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How to initiate, organize, and execute a successful writing workshop

A handy guide for anyone who wants to lead a writing workshop.

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The concept of “pay it forward” is widely known these days, but I first heard it 30 years ago, from writers posting on the earliest online message boards. “There’s no way you can truly pay back the people who helped you out along the way in your career,” they’d say, “so instead you pay it forward and help out the next generation of writers.” Horror, fantasy, science fiction – the genre didn’t matter. The ideal was the same. And it wasn’t just lip service. It was a bedrock principle of the SF/F/H communities, one of their most honored values – and it still is. There are many ways to pay it forward, of course, but presenting writing workshops, whether in person or online, is a great way to do it. As both a writer and writing teacher, I’ve learned a few things about designing and conducting workshops over the years, and I’m here to share them with you.


How does a writing workshop differ from a class?

A class is part of an ongoing course of study, and it has a large scope. You can teach a semester-long class in novel writing, but you can’t cover the same material in the same depth within the span of a two-hour workshop. A class has regular meetings, a specific long-term agenda, and (often) criteria for evaluation. A workshop is time-limited and usually focused on a specific element of the writing craft or business, and the workshop leader does no evaluation of participants’ finished work. (Which means no papers to grade!)

Why should you present a workshop?

I’ve already mentioned paying it forward, but there are other good reasons for giving workshops – reasons that benefit you directly. You can gain a greater understanding of a subject by presenting a workshop about it. I’ve learned just as much about writing from teaching it as I have from doing it. Each time you teach, you improve as a writer. Workshops can also be an effective means of self-promotion. Attendees can get a sense of who you are, what your personality is like, and they’ll be interested in checking out your books. If the workshop venue allows you to sell books, some attendees will buy and ask you to sign them because they’ll want a memento of the workshop. If you present a workshop at a conference, it can provide networking opportunities and give you greater visibility in the writing and publishing community. You’ll get your name out there, and as a presenter, you’ll be viewed as someone who knows what they’re talking about. Plus, you might earn a little money, too. That brings me to…


Should you charge for your workshop?

This is completely up to you. Self-promotion and experience presenting may be enough compensation when you’re first starting out. Plus, if the workshop is hosted at a modest venue, such as a small local library, it may not have money to pay you (and if it can pay, the amount might not be much). If you organize your own workshops, whether face to face or online, and you want to get paid, you’ll need to decide how much to charge individuals. How much are your time and expertise worth? The sources I consulted on the web suggested $1,000 per event on the high end, $100 per event on the low end, and $600 per event as an average. The length of the event is important, of course. You’d charge less for shorter events, more for longer ones.

What sort of workshop should you present?

You should present on whatever aspect of writing you feel is one of your strengths. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest expert, though. You just need to have some information – tips, tricks, techniques, strategies – to share. You can choose between two basic topic categories: Generic topics good for any type of writer, things like dialogue, plotting, etc., and topics specific to your genre, such as how to build an atmosphere of dread in horror or how to avoid clichés in science fiction. You can use generic topics for workshops at libraries and rec centers. They’re good for drawing in a variety of writers interested in different genres. Specific topics work better at conferences geared toward a certain genre. But generic or specific, your topics will most likely fall into one of these areas: Idea-Generating, The Craft of Writing, Publishing/Business/Career Concerns, and The Mental and Emotional Aspects of Being a Writer. Pick an area that interests and excites you. Your enthusiasm for the topic will go a long way toward making the workshop a successful one for attendees.

When it comes to topic selection, Gabino Iglesias, author of the critically acclaimed Coyote Songs, says, “First, identify something you know well enough to explain it to others in a way that they can understand you. Then, take a look around and do some research. Chances are, someone has talked about the same thing before, so see if they’ve said something that’s useful to you and your workshop participants. Also, remember to make things fun. People love knowledge but hate school for a reason. Take advantage of the fact that people who take a workshop are there because they want to be, so have fun.” If you do borrow material from other writers, make sure to credit them in your presentation.


Where can you present writing workshops?

I’ve mentioned conferences and conventions before. Sometimes they have an open slate of workshops they need to fill, and they’ll put out a call for submissions. Other times you might need to take the initiative and suggest doing a workshop for them. Same with libraries, schools, bookstores, and recreation or community centers. It wouldn’t hurt to have a simple flyer/brochure about you and your workshop offerings to send to people. If you don’t want to put specific fees down, you can just put “fee negotiable” or not mention fees at all and deal with the issue later. If you want to present workshops online, you can do so on your own website, your own YouTube channel, Teachable, and Patreon. There are lots of places and methods for presenting workshops, and the more versatile you are in your delivery methods, the more workshops you can present, the more people you can help, and – potentially – the more money you can bring in.