Getting the most out of your workshop

It sounds a bit dull, but a writing workshop should be approached with the same level of preparation as a board meeting. It needs a clear objective, an enthusiastic chairperson, open-minded participants, and, most importantly, doughnuts.

The objective is much the same every week (or every fortnight, or every month): everyone should leave the session with a warm fuzzy glow, basking in the admiration of their literary prowess, and with a clear idea on what needs fixing. (Personally, I think how they should be fixed is down to the writer, but suggestions are always welcome.) I’m not sure what’s the ideal number for a writing workshop, but in my MA group there were seven and that seemed to work pretty well. Since then I’ve worked with just two other people and that’s been just as good. The important thing is that you meet regularly to keep the momentum going and that everyone has plenty of time to read (carefully!) each piece and make notes. The notes are very important; you don’t want to arrive at the workshop and look as though you read six pieces while driving there. For this reason, it’s often a good idea if the chair sends an email reminder a few days before, just to remind folk.

During the meeting, the chair should keep a close eye on the time to ensure that everyone’s piece gets a fair crack. If you’ve all agreed half an hour per piece then stick to it, rigidly; tolerate no overruns. You can always pick it up again in Starbucks afterward. Make sure everyone has a say and keep the group from straying too far from the point. If there’s some disagreement over factual content then the author can look up the details later; don’t get bogged down in the detail. The aim is to critique the quality of the overall piece. Likewise, stuff like spelling and grammar only needs a brief mention, not a half-hour inquisition. Basically, the writer wants to know if the piece, as a whole, works.
Having said all that, you may occasionally get presented with a ‘rush job’: a piece of work so appalling (poor spelling, missing sentences, shocking grammar, crimes against punctuation) that it takes you an hour to critique the first page. Be patient with it if you can, but bear in mind you have five other pieces to read too. The chances are that others in the group are in the same boat, so drop a polite note to the offending member, point out (carefully!) that this piece wasn’t up to their usual standard, and perhaps he’d like to have another crack at it. Personally, if I haven’t had time to put my best piece of work forward then I’d sooner skip my critique for that session, and I think most people would feel the same.

As well as keeping everyone to time, the chairman should make sure that everyone gets a say. Groups are a mixture: some people are shy, some won’t shut up, but I’ve yet to attend a workshop where someone has nothing of value to contribute – unless they didn’t read the piece.
The thing about the quiet ones is that they’re meticulous readers and so are the most likely to have spotted the hole in your plot big enough to drive a bus through. Ignore them at your peril.

Every so often, you may get asked to explain some part of your work. If one person is asking then fine, they may have missed the point you are trying to make. Tell them what you meant and then make a note to look at revising it later; perhaps it just needs tightening up, or perhaps they read the passage while watching the last few minutes of the Kylie gig (guilty!).
Still, if the whole group looks vacant and treats you to a collective ‘I just don’t get it’ then I’m afraid you still have work to do. I’ve sat in groups where the person under review calmly explains what they meant and seems satisfied when the group nods and moves on. My next comment is usually something like this:

‘When someone buys your book, you won’t be there to explain that to them, will you?’

After the workshop, give yourself a few days to mull over the changes; don’t try to fix everything quickly and don’t slavishly shoehorn in every suggestion the group made. It is possible that all seven of them are wrong (though this is highly unlikely). As the author, the final decision as to what is best for your work rests with you.

Now, on the question of doughnuts. Most of the big chains do a reasonably priced dozen. Krispy Kremes are a bit more expensive but do a nice assortment of flavours. If you’re buying the box then you are well within your rights to nab your favourite before the workshop starts. I have been known to nab two which is not recommended and can lead to violence. If you remember to bring a box of moist wipes, you will be considered a workshop god.

Thanks for reading 🙂

0 thoughts on “Getting the most out of your workshop”

  1. Dom,
    Having performed the role of Chairperson on a few occasions, I can vouch for the need to adhere (realistically, but not pedantically) to a pre agreed agenda.

    Apart from the early years, spent as a, Telegraphic Communications Expert (GPO Telegram Delivery Boy), before qualifying as a Long Range Hit Man, for, Her Majesty the Queen (16th Light, Royal Artillery), I spent most of my working life gainfully employed as a welder, by Massey Ferguson, in their Industrial and Constructional Machinery Div. Manchester.

    MF, as it was know, was a great place to work. Even in the era of, The Macho Manager, that concept never gained a foothold. Relations between, workforce, union, and managers, was for the most part, exceptionally amiable.

    One brilliant indication of this great relationship, was the phone call, received by the work’s Convener, from the HR manager, asking if he fancied a short course for his shop stewards, on performing the role of, ‘Chairman of the meeting’. That way the Chairmanship of meetings between both sides, would become the prerogative of both sides.The main realisation, that emerged from this short course, was that, The Chairman/ person. was the, Master of the Universe, or at least the part of the Universe that fell within his/her remit.

    During my time as a shop steward, one frequently occurring phenomenon, at Shop steward Committee Meetings, was, one steward or another, sat astride their favourite hobbyhorse, would have us all glassy/cross eyed with excruciating boredom and sliding off our seats. Of course, humankind can/will only endure so much punishment without retaliating.

    At times such as this, I used to try and predict whence, or from whom, such retaliation would come. Non of us were above its initiation.

    Slowly, but inexorably, a hand would be raised, to catch the Chairman’s attention. Within a nanno-second, and one could well imagine, almost with a sense of blessed relief, the chairman would say, ” The chair recognises, Bro. Efimovich.”
    “Move progress, Mr Chairman.” Four simple words, but with the power to move men to tears of thanksgiving.
    “All those in favour?” The number of hands reaching for the stars, would transform the table into a field of waving bamboo.
    “The next topic on the agenda, is….”

    “Y’s ‘ll ‘ave t’ run a tight ship, Cap’n.”

    1. Hey Vic … 🙂

      I think the trick is to start the ‘winding down and summing up’ process a few minutes before the thirty minutes is up. That seems to work pretty well. I take your point though: being the chair is pretty hard work, so it’s a good idea to rotate it every few sessions or so. And you’re absolutely right: Don’t let the sessions run on so long that folk dread coming to the next one.

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