a group which provides diverse energies of genders and background strengths. A fair mix of males and females can help provide more balanced and realistic insight into your work. Groups with diverse backgrounds and strengths can help you target different parts of your work. For instance, one member might be very focused on the accuracy of your technical issues, while another focuses on emotional/touchy-feely authenticity. Some writers are better able to focus on format and proofing issues, others on major issues with plot and theme, and still others lean toward technique issues. A good blend of these will help you balance your work. Also, look for a reasonable size where everyone can be fully involved and assisted – 3-4 critiquers might provide too few viewpoints; 8-12 or more might provide too little quality time.

Third, look for a group that has a supportive format. This does not mean easy, huggy, or always complimentary. You are looking for peers, not friends here. However, no creative needs a group of people who belittle their ideas or put down honest and consistent efforts. The idea of productive workshopping is to get at the meat of your writing issues and help you to recognize and solve them. Group members should not focus on their own personal likes, dislikes, and personal visions; the focus of each critique should be on how you can best improve communicating YOUR vision. Helpful groups can separate the work from the writer and the group personalities.

Fourth, select a group which works with similar genres and levels. If you are a new writer, a really professional group will be intimidating; conversely, if you have made a number of sales and want to push to the next level, new writers won’t present much challenge for you. Consider the type of writing you all do as well. If you are a mixed bag, great. If you write sci-fi and end up in a romance group, not great. Look for other authors who write a range of related topics or who totally generalize so you can gain the benefit of diversity, but not confusion.

Fifth, make there are expectations of what you the group expects. Are there specific rules for contributing, such as frequency, number of pages, number of times for the same manuscript, etc.? Is there a set style for critiquing, like read at home and discuss in workshop, or everyone discusses while you listen and question at the end? If you have to deal with a disorganized free-for-all, you might not get a helpful series of critiques.

Sixth, choose a group that spends critique time critiquing. It can be tempting to spend time catching up, traipsing in late, and commenting on worries or rejections, but a really helpful group won’t do that. Instead, it should have assignments and swaps at the end of the group in preparation for the next meeting time, rather than losing 20 minutes swapping and getting organized. Style and times of individual critiques should be set so everyone gets to have a say and everyone’s work gets covered. Face-to-face time should be used for stuff that can’t be done anywhere else – like listening to issues about a manuscript and addressing them in a Q&A.

The important thing to remember about writer’s workshops is that you need to know your writing goals before going in, be willing to try more than one workshop group to find the right fit, and to recognize when you’ve reached the plateau with the group so you can leave and go to the next level. You should look for a group that will be generally supportive to the creative process, will help make your work salable, help you get assistance with marketing, and even help you and brainstorming early concepts. Good luck!


L.J. Bothell is a graphic designer/writer with marketing communications emphasis who lives and temps/freelances in Seattle, Washington. Questions? Contact with the title in the subject header.

Copyright L.J. Bothell 2003

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