Writing Workshops

By Margaret Pearce

Everyone wants to belong to a good workshop. And it is useless for writers to sigh and grouch about the deficiencies of their workshops. Writers are always on the lookout for a really supportive one for three most evident reasons.

First. Writing is a solitary occupation and all writers need feedback. Feedback is a writer’s life blood. Feedback can make the difference between a manuscript being good or mediocre.

Learning to write successfully uses the same skills as learning to balance and like bike riding can only be learned by constant practise. Having to produce work for workshops helps give the incentive to keep writing and keep revising. Some writing workshops are very beginner friendly, with instant exercises to rouse creativity and a healthy curiosity in semantics and the ancestry of words.

Second. No-one outside a workshop is really interested in what or how you write. Other writers are the only ones who are genuinely interested. Most friends and families think it is some sort of weird masochistic thing you closet yourself away to do because you are some sort of deviant. Only your workshop is supportive enough to share the ups and downs of acceptances and rejections.

Third. A writer, like a prophet, is without honour in his own territory. To be treated with respect under your own roof, you need to frame that first cheque, commendation, or prize certificate. Writing is a very tough profession and without the protection of a healthy self esteem which can be nurtured in a good workshop, writers sink without trace, or in extreme cases commit suicide.

This returns us to the most important reason for running a good workshop. Other writers are the insiders and outsiders who can see where you are in the balancing act between exploring and extending your own writing style or writing to the pleasing accompaniment of a cash register.

There is nothing wrong with writing to the pleasing accompaniment of a cash register, and may you cry all the way to the bank about your contemptuous and unfavourable reviews. There is also nothing wrong with exploring and extending your own writing style - it is your sacred duty as a human being to fully extend your extremely unique talents.

Good workshops help writers to understand balance. If you are too focussed and self centred on extending yourself, you fall into the trap of extending and nourishing your ego instead of your talent. If your writing is deaf to everything except the pleasing clink of the cash register, you fall into the trap of literary prostitution, equally fatal to talent.

All writers carry on about the deficiencies of their own workshops, without realising it is the very deficiencies of their particular circle that make it so successful.

A writing workshop is often composed of that most unhelpful of all entities, an undisciplined mob of individuals. The only thing writers have in common is that they all acknowledge that writing is a form of communication and everyone of them is determined to communicate.

Writers come from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Whether their background knowledge is of writing scholarly, technical, novel, short story or romance novels, a workshop needs every single one of their viewpoints. Their disparate feedback, interruptions, lavish praise, adverse criticism, contradictory and/or helpful/unhelpful advice, and blank misinterpretation build together to form the complete whole of that multi-eyed monster that everyone is writing for - the eventual target, aim and market of your work.

Writers who attend the same workshops end up being incestuously close. You learn more about each other than your closest family members and end up bonded into a close supportive group who know each other’s writings like their own. This makes it even harder to detach and give good constructive criticism.

It is destructive and time wasting to criticise ideology, viewpoint, attitude or context. Writing is about communication and how anything is being communicated is the relevant issue. Keep your distaste for bad English, cliches, tautologies, banalities, and muddled syntax to yourself and criticise constructively.

It is not relevant and wasting group time to:

Be reminded of a personal experience and falling into personal reminiscence of how it has affected you.

To praise a piece of writing without analysing why you see it as good.

To condemn a piece of writing without analysing why you see it as bad.

To sidetrack off to ride a favourite hobby horse.

To get maximum use out of a workshop it should be run professionally. This means you read your contribution in turn and listen carefully to the feedback around your circle, making sure that when it is your turn that your feedback is constructive, relevant, and concise. To be constructive and helpful it is the writing you have to comment on, not the writer or the context or the ideology.

Accept and acknowledge that ‘writers various are gregarious’. This is the up side of writing workshops. All writers love talking - we are the direct descendants of the original oral story tellers after all. Nobody should be rapped over the knuckles because writers are compulsive talkers and do so, at the top of their voices and over every one else’s, if they can get away with it. Once again, no matter how satisfying this is, it does not make for a professional and helpful writing workshop and wastes group time.

So restrain your impulse to be inspired by some piece of writing to talk about yourself and your experiences.

Write about it instead and read it to your captive audience at your next writers’ next meeting.


  1. I've belonged to the same critique group since 1981. Of course people have come and gone and new ones come in as replacements.

    I consider these writers my first editors. I've read everyone of my books to them, chapter by chapter.

    No, I don't always agree--but I don't have to say so--I'll take a good look the next day when I'm working on the chapter and maybe change far more than was suggested. It's just a good way to get my brain to take a look in a different way.


  2. I had a hard time finding a critique group, so I just got a bunch of friends together who don't write and asked them to edit for me.


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