The Pros and Cons of Writing Workshops

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the value of writing clubs and writing workshops. This is mostly because I am working on an article that touches on this topic and because I recently joined the committee of my University’s writing club.

Writing clubs and workshops are a contentious topic among writers.

Stephen King hates them.
Chuck Wendig believes they can be useful.
Cheryl Strayed and Chuck Palahniuk belong to the same one.

Other authors such as Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert and Dani Shapiro value privacy during their writing process, though they do seek out the advice of other writer friends after they have completed their final draft but before they submit it to an editor. Where writers club and writers workshops focus on experimentation and feedback on works in progress, Patchett, Gilbert and Shapiro only invite other authors into their writing room once they themselves feel confident with the work.

Writers need feedback and they need community.

You don’t have to be a member of an organised club. You don’t have to attend monthly meetings. You don’t have to read stories that aren’t your jam. But these practices can add real value and understanding to your own writing process.

Most writing clubs have a pretty simple structure. Writers distribute copies of their work to club members prior to the meeting, then the writer shuts their trap as each group member delivers their in-person critique. By nit-picking other members’ work, the idea is that each writer will better identify the weakness in their own work.

Workshops and clubs also provide writers with the opportunity to experiment with different writing exercises and techniques. I used to do a lot of writing exercises, but these days hardly any. When I get time to write, I want to work on a short story, a novel or this blog. I want to sit down and produce something specific, something that can go out into the world in some form.

Writing exercises are made for scrap notebooks, so don’t go publishing that stuff online.

Writing exercises stretch your technical ability by introducing you to new literary devices and then challenging you to apply them. Writing clubs and workshops give you the time, space and permission to mess around with your writing. Rather than relying on the tricks you’ve already mastered, these exercises push you to produce prose for the sole purpose of learning. Writing clubs and workshops aren’t about perfection, they are about mess.

They are also about community. Being able to talk about your writing process, about books that you love and resources that support you is part of the package. There is value in sharing your successes with people who really get what a big achievement publication or getting shortlisted is. People who know what it is like to open a vein and to bleed onto the page. People who share your passion for words and stories, truth and beauty.

Workshops and clubs are a safe place where you can present works in progress, but they are also places of critical growth. Let’s not sugar coat this. Having someone point out the (many) typos, flaws and weaknesses in your writing can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and even maddening. Sharing your art with someone is vulnerable, even when you know it isn’t perfect; perhaps because you know it isn’t perfect. It’s hard to have fifteen people point out what isn’t working in your piece, but if you want to grow and develop as a writer then you need to know what your weak points are so that you can start to strengthening them.

Of course, writing clubs and workshops also have their dark side. If a club consists solely of beginning writers, some discernment regarding the quality each members’ feedback may be needed. Such instances can feel a little like the blind leading the blind as members are qualified more as readers than they are as writers. Perhaps you are extraordinarily luckily and you have a professional editor in your club, but chances are you don’t. When feedback slips into personal preferences or ‘this works for me and this doesn’t work for me’, then members are not critiquing submissions on their own merits nor are they acknowledging the author’s unique voice or style.

Similarly, I have also seen how club members can begin to mimic the critique styles of others. If confident members of the group favour a minimalize style and present their feedback in accordance with their personal tastes, then less confident members of the group hear these opinions and start to adopt them as their own. Such a person may even extend these opinions to their own writing as they strip all decoration from their descriptions, dialogue and prose. If you become familiar with the type of feedback style of each member, you may become overly self-conscious and begin censoring yourself in order to avoid having John point out your love of adjectives – again! Eventually, this may lead to all members sounding more or less the same.

That being said, I personally think writers club and workshops are valuable and like everything in life, you got to take the good with the bad. Writers clubs and workshops aren’t essential they are just another nifty tool you can use. If you join a club and realise it is not for you, then great! You just figured out something about your creative process. The main thing to remember with writing clubs and workshops is that members’ critiques are really just a bunch of suggestions. If someone makes a comment that doesn’t land with you, then you can exercise your authority as an author and ignore it. However, if six people say your dialogue is a bit on the nose…well… then it probably is.

Writing demands time alone – hell that’s half the appeal! – but sometimes this solitude slips into loneliness. It’s nice to talk about the struggles we are encountering with others who have encountered them. It’s nice to have someone recognise an elegant sentence that took two hours to write. It’s nice when someone picks up a subtle literary reference.

Writing clubs and workshops offer community, encouragement and support. They are a place where you can be productive and goof-off. The trick to their success lies in our ability to recognise them for the beasts that they are: a dog that can bite and befriend you.

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