The Informal Workshop

One of the best writing workshops I ever had was one that met once a month on a Saturday. It was always at our house, perhaps because it was central. Early afternoon, people would start showing up with manuscripts to be read, which they put out on a table. People would grab a coffee or whatever, a manuscript and then start reading.

No particular arrival time or pre-reading order was set up. No regular attendance was required, and those present varied between eight and ten usually. The only regular event was that in the late afternoon, about five or five-thirty, one of us would go to the store and pick up sandwich goodies. Afterward, people would make sandwiches, sit and eat and chat (or read). When people were ready, we’d start workshopping, in whatever order things came up. Genres included poetry, fiction, and essay. We kept at it until we finished everyone’s manuscript to everyone’s satisfaction, frequently continuing as late as midnight or even two a.m. Members didn’t often socialize between workshops, but the general atmosphere and conversations were delightful, and people trusted and respected one another.

That is the most informal workshop I’ve ever experienced, but every piece of work I ever put through that group was quickly published. All the members were publishing regularly, and many of the names would be recognized by most readers (although I haven’t sought the writers’ permission to list them here). That group is what I most miss about the time we lived in Virginia.

Every workshop has a personality that is composed of how the members interact, and that personality shifts a little every time a new member joins or a long-term member leaves. That is one reason why such groups are often very careful about accepting new members. That is also why it sometimes takes time to find just the right group.

One of the most important concerns is that members share common goals. Some writers intend to publish. Others write to please themselves and have no plans beyond sharing the work with a few friends or family. Other “workshops” are more interested in sharing a sense of community and members may be more interested in writing exercises and discussions about books even though they consider themselves a writing workshop. These different goals rarely meld well with one another.

Because of this, it’s a good idea for a new member to be as careful about joining as it is for a group to approve a new member. Ask questions (not just, “Can I come?”). Also, listen carefully to the answers and think about what you really want from a group. Do not join a group with the idea that you can change its approach. Considering a few details will cut down on the number of groups you have to “try.”

Questions to ask are varied: Find out how formal the group is. Does it have a leader? How many members are there? Do they collect dues or fees? Do they have events (such as readings – one of our local Whidbey Island groups – Whidbey Writers Group — has published several anthologies by their members over the years)? Do they have a regular schedule for meeting or for submitting material? How dependable are the members, both in submitting material and in responding to material? Do they have limits on length or genre? What are the backgrounds and goals of the members? Do members publish their work and, if so, where? Where do they meet?

Some “workshops” are so informal that they never meet. Publishing authors may have a few writer friends with whom they share completed (edited and polished) work before submitting it to editors or agents. Reading, editing and commenting may all be written or discussed over coffee when the manuscript is returned. The key to this sort of relationship is that no one takes advantage. In other words, the exchanges are equal and the responses are balanced. This sort of relationship usually develops gradually, “just happening” between authors who are, first, friends.

Probably the only serious mistake one can make in setting up an informal workshop is to merely ask friends and family who are not connected to writing (such as editors or teachers or writers) “what they think.” This sets up a situation in which people feel compelled to be positive. Even if these readers want to provide concrete suggestions, the comments can be so vague that they aren’t useful for revision. For instance, people will say they “like” or “dislike” the material or a character. Reasons can vary from “Well, it’s just not the type of thing I usually read” to “It’s kind of depressing” to “The character’s name bothers me.” Both writing and giving critiques involve delving into the creative craft of writing, and like any craft or art, terms and techniques are important.

Informal workshops are usually more demanding of members than more formal workshops because the interdependency is strong. The group is only as good as the written material and the responses of each member, so you should make sure your commitment to the group is as strong as you want the group’s commitment to be to you.

Critique & Etiquette

Writing Workshops at Their Best

This was written by Bill Patrick for Southeast Writers’ Handbook (see our books page). Marian Blue was editor for this book that included not only a listing of writing resources for the Southeast, but also a number of outstanding writers giving advice about a wide range of subjects.

 Bill Patrick says that his current workshop format doesn’t utilize quite the same techniques as it did in the early 1990s (see Bill’s Web page address below), but this advice is still wise today.

We all have to understand that criticism is an integral part of every writing workshop. Criticism does not necessarily mean finding faults in the work, though doing merely that would clearly help us all as writers when we revise. Criticism in this context means a highly-tuned and thoughtful response to the work that is being discussed, as if it were published poems or stories, or produced screenplays, or as if we were editors at good literary journals, or as if all our lives depended on it. Critical comments should identify the strengths of the work, so the writer feels encouraged and so that those strengths are not abandoned during revision. Criticism also points to the work’s weaknesses, so the writer can avoid those problems in the next piece, and so those weaknesses are turned into strengths during revision.

There is no substitute for this kind of criticism, and if we are going to improve our writing, we all need it. As writers in a workshop progress, they have to learn to give and receive intelligent and sensitive criticism. Someone unwilling to participate in this process, on the giving and on the receiving ends of it, should question their role in the workshop. Our goal is to help fellow writers improve.

  1. A positive attitude toward criticism is essential. Laughter and/or tears are often natural and appropriate as part of a response.
  2. Criticism always refers to the written piece and never to the writer.
  3. All comments should be intended to help the writer revise and improve the piece under discussion.
  4. Positive and negative statements should be honest and straightforward. Don’t pull your punches.
  5. Criticism should not rest upon subjectivity: “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” as responses, help little. As critic, you need to identify objective details and responses to help the writer understand why you like or don’t like the piece under discussion. You should also try to identify which comments are major and which are minor.
  6. The writer whose piece is under discussion listens attentively and silently to the criticism, and takes notes from each speaker.
  7. Critics should remember that tone of voice and word selection may lead the writer to infer more or less than what is intended. Try to remember Rule #2.
  8. When all the criticism is finished, the writer can ask questions, or respond. As a terrific author once said, though: never explain; never apologize.

William B. Patrick



Reading Poetry: Questions & Directions

by William Patrick


  1. Read the poem at least three times. Each time through will show you something new about the poem. Look for something you like about the poem. If we are readers and writers in a workshop, the information we provide to another writer should be encouraging and helpful.
  1. Ask yourself what voice (point of view) the poem uses. Is the poet speaking directly, or using a persona?  To whom is the poet speaking?  When you know who is speaking, identify what tone they are using, and see how the language used in the poem contributes to or detracts from that tone.
  1. Check to see if the poem uses a rhyme scheme and/or an identifiable, consistent form or meter. Does it create its own new form? Try to determine how the poem’s construction expresses or opposes its content.
  1. Locate the poem’s images. Is the poet creating interesting, concrete word pictures?Does the poet make you see, taste, feel, smell and hear what he or she is talking about, or does the poem rely on abstract language?
  1. Is there a central idea, story, image, or emotion that runs through the poem? What emotions does the poem awaken in you?
  1. Find the figurative language (similes, metaphors, personifications, symbols) in the poem. Do they seem original and unexpected? Do the comparisons and connections deepen, expand, and energize the poem?
  1. Check for distracting cliches. Examine whatever hackneyed language, ideas, and archaic diction you find in the poem, and ask yourself if the poet intended to use them, and why. Is the poem recycling experience or making something new?
  1. Think about how the poet uses consonant and vowel sounds in the poem (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme), and ask yourself if these sounds help the poem come alive for you. Do the sounds mirror the content of the poem?
  1. Look at the poem’s lines — where are they broken; where are they end-stopped; where do they enjamb (run over to the next line)? Do the line choices seem arbitrary or intentional? How do the line choices help the sense of the poem? Do any lines seem to be out of place?  Would the beginning be better at the end, or vice versa?
  1. Is there a leap of the imagination in the poem? Where? Does it work? What could you add or subtract or change that would make the poem better?

And, after all that work, and after giving the poet ample consideration, ask yourself           the following basic, critical questions:

  1. Do I understand this poem? Is it comprehensible on the denotative level, and does it lead me to unexpected realizations on a connotative level?
  1. Does the poem feel true to me, in any of these ways:
  • Is it convincing? Does it present a balanced and mature view of the world? Or is        it able to convey the diversity and messiness of the world? Is the poem rhetorically effective, actually persuading us to see something its way because of its artful manipulation of the tools that poetry can use, or does it just feel gimmicky and self-impressed?
  • Is it interesting, stylistically or substantively, in a way that fits with what I believe constitutes the poetic tradition?
  • Does the poem break new ground, or show me territory I haven’t seen before?
  • Does it feel just? Is it morally and ethically appropriate to the content being discussed, or is there some fundamental sociopathic disconnect that makes me feel creepy? Does this poem fit my sense of honorable human behavior or attitudes?
  • Is it revelatory? Does the poem lead me toward the numinous? Or, if you prefer secular humanism, does the poem show me ways to be a better, more  compassionate human being?
  • Am I simply entertained by it, and don’t give a damn about all of these other considerations?
  • Does this poem afford me a literary experience, or is it a socio-political tract or shameless pop song, etc., masquerading as a poem?
  1. In this age of poetry slams, is this poem designed for the page (a reading experience) or designed for the microphone and video camera (a performance experience) or some hybrid floating somewhere in between the two?

William Patrick author page


Reading Fiction: A Brief Checklist

By Wayne Ude 

Five general suggestions:

  1. Read the story through once, quickly, without stopping, both to get a general sense of what it’s about and to see how readable it is. If you have to stop to figure out what’s going on (or, worse yet, to go back and reread), make an x in the margin at that point to remind yourself, but don’t further break your first reading to make extensive notes.
  2. Give the story a very careful second reading, in which you write as many comments in the margins as occur to you. On this reading, you may look for any or all of the elements discussed below.
  3. Ask yourself what seems to be at the story’s core: it could be a character, an event or series of events, a symbol or image, a theme, a relationship, etc. Attempt to identify those elements in the story which most effectively create the core, and those which seem less important or even irrelevant to the core.
  4. Look for elements in at least three categories: strengths, weaknesses, and undeveloped potential strengths. It’s a mistake in critiquing a story to focus only on strengths or only on weaknesses – either approach will lead others to regard you as a one-dimensional critic.
  5. Don’t be afraid to suggest radical changes in the story. One purpose of critiquing a story is to re-open the author’s mind to unexplored possibilities, and sometimes, in the process of rejecting a wild suggestion, the author will simultaneously come up with a better one. In other words, looking at something which the author knows won’t work may reveal what will work.

Some more technical suggestions:

  1. In what ways are characters created – through action and dialogue, through their thoughts, through others’ reactions to them, through the narrator’s commentary, through the quality of the language that surrounds them?
  2. Are important moments shown in scenes rather than in summary? What is the relationship between scene and summary – key moments should be in scene, but ten pages of summary and three of scene still isn’t likely to make an effective story even if the key event takes place in the story’s single scene. Do individual summaries go on too long?
  3. What point of view is used to tell the story? Is that point of view effective, or might another be more effective?
  4. Is the language consistent, or does it range out of control from very colloquial to very formal? Is the language appropriate to the characters? And beyond that: is the language doing anything special, anything that has you noticing and appreciating it? Is there a sense of an individual mind behind the words?
  5. Is the central character involved in relationships, conflict, action, or does s/he tend to go off alone and soliloquize at key moments? If the latter, is there a way to involve him/her with other characters? Further, does the story create or at least imply a society within which the central character moves?

Originally published in Southeast Writers’ Handbook: see our Books