Every writer, at one point or another, has belonged to a workshop or two. Workshops are a great way for writers, normally solitary beings, to write in an environment with fellow writers and get feedback and encouragement for their work. But not all workshops are equal. Sometimes, finding the right workshop is a matter of trial-and-error, but finding the workshop that works best for you can also be a matter of knowing your specific needs as a writer and how a workshop can meet them.
One of the things that a writer needs to know before determining what workshop works best for her is knowing what her specific needs are as a writer and as a person. If you’re not certain precisely what it is that you hope to gain from a workshop experience, it’s best to write a list of things that meet your interests, or that you’re most concerned about as a writer. If you’re concerned about your writing skills, then it’s best to search for a workshop that will place a heavy emphasis on improving your craft. Workshops that are open to beginning writers is the best way to go in this regard. Beginning writers could benefit not only by being with other writers who share the same concerns as you, but also be surrounded by more experienced writers who could provide the proper advice and tutelage to novices. Workshops that are instructor-centered are also a best bet for beginning writers because they provide good instruction on the actual craft of writing. College courses on creative writing are also good places to start for the novice writer to get a handle of the basic instructions she’ll need to improve her craft. Of course, it’s important to know what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer before you can determine this. If you feel confident in your writing skills, a workshop that is designed for advanced writers might work best for you. These workshops tend to cover areas of writing skills that might be more to your level of writing, such as focusing on the actual work of writing rather than providing advice or support from fellow writers. Some workshops members simply write during their meeting period, offering the writer the time and place to finish a short story, novel, or memoir that she is working on. It all depends on what you’re looking for and your specific needs.
Another question for any writer searching for the right workshop is the type of writing atmosphere is she looking for. Some workshops can be very fast-paced or slow. Others, as I stated before, simply provide the writer an opportunity to concentrate on her writing, with very little solicitation from other writers. If you simply want to write, this type of workshop might be more to your liking. On the other hand, peer workshops, in which writers provide copies of their work to other members for constructive criticism, provide writers an audience and some solicited advice for their work. If you’re looking for objective and constructive criticisms for your writing, peer workshops might work best for you. But it’s important to know that there are many types of peer workshops. Some workshops have very strict rules as to how writers express their opinions about submitted work, while others can be a free-for-all. It takes all kinds in this world, and not all writers you’ll meet in workshops will be the sort with whom you’ll want to socialize or whose advice you’ll want to consider. If you’re sensitive or shy about your work, you might want to consider a workshop that will provide the kind of support you’ll need in order to build your confidence as a writer. Peer workshops also have different ways in which a writer’s work is exposed. In some, the writer may submit copies of her work to be read by other members during their own time, while others emphasize on reading or open mic. Again, it is a matter of what style works best for you (not all writers are good readers, so an open mic workshop might not necessarily be the best way for them to expose their work). Determining what works best for you is a matter of what you as a person can tolerate and what will best maximize your opportunity to build your craft as a writer.
Style is also an important factor to consider. Some workshops are designed specifically for types or genres of work. For instance, novels or short stories might be of a particular interest. And even then, there are a wide variety of fiction workshops that only address a particular genre, such a romance, science fiction, crime mysteries, etc. Others may be more interested in personal writing-such as the creative non-fiction, autobiography or memoir. Workshops for playwrites or screenwriters are also available to the writer. Most workshops, though, are open to all types of writing and genres, offering the writer the opportunity to experience a mix of different writers of different styles. Whatever you are most interested in, it’s important to know whether or not you want to belong to a workshop that deals specifically with your genre of writing, so that whatever particular needs or questions you have about your work can be ably met; or whether you want to have a full breadth of writing styles that are available.
The best way to determine whether or not a workshop is best for you is by doing research. Ask the workshop instructor or whoever is hosting the workshop questions. See if that particular workshop meets your needs. Some workshop instructors will even allow you to audit a class. Again, it’s important to know what you’re looking for in a workshop to determine whether one will meet your needs and then do the necessary research.
Tuition is another issue any writer will be concerned about before joining a workshop. Should you join a workshop that requires a tuition or not? If you are a serious writer, but do not want to apply for an MFA program, I advise that you seek out workshops in your area that do require a tuition. While some workshops can be rather pricey-for instance, a workshop I belonged to several years ago, The Temescal Writer’s Workshop, cost over two hundred dollars to join-are often run by experienced writers who can provide great instructions on building your craft and advice on publishing your work. Also, these workshops look great on cover letters whenever you submit your work and lets any prospective editor know how serious you are in your craft. If you are a novice writer or someone who only writes for a hobby, any local workshop, whether it requires a tuition or not, will be best suited for your needs, just as long as it allows you to discover your craft in a positive and enriching environment.
If you are a serious about making a career of your craft, then joining a workshop that has an established reputation might be more advantageous. MFA programs, such as the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, offers beginning writers not only the opportunity to improve their craft but also prepare them for publication by introducing them to agents, publishers, or more established writers. MFA programs are highly competitive, so the number of slots open to new writers might be limited. Also, writers who are accepted into certain MFA programs are offered scholarships that help pay tuition and boarding. The University of Iowa, one of the most reputable programs in the country, has a very generous scholarship program for students, but it is also the most highly competitive because of this. Not all MFA programs, though, are equal in this regard, so it’s important to research which programs offer scholarships. Recently, Poets & Writers magazine ran an article on the top five MFA programs and occassionally runs features and ads on schools that offer programs. Again, MFA programs are for serious and dedicated writers. If you do not have a B.A. in English or Creative Writing, or do not have an interest in getting one, then MFA programs might not be for you.
Once you’ve determined what you’re looking for specifically, the next question becomes where to find workshops in your area. There are a number of different ways of seeking out workshops. Ads in newspaper or newsletters are a great work to look for workshops. Check the bulletin board of your local library or community center. Some community centers might even host their own writing workshops. Craig’s List, which has become a great source for employment searches, also has listings for workshops. See if there are any posted in your area and make contacts. Local community colleges also offer creative writing courses. Most colleges allow you to take a course as a non-credit, so you don’t have to be a full-time student in order to enroll in these classes. Most creative writing classes are run similarly as workshops, so you’ll find the experience just as rewarding. Another way to find a workshop that meets your needs is to start one yourself. You can always post or put up an ad for a workshop in the various avenues I have listed above. Or you can form a workshop with your friends if they are, like you, also writers. You’ll be able to control the type of atmosphere you need in order to write or build your writing skills when you form your own workshop. Seek out books or advice from people who have started their own workshops to go about starting your own. There are several books in publication that offer advice or writing prompts that you could use to get started. Check them out in the writing guide sections of your local bookstore or library. As I stated before, MFA programs offer excellent workshops for the serious writer. If you are interested in applying for an MFA, talk to the head of your creative writing department at your college for advice in choosing the right program for you. Poets & Writers magazine and the Internet are also great research tools for finding MFA programs that will appeal to your needs.
However you choose to join a workshop, whether it is applying for an MFA program or creating one yourself with your writing friends, you’ll be able to maximize your workshop experience by knowing exactly what it is you’re hoping to gain as a writer and as a human being. Know what it is you want from a workshop experience, do you research, and always ask questions.