View Full Version : School workshops vs. non school workshops

07-21-2015, 10:33 PM
I recently joined a writing group that gets together and workshops. I've missed the last few meetings due to other commitments and things out of my control. But I was there for the first meeting where we just talked about writing. What I have never been to are the workshops in this informal setting. And now it's my turn to share a story as well as offer critique. What I'm not sure about is how different this will be from a classroom workshop and if there is anything I should try to do or say differently than I would in a school-based workshop.

I know a lot of you have done real-life writing groups, so, I'm hoping for some advice going into this. How different are these informal writing groups compared to workshop classes? Is there anything you do or say differently? And does the writer being workshopped still have to stay completely quiet when their story is being discussed like in workshop classes? I really like this group. And I don't think this group is too big or strict on following rules. But, again, this is new to me.

Also any advice on how to keep a group going in the long term. My group is made up of a few of my MFA classmates and the rest are graduates of the program. It has been meeting every other week and plans to continue that for the summer, but I'm hoping it will continue in some form even after that.

07-22-2015, 12:11 AM
It all depends on the group and how they work. In most (many? Some? A couple I went to?), you would read a passage from your work, usually 500-1,000 words maximum, and others will give you a critique. Most in the group will scribble notes on the copy you pass out, but in the 20 minutes or so you have to read and critique you don't get a lot of specific help. If you have something specific you're interested in, mention it up front. Something like "I'm having trouble with writing the dialogue with the ghost girl, can you guys make suggestions about getting it to sound less awkward?"

Workshop classes may or may not be more of the same. The groups I've been to workshop a specific item, one was formatting for submission, another was writing a query letter. But I've also been to a workshop where the topic was personifying non-living things in your writing. As in "The fog comes on little cat feet..." (Thank you Carl Sandberg, for one of the few lines of poetry I remember...). The members were given three short sentences and had to write 100-150 words that changed the inanimate object description to something more inviting.

The only way a group stays together is the dynamics of the members. I've swayed in and out of a number of groups where the members and myself aren't looking for the same thing and we're working on different levels. For me that never works. One group I went to a few times had a woman who writes poetry for relatives, a man who writes history stories for kids, a couple who writes articles on holistic health and a young woman (teens) who writes vampire fan fiction. I write mysteries and non-fiction. Only the couple writing health articles had ever been published and only in newsletters and on blogs run by friends. The teen just posted her stories on Facebook. There was no benefit for me to be in that group and none of us could really judge each others' work very well.

Groups change as members age, move on to other things, die off (I'm in Florida, this is sort of normal), or change whatever else is in their life. Good groups tend to manage to pull in a replacement for whomever leaves, others flounder. The best group I've seen has all current members vote on a new member and if there is a single NO vote they don't accept the applicant. They limit the group to five members and are quite productive, each being published multiple times in several genres. I'm excluded because they only have female members, they write romance and feel a male would change the conversation. It's worked for them for nearly three decades and three of the original five are still in it.

Unfortunately for me, my best group is online only and the organizer passed away last year. Since then, nobody has gotten the show back together well enough for us to accomplish anything and the group is divided with too much infighting now. I just stopped being a part of it a few months back. I need to get my butt in gear and start another one. :)


07-22-2015, 03:50 AM
Depends on the group. I'd ask up front about rules. "Do you guys let others talk when they're being critiqued?" I usually stay quiet in my informal group and just write down notes. Unless my group specifically asks me a question.

It's really up to the group dynamic. Differences I've noticed between my groups:

Academic Workshop:

no talking while you are being critiqued
questions allowed by story-writer at the end
instructor facilitates by calling on people
instructor supplements workshop comments with craft-elements. (e.g. will pause, stand up, write something on the board to illustrate a point about voice, dialogue, POV, plot, whatever is being discussed)
fellow writers turn in 1-2 page (single spaced) responses plus marked-up copies of manuscripts.
student writer meets with instructor later that week to discuss workshop and create revision plan
sit in classroom for set amount of time
instructor can impose certain style or craft methods depending on his/her own aesthetic (e.g. "genre is bad, you are lame if you write genre")
fellow writers (students) can try "too hard" to be critical and end up sounded like asshats (e.g. teacher's pet or generally petulant)

Non-Academic/Less formal:

some talking allowed
questions asked by story-writer during session if needed (e.g. "Can you elaborate on that one thing you said just now")
questions allowed by story-writer at the end
no facilitator - we go round-robin and let each person talk for the most part, but others will join in on certain items that come up
fellow writers turn in marked-up copies of manuscripts
writer revises as he/she needs. Might send follow-up emails to readers to ask about specific things
sit in nice coffee shop with nice music and treats
we write what we want and shut up about genre unless we have ideas on how to help the writer better execute a particular genre convention
positive, supporting environment where critique focuses on what the author is trying to do and getting them to execute it in the best possible manner (about 15% positive / 85% critical in feedback)

Again, it will depend. Just ask the group how they do things and what they prefer. You'll be fine! Good luck!

07-22-2015, 08:19 PM
My long-time writing group works like a hybrid of informal and academic. We did establish the rules of how we'd operate early in our existence, when there were more of us, including one who'd absorb every bit of the group's energy if we allowed that to happen.

07-27-2015, 03:16 AM
Recently went to my first non-school workshop. It was really great. It doesn't seem like there are any strict rules with this group. This was the first workshop I have been a part of where the writer being workshopped could talk. It was very beneficial to be able to ask someone what they meant or to have them explain their point more. I get why writer are not usually permitted to talk. The story should stand on its own. But none of us are new writers and no one was trying to defend their work. It was all very conversational and fun. Add in a little wine and BBQ, the day was so great! I think this is really going to help me with my MFA thesis.

I think the reason the group is so good is because we all know each other and each others writing. We didn't have to get to know each other or be too careful about upsetting anyone. This group is very focused on publishing and getting our pieces to the level they need to be at to be published, which I really like.