Workshops: A Survival Guide

10 Mar

By Sammy Bina


Ah, the workshop. Something the Creative Writing major fears, yet simultaneously adores. It is a place where our work is torn apart, then put back together by esteemed (or not-so-esteemed) classmates and professors. Where we are able to hone our craft in the hopes that it will someday lead to publication.

Yet so many people are intimidated by it. The other day I spoke with some freshmen at my college who were considering majoring in Creative Writing. The reason they had yet to declare? Fear of workshops. Before my first one, I felt like I was walking headfirst into the zombie apocalypse (hence today’s picture), so I can understand their anxiety. However, I will tell you what I told them: don’t let your fears hold you back.

So, for those of you still on the fence, or who may be dreading your first workshop, I’m here to give you the 411 on how things work. Keep in mind each school runs them differently, but I think the basics are all pretty much the same.

1. Class sizes are small. My school caps a workshop at 15, and I’ve had one as small as 10. This is good news for you because the smaller the class, the more opportunities you have to share your writing. The more you share, the more you learn. It also means that, yes, you will have to speak.

2. Participation, as I mentioned, is kind of mandatory. On the weeks people critique your work, you may not be allowed to speak for the entire period (I’ve heard a few people say this), or you may be invited to ask questions of your peers based on their comments. Conversely, when it’s someone else’s week, you’ll have to give them feedback. A lot of times this will come in the form of marking up the pages they gave you, or turning in a critique.

Critiques themselves can be a bit tricky. Sometimes you’re going to come across a piece you didn’t like, made no sense, or was obviously thrown together the night before (trust me, it happens). And while you need to be honest, be nice about it. Constructive criticism is what people look for in workshops. Be sure to tell your classmates what you did like! Even if it’s just the character’s name, or the title, you can always find something nice to say. I had a professor whose rule was to write a paragraph talking about the things you enjoyed, and then a second detailing what you thought could be improved upon. This way the writer didn’t go home feeling craptastic at the end of the day. The one guy in my class who never once said anything nice about anyone’s work? Well, he never got nice comments in return. Give and take, people.

3. Know that you’re not always going to agree with what people say about your work. Workshop is essentially a giant group of beta readers and, as we’ve talked about here before, you’re not always going to agree with people. And that’s okay. Keep an open mind during workshop. I learned some really valuable techniques and advice from people who gave me some tough love. I also learned when to pick out and toss aside comments that didn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s still you’re story. Never forget that.

4. Writing styles vary, so be prepared. One of the things I enjoyed most about workshops were the varied writing styles I came across. My favorite class had a mix of horror writers, a satirical writer, one girl who loved to imitate gothic literature, and a taxi driver whose stories stemmed from wacky conversations he overheard in his backseat. I read some really fantastic things that semester, but there were also a few experimental writers whose pieces I could never understand. It’s okay when you don’t get something; chances are someone else didn’t either. But it’s still a learning opportunity.

5. Be prepared to do some reading. Not only will you be reading work by your classmates, but you’ll probably be reading some short stories or novel excerpts as well. Hemingway, Joyce, Poe, Updike, and Oates are all names I’ve come across when reading for class. Read from the best, learn from the best.

6. Expect to see people of all ages. I’ve been in classes with freshmen as well as middle-aged and old men. The varying ages mean varying life experiences, and some really interesting stories and life lessons. Discussions don’t always wind up revolving around the written word, so you might pick up some valuable tips along the way. Take note!

7. You don’t always have to write short stories. I was petrified when I joined my first workshop because I am a terrible short story writer. My first one was torn to bits, and I went home feeling totally defeated. Then I found out I could submit chapters from my novel instead, and my love of workshop increased ten-fold. I can’t guarantee that your school follows this rule, but I’ve talked to a fair number of people where this is allowed. So if writing short stories is what’s scaring you off, just ask!

8. Sometimes there’s food. And free food is always a good reason to go somewhere. I had one summer workshop where we’d occasionally meet at the campus bar. That, my friends, was a good time.

9. Like any class, you can’t always pick your teacher. You might wind up with a lousy instructor, in which case you might feel as if you’re not learning anything. But if the instructor isn’t fantastic, just pay attention to the other kids in class.Β  You can always learn something from them.

On the other hand, you might wind up with a fabulous instructor. I’ve studied under some really fantastic people, and I wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything. My writing definitely improved because of them and I still see them around campus. Because of the small class size, you get to know your professors pretty well and they can be invaluable resources when you need letters of recommendation, or even just advice.

So hopefully that’s taken the scare out of the dreaded workshop. I can promise you you’ll learn an insane amount if you pay attention, and your writing’s definitely going to improve. If you’re considering signing up for one, I encourage you to do it. Having your work critiqued is never an easy thing, but you can’t really improve until someone tells you what you’re doing wrong. So take a chance. Live a little. Learn a lot.

For those of you who’ve taken workshops before, did you enjoy them? Learn anything particularly useful?


Sammy Bina is finishing up her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She’s currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.


23 Responses to “Workshops: A Survival Guide”

  1. Ashley March 10, 2011 at 12:35 AM #

    Thanks for this Sammy. πŸ™‚ I’m in the process of choosing my major, which I’ve narrowed down to English, History, Humanities, and of course Creative Writing.

    I had anxiety about going to summer writing workshops in the past, but reading this maybe I’ve got nothing to fear after all. πŸ™‚

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 1:47 AM #

      No problem, Ashley! I really wrote it for those of you still deciding in hopes of persuading you to join the dark side πŸ˜‰

      And it’s totally expected to be nervous for the first one. I got nervous every week I had to present something, so it doesn’t really go away. But the benefits far out-weigh any discomfort you may have. My writing improved so much, you’d laugh if you could see the stuff I turned in first.

      Good luck with your decision!

  2. Gretchen March 10, 2011 at 12:44 AM #

    I enjoy them, but they scared the crap out of me the first time I sat down in front of one. I was a Junior in college and taking a class through a local writing organization, so the class was a mixture and I didn’t know the type of mixture. I got there and some people had agents, some people were like me and just starting and the leader/teacher–a well respected editor. So no pressure or anything.

    I think I went home and cried some nights, but I learned a lot, took in a lot, and gave my opinion when I thought I needed to.

    One thing I did learn, is wait a minimum of 24 hours–if not 48 hours–before you rip into the manuscript. Because you have to sift through the rubble that just fell. Some of it will be gold and some of it will be complete rubbish; I just have to find which is right for me and where my story is at the time of the workshop.

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 1:49 AM #

      That’s a great piece of advice, Gretchen! I agree 110%. Definitely read through everyone’s comments to see what things you agree with and what things you don’t. Based on the times I *didn’t* do that, I’d say it’s some of the best advice ever.

  3. B.E.T. March 10, 2011 at 12:48 AM #

    Heh, you know, I never understood why people were so scared of workshops. I got an addiction to the things because it means people get to read my work, tear it apart, hence I can improve! My first one, I was so excited when it came my turn to read my stuff.

    But that can be scary for some, so this post is a great rundown of a basic class. Great resource for those who are still considering it!

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 1:50 AM #

      I learned to love them, but I can totally see how they might be scary for some! Especially people who are afraid of giving feedback. So hopefully this helped them!

  4. Jennifer March 10, 2011 at 1:28 AM #

    The good news: I am not afraid of workshops. The bad news: I am now afraid of short stories.

    Thanks for this post, Sammy!

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 1:51 AM #

      No prob, Jennifer!

      And I know what you mean. I will be the first to admit that I can’t write a very good short story. I read hundreds of them for the literary magazine I work for, and I can tell when one is good, but mine never seem to fall into that category :-p

  5. Heather March 10, 2011 at 2:58 AM #

    I love workshops because I love showing off my work, even when it’s not picture-perfect. I’ve only taken one creative writing class at my university, and it was a good class overall, but the workshops could have been better. The thing that most annoyed me about them the most was:

    1) the professor always kept us in the same groups and so as much as I liked getting to know my group on a really personal level, it was frustrating to never get the “fresh looks” I’d expected to be getting constantly in a class of 20-25 writers


    2) I felt like I ONLY got positive comments…and believe me, my writing was n-o-t-NOT perfect. Not in the least. It could have just been my particular group, but it was like pulling TEETH when I would ask my group “Thanks! But what DIDN’T you like? How could I IMPROVE this piece?” It was like they didn’t GET what a workshop was all about in the first place…

    I think it’s important for writers to remember how helpful workshops can (and should!) be. Thanks for you post Sammy!

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 3:12 PM #

      The Positivity Syndrome definitely hits every workshop at one point or another. I think a lot of people are afraid to give constructive criticism because they don’t want to come across as mean, so they just praise your work instead. And I agree, while it’s nice to know people liked it, you’d rather they ripped it to shreds. Hopefully if you take another, it’ll go better!

  6. Liz March 10, 2011 at 8:22 AM #

    I turned away from the dark side, Sammy! Sorry! I acquired about 1/2-3/4 of a creative writing major, and then a lot of annoying stuff regarding CW dept. politics got in the way and I ultimately had to abandon it to be able to study abroad and complete my other major on time. I had some seriously disillusionment with some of my teachers (some were awesome though!) The worst was a prof who only picked the weakest works to be workshopped that week. And when you’re writing for a prompt and only have one week to turn it in, you’re not going to care for everything you turn in. Which meant every time I got selected for workshop, it was a piece I was NEVER going to return to. Her class was also 2.5 hours long, so if your work came up 2 hours in, nobody was going to have any comments because everyone was mostly just wondering when they could go to dinner.

    After I gave up on getting the major, I taught a workshop in writing novel-length fiction (short explanation: my school was cool like that). That was awesome AND it gave me 20 students to experiment on with different methods of critiquing than the usual (and I still believe, somewhat flawed) workshop setup. And everyone got to write whatever genre they liked!

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 3:15 PM #

      Oh, trust me I know how it goes with inter-departmental politics. I had to drop my art history degree in order to graduate this may, and I was two classes away from getting it.

      And those late night workshops can be rough sometimes, I agree. Ours are usually 2-3 hours once a week, and the time I had it from 6-9 we were assigned weeks to bring snacks for everyone. That way you keep everybody happy :-p

  7. Najela Cobb March 10, 2011 at 9:21 AM #

    I like workshops well enough. The more you critique, the more you are able to discern what works in a story and what doesn’t. It’s a wonderful feeling to have people respond to your work (whether it’s good or bad). My writing style has been forever changed by the things I learned in workshop. I love learning about craft and helping other people out. It’s pretty awesome.

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 3:16 PM #

      I totally agree, Najela! My writing now is SO different from 5 years ago when I started college. And definitely for the better!

  8. Caitlin March 10, 2011 at 10:48 AM #

    I actually really enjoy workshops, when it comes down to it. Yeah, they’re scary (especially the ones that have you read your work aloud first, as opposed to just having the whole class read a copy beforehand), but they’re worth it. You always get loads of really good feedback, some of which you use and some of which you don’t. There are generally so many comments that you can’t implement ALL of them. But I generally feel really great after a good workshop. Good workshop comments are definitely a boost in the self-esteem area. And yeah, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but so is making a presentation or taking a test. It’s part of learning.

    Great post, Sammy! (And I love the zombie picture. πŸ˜€ )

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 3:18 PM #

      Thanks, Caitlin!

      Wow, you had to read your work out loud? I’ve only had to do that in one class, it was on the last day when everyone had to read something. I’ll never forget when this kid, Brandon, showed up with two stories and asked us which we wanted him to read: one about a serial killer or one about two teenagers having awkward car sex. Obviously we all picked the latter and watching him turn red while he read it was one of the funniest moments of my life :-p

  9. Stephanie Relf March 10, 2011 at 11:53 AM #

    At one of the Uni’s I’m applying too for September they had the original creative writing course in the UK and while my degree isn’t creative writing, I’m definitely hoping for some extra-curricular fun-ness πŸ™‚
    I’ve never been to a work-shop before but hopefully I’ll meet a writing companion in my journey to make friends (my strategy is baking cookies, works every time ;P) and I can drag them along and they can hold my hand if people are mean πŸ™‚

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 3:19 PM #

      DO IT! I’ve met some really talented people in my workshops, some of whom I’m still friends with.

      And, *gasp!*, a fellow baker?!

  10. Zali Jun March 10, 2011 at 12:10 PM #

    Reading this post makes me excited for the future Creative Writing classes I’ll be taking. I just declared a Creative Writing minor so I have get some prerequisite courses done first but still can’t wait.

    Thank you for writing this awesome post! =]

  11. Elizabeth March 10, 2011 at 12:25 PM #

    Dude, I love workshops. I just got out of one for my novel and it was great. I felt nervous at first because I don’t really know these people. I had to remind myself that it’s my third workshop class and I have nothing to be nervous about, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

    • Sammy Bina March 10, 2011 at 3:20 PM #

      I’m so glad you love them, Elizabeth! I totally think they’re invaluable, and I’ve loved most of mine, too. I still got nervous, even after I’d been through a couple, but it gets better at least πŸ˜‰

  12. priscillashay March 10, 2011 at 5:14 PM #

    I actually love workshops because other than that my writing people are close friends and their opinions are often biased.

    However, I would like to add that anyone looking into CW programs: DO RESEARCH.

    My school, while I appreciate the venture into CW, has very few CW professors and only recently started hiring more. The two that were there when I started have their own writing beliefs and principles. Our main CW prof focuses more on literary fiction: writing, reading, analyzing it. It wasn’t a well rounded curriculum and I always (still am) jealous when people mention things like Dyostopic Lit classes or Magic realism – things I never got to study because of the focus of our CW program.

    This semester I’m getting into the YA novel and mainstream fiction. However, next semester is my last semester and this is one of my last CW classes. So, do your research and make sure the program you want to enter has something you’re looking for.

  13. Steph March 10, 2011 at 8:29 PM #

    I just finished taking Intro to Creative Writing, which had a huge workshop component attached to it. And while I dreaded it the first day (especially when my professor told us that our work would be read aloud by one of our peers – and trust me, I don’t even like reading my own work aloud, let alone hearing it read aloud by one of my peers), I actually ended up absolutely loving it, and the trust the class built up with each other was awesome. I’m genuinely sad that class is over now, but I guess a couple of my classmates are going to start a Facebook group so we’ll all be able to keep in touch and keep exchanging each others’ work.

    Workshops are totally worth it.

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