Why Workshopping Matters For Writers

Everyone’s a writer, but it’s all about the readers.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I was talking to a friend last night about the writing workshops.

Me: I’ve had workshops change my life.

Him: I hate them.

He said that he might at least consider a workshop from a bestselling indie author or from an author (like me) who is published by a big traditional publisher. But he didn’t understand the draw of being workshopped by writers who might not be as good as he is.

In other words: He couldn’t figure out why he’d want to be workshopped by potentially less-experienced, less-talented peers.

He’s misses the point.

Being workshopped isn’t about getting your work in front of other writers.

It’s about getting your work in front of readers who are willing to give you detailed feedback.

When you’re workshopping another writer’s work, you’re putting on your reader hat. Sure, you might be evaluating their skill on some level. But mostly? You’re approaching the work as a reader.

There are two big questions that are answered during the workshop process.

What works and why?
What doesn’t work and why?

It helps that the group of readers in your workshop are also writers. They can answer the why part of those questions in a way that a random reader might not be able to.

I’ve studied creative writing as an undergraduate and graduate student and I’ve been part of so many workshops outside of the university setting over the last couple of decades.

Here’s how they work.

Your work is read by a group — usually fewer than a dozen people. When it’s your turn to be workshopped, you sit and listen as they discuss.

That’s the hard part. You sit and listen. You take notes. You do not speak.

You don’t get to defend your work. You don’t get to tell them they’re wrong or that they’re focused on the wrong thing or that the thing they’re discussing doesn’t really matter to your story.

It’s helpful to get a consensus from a thoughtful group of readers. It’s useful to know what they think or focus on when they’re reading and discussing — even if it’s not what you intended. In fact, that’s even more useful. Because you once you release you work to readers, it’s theirs.

Without workshopping, it’s hard to know how it will be received.

Here’s why you should seek them out.

Most writers have had the experience of desperately looking for someone, anyone, to read their work. Beta readers. Friends or family who can be persuaded to read. Other writers you switch work with.

Here’s what often happens: you get feedback that amounts to I liked it, it was good.

Not useful. Not useful at all.

In a workshop, the readers have usually paid something to be there. They’re being evaluated on their ability to offer concise, constructive criticism. A grade may or may not be at stake. Definitely all of the readers will have their turn to be workshopped, so they can offer the kind of feedback they hope to get.

It’s one of those situations where you really do get out what you put into it.

And there’s a leader of some kind. A teacher or a mentor whose job it is to guide the discussion. If someone tries to pull I liked it, it was good or I didn’t enjoy it out of their hat, the mentor is there to ask the important question. Why?

The Drawbacks

A college-level writer’s workshop requires college. You have to pay tuition. It can be super expensive.

Writer’s group often stand in for workshopping, but usually they have no mentor or leader and the quality of the feedback can be iffy. It’s not always, but often is.

Both types usually require you to read a lot before each class. All of the work, for every writer being workshopped. If you’re participating in a workshop outside of college, it can be super easy to lose track of the reading and then just stop attending.

I asked myself what I’d like in a workshop, if I could create one. Here’s what I came up with:

  • I’d want the workshop to be filled with readers who appreciate my genre. As a children’s book writer, I’ve been in plenty of workshops full of literary writers or poets who just didn’t understand what I was doing (anymore than I understood their work.)
  • I’d want the workshop to last long enough to build community with the other writers in my group.
  • I’d want to potential of continuing to work with the same people (other writers and mentor.)
  • I’d want a qualified mentor who leads the discussion without taking it over.
  • I wouldn’t want to have to read ahead of time. Instead, I’d rather show up and listen to the writer read their work and then discuss immediately.

Then I went out and created them. For the first time, I’m offering writer’s workshops this summer. You can check them out here.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. Her most recent book is The Astonishing Maybe and she’s represented by Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Literary Agency. Find Shaunta on Twitter @shauntagrimes. She is the original Ninja Writer.