Writing workshops are a wonderful way to grow and expand your writing skills—provided you know how to workshop creative writing. There are different writing workshop models, both online and in person, each with their own particular ways of benefiting your writing journey. What are those models, and how do you engage in proper critique writing?
This article is all about making the most of your writing workshops. Whether you’re taking a course with Writers.com, entering your first workshop in undergrad, or putting together your own private writing group, the tips and models in this article will help you learn how to workshop creative writing.
There are a couple of different definitions of writing workshops. For the purposes of this article, we will examine writing workshop models under the university definition, which is the process of sharing your work in a setting where you receive writing feedback and suggestions for improvement.
If you’re looking for the best multi-week creative writing workshops, here are some tips for finding the best on the internet:
The Best Online Writing Workshops: How to Succeed in Creative Writing Workshops
Different Creative Writing Workshop Models
There is no singular way to workshop a piece of writing. Different schools, universities, and institutions have developed different models over time. Even at Writers.com, some of our classes use different writing workshop models.
Here are a few common models you might see employed around the web. Note: this list only applies to adult writing workshops. Youth-focused writing spaces tend to use some form of the model developed by Lucy Calkins.
1. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Model
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is one of the most prestigious writing programs in the United States, having produced dozens of Pulitzer winners, National Book Award finalists, and poet laureates. It also developed the standard writing workshop model for universities, specifically under the directorship of poet Paul Engle.
The writing workshop rules are pretty simple: the writer’s work is distributed to every workshop attendee in advance. Each writer then comes to the workshop with their thoughts on the work. The attendees have a conversation about the piece—how they interpret it, aspects they like, what can be improved, etc.
Most importantly, the author cannot speak at any time. This is the “gag rule” of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and it’s the aspect that’s both the most recognizable, and the most criticized, of this workshopping model.
Pros: The argument for keeping the author silent is that the author should not have to explain anything in the work. If the author is allowed to speak, they will most likely interrupt the conversation to defend the writing, rather than pay attention to what does and doesn’t work, and what readers failed to grasp.
Cons: This writing workshop model has been routinely criticized for the ways it silences the author. While authors certainly shouldn’t commandeer the conversation to defend their work, they also deserve space to explain what doesn’t seem to be clicking for the readers. Writing workshops have historically catered to privileged groups; if you’re the only Asian author in a room of non-Asian writers, and the conversation gets stuck on dim sum, shouldn’t you be allowed to correct course?
Workshops should privilege the author and provide useful feedback to all attendees. The “gag rule” has some merit, but as workshops become more diverse—both in identity and in genre—there have to be better ways to run productive creative writing workshops.
These next models all, in some way or another, correct the deficits of the Iowa Writers’ model.
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2. Liz Lerman’s Writing Workshop Model
Choreographer Liz Lerman developed a feedback model that has been adapted to a variety of settings, including creative writing workshops. It’s a 4 step process that runs as follows:
- Statement of meaning: Each group member tells the writer what aspects of the piece resonated for them. This allows the session to lead with what’s working, which is important because an author often doesn’t know what’s good about their writing, and an author usually revises based on the best parts of their work.
- Questions by the writer to the group: The writer asks questions they have in mind about craft elements in the piece. Did this work? Do you understand this? Typically, these are yes/no questions, and the group members shouldn’t elucidate unless asked to.
- Questions to the group by the writer: Group members then ask questions about the work, including aspects of it they didn’t understand. This is a much more empathetic way to approach creative writing critique, because it uses questions to point to improvements in the writing, rather than stating “X needs to improve because Y.”
- Opinions: If there’s time, group members then share their overall opinions of the work, highlighting more of what they liked and wish to see improved.
3. The Playwriting Writing Workshop Model
Although this model is specifically used in playwriting workshops, it can be adapted to poetry, nonfiction, and fiction writing workshops, too.
In this model, participants do not read the work ahead of time. Copies are distributed to everyone, and roles are assigned to the participants. (If there aren’t many characters, participants might be assigned pages; for poetry, only one person might be assigned to read the poem.)
After the reading, the workshop leader will host a general discussion of the work.
This model can prove super beneficial, as it allows the author to hear their work spoken aloud. Where did the reader stumble? What did or didn’t sound natural? Engaging with the work from a distance helps the writer see it more clearly, and they might come away from this reading already with new ideas and opportunities for revision.
And, rather than have students prepare thoughts in advance, a general discussion in the moment reveals how readers will engage with the work in the moment. When you have a book, story, or poem published, the reader probably won’t write out all their thoughts afterwards; eschewing this model gives the writer direct, unadulterated insight into how people engage with their writing.
4. Wild Writing / Writing Circles
The Wild Writing model was developed by Laurie Wagner, and it encourages writers, particularly poets, to produce as much material as they can from their own unconscious minds.
Our instructor Susan Vespoli bases her writing circles off of the Wild Writing workshop model. In these Zoom-based poetry writing workshops, participants do the following:
- Each participant verbally shares an image with the group. It is an image that has sat on their minds for a few days. They should share it without qualifying it—as in, keeping to visual language, not using words like “beautiful” or “interesting.”
- The group leader reads a poem twice. They then highlight some striking lines in the poem, which can be used as starting points for the writing session.
- For 12-15 minutes, each writer free writes, without editing themselves or eschewing certain thoughts. Writers should not cross out words, and they should keep the pen moving. (When they run out of things to say, they can try putting in transition phrases, like “What I mean to say is…)
- At the end of this, each writer goes around reading from their journals. Writers do not comment on one another’s journal entry. The point is to write and share what’s on the mind in a supportive, encouraging environment.
- Typically, a Zoom call will repeat this process twice, for 3 sessions in total.
Unlike other workshops where participants give each other writing feedback, this model produces work in a supportive community space. The opportunity to read work aloud allows writers to have deeper insights into their own writing and thinking. In this model, writers grow as writers not by giving feedback, but by being vulnerable in a safe writing space and encountering new ideas from both their brains and the minds of other writers.
When paired with lectures and written feedback outside of the Zoom call, writers come away with rich material for their own work, as well as a new, generative writing practice.
5. Other Modifications on Writing Workshop Models
Writers love to tinker with form, and this includes the form of writing workshops. This article by Jim Nelson offers one such way to modify the workshopping space so that each writer is treated with respect, dignity, curiosity, and encouragement.
How to Workshop Creative Writing: 15 Tips for Success
If you’re participating in online writing workshops, you will be presented with opportunities to give and receive writing feedback. Regardless of genre and the writing workshop model, here are some tips to get the most out of every workshop you attend online.
How to Workshop Creative Writing: Giving Writing Critique
- Share your own experience. How the work is impacting you as a reader. Readers are very different, so how the piece is landing for you is more helpful than general statements. “I read this as X,” not simply “this is X.”
- Praise what’s working in the piece. Writers need to know what resonates and where to build from. Every piece of writing has something working well.
- Keep all writing feedback constructive. Use encouraging language to frame your suggestions, such as “simpler dialogue tags might help this passage flow more smoothly.”
- Be specific in your feedback. For example, “I love this” is less helpful than “I love how your description of the character’s clothing gives a sense of his personality.”
- Consider the author’s intent with the piece. Don’t try to shape the work into something you would write; try to advise the writer based on their vision for the piece. If it’s unclear, ask!
- Consider asking questions when you have them. Instead of “X’s decision doesn’t make sense,” try “Why does X make Y decision?” Talking through ideas in this way can help writers consider new possibilities for the work, without making them feel like they’re doing something wrong.
How to Workshop Creative Writing: Receiving Writing Feedback
- Ask questions. The best writing workshops give you the space to work through what you don’t know how to do. Come prepared with questions about your work, and don’t be afraid to follow up with the suggestions people give you.
- Consider your ideal reader. Is the person giving you feedback the person you intend to read this piece? Ideal readers will probably give you the most useful creative writing feedback. That said, readers who have different backgrounds than your ideal reader will also have ideas you might not have considered, which can be useful for both your current project and future ones.
- Leave your ego at the door. All writers are protective of their work. It’s understandable! But if you enter the workshop space with walls up, you will prevent yourself from seeing the work through other points of view. Don’t let your pride, your vision, or your sense of artistic value prevent you from seeing ways to improve your writing. And remember, we’re all insecure in some way about our work. Workshops give us the chance to improve together, in both our craft and confidence.
- Know what you want to achieve. At the same time, it’s good to have a vision for what you want your piece to be. Coming into a writing workshop with this vision will help you ask questions and lead a more productive workshop session. It will also help you filter through the writing feedback you receive.
- Advocate for yourself. It is rare for a workshop to go south, but it happens. When the conversation doesn’t seem to be helping you (for example: non-Asian writers getting stuck on dim sum), you should be able to correct course and make the workshop work for you.
- File it away. After workshop, file the feedback away for a little while, and don’t try to fix your piece all at once. Rushing into revision is a recipe for regret, as it takes time to absorb and incorporate feedback into your writing. Be slow, methodical, and careful. Above all, don’t let workshop change your vision for the piece—creative writing workshops are stepping stones, not boulders, to your ideal work.
How to Workshop Creative Writing: Improving as a Writer
- Pay attention to other workshops. The workshop space isn’t yours alone. Often, engaging with other writers’ work and listening to other writers’ critiques will help you grow as a writer yourself. You will encounter dozens of ideas in one workshopping session. File these ideas for later, and pay close attention to everyone’s craft so you can later steal like an artist.
- Experiment. Writers who experiment with ideas often achieve the most. While it’s good to have an ideal sense of where your piece is headed, it doesn’t hurt to copy your work into a new document and try using ideas you disagree with. What happens when you try writer B’s suggestion over writer A’s? How about vice versa? The more time you spend tinkering with your work and experimenting with ideas, the more insights you have into the craft and into your own vision as an artist.
- Be patient. Writing is a craft that takes a lifetime to master—and even the masters want to write better. Most writers hate the work they wrote a year ago, and that’s good—it means they’ve grown, sharpened their skills, refined their tastes, and gotten closer to the kind of work they want to achieve. Above all, be diligent and consistent in your writing. It might not be this month, or even this year, but you will one day write stories and poems you feel genuinely proud of.
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This is such a valuable article! The advice here has made me much less nervous about signing up for workshops in the future. Thank you so much!