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.