should i attend a writers workshop

Alert readers already know we’re big fans of writing conferences. They’re a great tool for beginning and intermediate writers alike, and offer information, contacts, and encouragement you won’t find anywhere else.

But we haven’t talked much about writer’s workshops. Which we’re going to fix starting today.

What Is a Writer’s Workshop?

A writer’s workshop is similar to a writing conference in that it’s a thing you pay to attend to help advance your writing career. It often has a celebrity or expert speaker leading activities, and usually takes place somewhere you’ll be spending the night.

Beyond that, they are very different animals. In many ways, they’re like undergraduate school vs. pursuing a master’s degree. They both do a lot of the same things, but in different ways and with a different focus.

As compared to writer’s conferences, writer’s workshops…

…are smaller. The best writer’s conferences have over a thousand people in attendance, and even smaller ones host a hundred or more. Most writer’s workshops fill up at the dozen-or-so mark, with the largest still clocking in at no more than 50. Larger groups just don’t work for the goals and methods in a legitimate workshop.

…last longer. Though the shortest workshops last only a weekend–the same as a longer conference–many last as long as a week. Some even run for a fortnight, though it’s hard for most writers with day jobs to justify that much time away from work and family.

…cost more. Smaller, longer events with extra personal attention cost more than short, systematized events with hundreds in attendance. Your participation in a writer’s workshop will be an investment. It’s up to you to make certain what you do afterward makes it a good one.

…demand more of you. It’s possible to show up at a writer’s conference and passively take in information without giving anything  to the event in return. Workshops require active participation. They provide you and your work with personal attention and feedback. It’s one of the biggest points of both attraction and trepidation for this kind of event.

…have narrower focus. A writing conference offers classes on all manner of topic. You can attend a class on dialogue, followed by one on building your social media platform, and then take something on turning your book into a script treatment. That variety of foci is available in the entirety of workshops offered, but each workshop will focus on just one or two aspects of your writing career.

…deliver a personal product. That wide variety of options at a writer’s conference also comes at the cost of being standardized. The hundred people in a lecture all receive the same lecture. At a writer’s workshop, you will receive personalized instruction on taking your work from where it is to where it should be. Some workshops produce a polished portion of your manuscripts. Others send you home with an optimized website. The focus will vary, but you will leave with something created just for you with the help of experts who examined your work.

None of those differences mean that one event is better or worse than another. They just mean the events serve different needs for writers at different stages of their journey.

The only “better or worse” involved is which works best for you right now.

It’s worse to go to a writer’s conference when your work needs the detailed focus of a workshop, or to spend the time and money on a workshop when what you need is a conference.

It’s better to go to the event that offers what you most need.

Which begs the question:

Conference or Workshop?

Like I’ve been saying, both are great. The question is which kind of event you’re most ready for this year.

Attend a Conference If:

  • You’re reading writer’s magazines and blogs and need to look up industry terms.
  • You have a lot of experience and are looking mostly to network.
  • You’re strong on craft but need to widen your business acumen
  • You’ve finished a book and are looking for what to do next.
  • You’re not yet reading writers’ magazines and blogs.
  • You feel you’re stagnating because you don’t know what to do with your career.
  • You’ve been to a workshop in the last year, but not to a conference.

Attend a Workshop If:

  • You’re looking to form deep relationships with a handful of peers and mentors.
  • You feel like you need deep help with a single aspect of your writing.
  • You have a manuscript you can’t call “finished” yet but you don’t know what it needs.
  • Your local critique group has pushed your manuscript as far as they can, but you’re not there yet.
  • You feel you’re stagnating because you don’t know what to do with your writing.
  • You are having trouble deciding which direction to take your writing career.
  • You’ve been to several conferences but not to a workshop.

Are You Ready for a Writer’s Workshop?

Before you plunk down the money and time to attend a workshop, you have to make certain your own writing is ready to leverage the kind of investment these events require.

That means looking both at your work, and at yourself, to confirm both are ready.

Is Your Work Ready?

A writing workshop isn’t someplace to get top-level, general advice about structure and setting and the fundamentals of writing.

It’s where people will take a good draft and help you make it a great draft. It’s where your existing social media becomes effective social media, not where you set up your Facebook account.

If you show up without the foundation in place, a workshop won’t help you build your house. It will just make you feel bad from looking at all these great houses being built around you.

That said, you don’t need to come with a polished and complete manuscript.

In fact, you shouldn’t. A spell-check is polite, but expect to make broad, deep, and sweeping changes to your work while you’re there. There’s no sense in spending a month before the workshop proofreading punctuation when the workshop might axe entire paragraphs.

So how ready is ready enough?

Bring a complete rough draft that’s been hit by a couple of alpha readers and changed for the better. Anything less won’t have enough substance to benefit. More is okay, but too much more usually means you’ve wasted some effort before showing up.

Are You Ready?

There are two kinds of ready when you’re talking about a writer’s workshop. There’s ready for the workshop itself, and ready for what comes after.

To be ready for the workshop itself, you need to be prepared to hear and accept major critiques to your work. If you’re still arguing with your home critique group, if a negative remark still puts you in bed for a day in depression, if you still believe every sentence of your work is perfect…you are not ready for a workshop.

You must come to a workshop ready to have your work torn to pieces, then put back together better. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with every change anybody suggests. It does mean you have to be able to rationally judge the changes on their own merits, not to just gainsay all criticism because you “can’t handle the truth.”

As for what comes after, remember that you will leave the workshop energized and inspired, and with a looooooong to-do list.

If your life is in the kind of order where you can spend the two months after the workshop going through that to-do list, then you’re ready. If it’s more chaotic, to the point that you’ll spend a month helping your life recover from your absence and the next month recovering from that…get your shit together and go to a workshop the following year. You will not be able to leverage the investment of a workshop without the ability to focus on what you’ve learned.

One last point on this. It’s okay if you or your work isn’t quite 100% ready, but if you’re ready to be ready, it’s likely you’ll find the workshop (and the weeks leading up to it) make you ready enough to benefit.

How to Attend a Writer’s Workshop

So you’re ready to go to a writer’s workshop.

Here’s what you need to know to make the most of it.

What Kind of Workshop Should You Attend?

What I’ve said above is true of (nearly) every kind of workshop you’ll encounter, but each is its own kind of animal. Because they’re so personalized, and expensive, you should only go to a workshop that closely matches your needs as a writer.

Let’s take a look at the 3 main types.

1. Topic-Focused

These workshops are built around helping you accomplish a specific goal: craft on the page, scope and sweep of narrative, dialogue, preparing for publication, self-publishing, platform building, genre focus…so many different potential topics are out there you will find one that fits what you need.

Topic-focused workshops tend not to draw the biggest names, but do end up taught by competent professionals who know what they’re doing. They often give the most value, since they’re not coasting on a headlining teacher or spiffy location to bring the attendees. For beginners, they’re also good because most regions have at least one…you won’t have to shell out for travel on top of your tuition.

2. Celebrity-Focused

These workshops are built around the staff list. Though they still have a tight concentration on the kind of help you’ll get, the real pull is who you’ll get to work with. This can be a great opportunity to help build your confidence as a writer, because you get to find out this huge celebrity is just a person…meaning you can succeed, too.

On the other hand, some celebrity-focused workshops cash in on name over investing in quality. Not all, by any means, but they’re worth checking out with previous attendees. That said, if the headlining celebrities are masters at exactly what you’re trying to fix, these can be amazing opportunities.

Plus, you end up Facebook friends with the people you want to be like when you grow up. Which is pretty darn cool.

3. Destination-Focused

These workshops are half workshop, half vacation. These are the events that take place in a Scottish castle, or on a cruise ship, or in some impossibly luxurious resort on a tropical island. Even better, they tend to negotiate lodging prices to where they stay is within reach of a working writer.

Like celebrity-focused workshops, destination workshops sometimes put too much focus on the non-writing draw. They make their bones from the beautiful setting of the workshop rather than the quality of the instruction. There’s also some strong temptation to spend your time enjoying the locale instead of working on your writing.

But when that’s not true–when the organizers put their focus where it should be, and structure time so you put your focus where you need it — these can be some of the best workshops of all.

Peer Workshopping

There is a species of writing event called a workshop that doesn’t really qualify as one for our purposes today. These are events where somebody leads a group of aspiring writers to critique and workshop one another’s writing. Often that somebody is a moderately successful writer, or an aspiring writer with a teaching credential.

Such a workshop typically lasts an afternoon, or a full day, or is run remotely over the course of several weeks. They also cost a lot less than a “regular” workshop.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of workshop event. You can get a lot out of them, and I encourage you to try at least one. But it’s a very different animal from what I’m talking about in this article. Don’t apply what I’m telling you here to those. It’s apples and oranges.

What’s In a Writer’s Workshop?

Regardless of what kind of workshop you attend, they will all include many common components:

  • Peer review sessions where you and other participants talk about what’s strong in each other’s work and what needs changing.
  • Critique and/or mentoring sessions with the experts on staff. Sometimes these take place alongside the peer review. Sometimes they’re special sessions one-on-one or in smaller groups. Sometimes you get those critiques exclusively in writing or comments on your word doc.
  • Social and networking time: downtime or guided activities where you get to know your teachers and fellow participants. This happens naturally during meal times, but many workshops offer other sessions for this as well.
  • Classes where a staff member delivers a lecture or other instruction about a specific aspect of what you’re all there to learn.
  • Writing sessions, during which you’re expected to put hands on keyboard and butt in chair and write hard, with the advice you’ve received in mind.

Depending on the workshop, the menu might involve any number of other activities including public readings, sightseeing, non-writing classes in any number of things, celebrity visits…the list is long, and limited only by the opportunities afforded by the workshop’s staff and location.

writers workshop dos and don'ts

Writer’s Workshop Do’s and Dont’s

The final thing to keep in mind about workshops is that you are the central piece of this puzzle. How you think and act during the workshop is the most important factor governing whether you will get value from this serious investment.

To that end, consider this list of dos and don’ts. For some, it’s a reminder of what to expect and what will be expected. For others, it can be one last “are you ready” check before committing to a workshop.

Do review your orientation materials and show up with everything they suggest you bring. Especially finished work and printed pages. Bring exactly what’s asked of you in exactly the format instructed. Anything else wastes time and shows disrespect to everybody else in the workshop as they scramble to accommodate for whatever you did decide to bring.

Don’t be shy about your writing. There is no such thing as “not ready” or “too personal” or “too ______” once you’re in the chair at the workshop. This is a safe space for you to share your work, and the pieces of yourself that went into it. You will not be ousted, or judged, or laughed at, for your sincere and authentic literary attempt.

Do your part to keep the workshop a safe space for everybody. Although you will be asked to critique the writing and even the ideas (more on that in a minute), never say anything negative about the person. Be as encouraging as you can while remaining honest in your critique.

Don’t show up with unready material. If what you bring to the workshop isn’t at least finalized enough for you to have a solid handle on it, critiques can drive it so far off course you never get back to what you wanted to do. Whatever you’re supposed to show up with, show up with it in a form you’re confident with and even proud of.

Do thoughtfully read and make notes on other’s writing. Whatever you’re asked to critique, critique it as thoughtfully as you would your own work–and with twice as much kindness. Many experts suggest making sure you have at least three strong comments for each piece you review, so you’ll still have something to say if participants who speak before you say what you had in mind.

Don’t ramble or eat up all the time. If you and five other people have an hour to critique one another’s work, do what you can to keep each person’s work on the table for 10 minutes. This is a huge problem for many workshops and other critique groups, and fixing it is everybody’s responsibility.

Do strike the right balance when hearing suggestions. You shouldn’t reject criticism out of hand, but you should stick to your guns on things you did on purpose and for good reason. This is tricky to nail on the first time–and when in doubt, you should accept the critique–but always be striving for that sweet spot in the middle.

Don’t argue with criticism, even if it’s criticism you’ll eventually decide to ignore. It’s considered rude, and turns critique into a conversation that can eat up time so quickly nobody else gets a turn. Remain silent, or simply ask follow-up or clarifying questions to make certain you understand what the critiquer means.

Do focus on the big-picture concepts within pieces you critique and your own work. Workshops are not the place for grammar quibbles or copy editing. Those are things each writer will fix once they’ve got the paragraphs, pages, and chapters all sorted out.

Don’t skip anything. Even if you’re tired, or hungover, or discouraged, or angry, or whatever other reaction you might have had to a great night or a rough critique. Treat each session as a new event, and get everything you can out of it. You’ll have spent a lot on this opportunity- too much to waste.

Do get enough sleep before and during the workshop. You’re going to do some heavy brain work for the entire length of the event. Fatigue does not let you do that well. Even with the temptations of writing just one more line, or having just one more glass of wine with that amazing person you met, get the shut-eye you need to do your work the next day.

Workshops and Conferences

Like I said at the beginning, a writer’s workshop does the same job as a writer’s conference–but with a different flavor, different goals, and different demands on you as you participate.

If you like one and not the other, then your choice is clear: Do the one that works for you.

But if you don’t have a strong preference, we really recommend both. Start with conferences, and when you feel you and your work are ready…jump on board with a local workshop to give your work the individual attention it deserves.

Have you attended a writer’s workshop? Share your thoughts on the experience in the comments!


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