5 essentials to effective workshopping

We all do it. When writing our own work, we get so close to it that forests and trees blur into one, and it can be very hard to be objective. That’s why workshopping can be such an important part of the manuscript writing process.

Writing workshops are a valuable tool that even published writers swear by. They're usually simply a weekly meeting of a small group of writers, designed to critique their work. Feedback is given, and a forum for discussions is opened on how to improve key skills.

A workshop could theoretically operate much like a book club, being as serious or as social as its members allow. But to work effectively, it really needs to be work, not play – allowing writers to analyse and test what’s working – especially things such as a character believability or and plot pacing.

Valuable feedback
Having an intimate setting in which to brainstorm, discuss writing and receive detailed notes on your work from like minded individuals, adds support to what is usually a solitary occupation. And it’s not just for ‘newbies'. Pamela Freeman, herself a presenter at the Australian Writers' Centre and the author of over 25 books, knows first hand how beneficial reviews from your peers can be.

“In our group I'm good at structure, but my friend Rose is far better at picking problems in style and voice. Our group takes this into account when we’re workshopping.”

Meanwhile, Australian romantic suspense author Bronwyn Parry still uses the workshop group that assisted with her first novel, albeit more of a support network these days.

“We were all aiming seriously for publication, so we had a fairly no nonsense, up front critique group, which was a great experience. Now it’s more a forum for brainstorming and also getting a kick up the proverbial butt when you need it. I think it's very important to compare and to be able to talk about your writing and to hear people's feedback on it.”

As for the workshop itself, Pamela believes a structured meeting yields the best results. And here are five ways to keep things on track:

1: Keep it small
Effective workshops function best when there is up to five members who are all around the same level of experience.

2: Keep it close to home
Pamela advises each weekly meeting should focus on one member’s work and take place at that member’s house.

3: Encourage detailed feedback
In order to gain the most from a gathering, the chosen member should send hard copies of their work to the other members prior to the meeting, so it can be read several times, with notes written throughout and summarised on the back.

4: Avoid food
Pamela also suggests that to have a workshop taken seriously by all members of the group, food should be avoided to prevent the meeting becoming a social gathering. Ouch. But yes, probably a good point. Ditto for avoiding talk of partners and celebrities.

5: Respect the speaker
Open the meeting with that week's writer reading a sample of their story, then follow it with the rest of the group reading and discussing their feedback. It's important during this period of critique that the writer does NOT speak unless asked to clarify a point (with a yes or no answer) by a member of the group. This provides a buffer zone for the writer to calm down and let go of any defensive urges, allowing the advice to be absorbed and the rest of the group members to be honest and at ease!

So if you're serious about your writing, no matter what experience level you're at or what genre inspires you, get out there and start workshopping! You’ll gain expertise and a network of support in which to grow as a writer.

If you're looking for even more guidance in your creative writing, take a look at our range of short courses on our Creative Hub page.

Adapted from an original guest post for this blog by Alison Perriott.

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