Why I Can’t Stand Traditional Writing Workshops

Why I Can't Stand Traditional Writing Workshops Blog Post
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If I was a superhero, my arch-nemesis would be the traditional writing workshop method.

Dramatic? Perhaps.

But it was the traditional writing workshop that almost deterred me from pursuing a writing career. So I consider it the enemy.

Here’s why. In my undergrad writing classes, I was assigned—like my classmates—to write a short story three times each semester. I would write a story passionately down on paper and furiously type it up, daydreaming of the awaiting praise of genius from my peers.

That is, the praise that never happened.

After printing piles of trees and distributing them around the classroom, I awaited my destiny—or doom—as my peers spent a week with red pens destroying my work of art.

And it was never pretty.

The rule was that I had to sit in silence for 45 minutes while my peers said what they liked and hated about the story. Comments normally ran like this:

“I liked this, but I really hated…”

(Those three dots represent 43 minutes.)

After a grueling interrogation session where my mouth is figuratively taped shut, my slaughtered story would crawl deep into my desk drawer or, worse, the trashcan.

The point of my story? The traditional writing workshop method doesn’t work.

Why?

Writers Aren’t Writing Constantly

The Problem: Writers are trained to only write when evaluated. If a writer only presents a story once a month, guess what? The writer is most likely going to write once a month. How is a writer’s craft going to stay sharp when s/he only writes on command?

The Solution: Writers should be asked to write at least five new pages a week, whether or not they present. Peer support (or pressure) is a great way to keep the writer on track.

Likes & Dislikes Don’t Matter

The Problem: Who cares if a peer likes your character or dislikes the plot choices? A story shouldn’t be presented so that it wins a popularity contest. It’s on the chopping block so that it can be polished.

The Solution: Compliment (or insult) a writer effectively so that the writer makes the editing choices. Ask questions like “why is it important for Character A to do X?” or “what is going through Character B’s head during Y?” Let the writer write down your questions, then later evaluate the answers and the validity of his/her writing choices in private.

The Story Remains Raw

The Problem: After the verbal beating, the writer will most likely never return to revise the story. The traditional writing workshop method makes the writer’s voice feel unvalued when the writer cannot contribute to the conversation, especially when the only ones that are heard are critical peers.

The Solution: Positive statements go a long way—but not as like statements. Point out what was effective and what really supports the story structure or character development. That way, when the writer returns to revise the story s/he will know where to start.

The Writer Becomes Self-Conscious

The Problem: It takes a lot for a writer to show his/her work. So where’s the motivation to write when stories are torn to piece? The writer is less likely going to take writing risks. Playing it safe becomes the name of the game—if the writer chooses to write at all.

The Solution: Let the writer have a voice, even for two minutes. The writer should be part of the dialogue, not on the sidelines. The group must agree that this is a safe, healthy environment to discuss writing so that everyone feels comfortable voicing their thoughts maturely and productively.

What do you think of the traditional writing workshop method? Share your thoughts below.

3 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Stand Traditional Writing Workshops

  1. I dislike writing groups and workshops. Too many variables to be worthwhile, and too much out-of-context misunderstanding of the writer’s intent. I’ve heard as many horror stories as I have praise for the concept. If it only works half the time and causes harm the other half, it’s a pretty terrible concept. Finally, I haven’t heard many bestselling authors talk about their writing groups, because they’re not in one. Ergo, they aren’t necessary for success.

    I also support people’s freedom to make that choice and recognize that writing groups are valuable to some writers. If it works for ‘you,’ go for it. I prefer a good editor who knows how to separate personal taste from professional service.

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