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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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Determine your topic focus

As I said at the beginning of this article, “novel writing” is too broad a topic for a workshop. You want a narrower, more specific topic. Imagine a book about writing fiction. Your workshop topic would be one of the chapters in that book, and maybe even one of the chapter sections. So instead of doing a workshop on dialogue in general, you might do one on how to use dialogue to increase suspense.

What do you think people want to learn? What do you think people need to learn? What’s the experience level of attendees? Do they need to learn the basics, or are they looking to acquire more advanced knowledge and skills? How much time will you need to do a good job covering a particular topic? If you’ve been given a specific session length, what topics can you cover effectively in that time? Answering all of these questions will guide you in deciding what your workshop topic should be.

Michael A. Arnzen, who teaches in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, has some advice about narrowing workshop topics. “Published writers often can teach whatever they want, as students come to learn from them as individuals. But if you’re like the rest of us, you have to pitch a good idea first. And much like you need to have a unique hook on a familiar trope to sell a genre story, often the trick to landing these gigs is to have a unique insight, approach, or technique to share about a topic that many writers need to learn. For instance, ‘Writing Setting’ is something you COULD pitch, but ‘Making Setting Your Characters’ Deathtrap’ is better.”

Presentation vs. interaction

You can provide two types of experiences for workshop attendees: presentation and interaction. Or, as educators often refer to them, “the sage on the stage” and “guide by the side.” In presentation, you do all the talking. You may show media like PowerPoint slides or video clips or give attendees handouts to refer to, but they’re expected to absorb the information more or less passively. Maybe you’ll answer their questions as the session goes along, or maybe you’ll save them until the end. In interaction, participants do most of the work. You design the sessions and guide people through them. It’s more like being a host at a gathering than what people consider a typical teaching role. Participants (because now they’re not just attending, they’re participating) get to ask questions – a lot. They create, share, and critique writing throughout the session. They’re actively learning instead of passively learning.

Award-winning author Lee Murray says, “With lectures and presentations, the focus is on delivery of new information and concepts, and while workshops also deliver information, they are turbo-boosted by an interactive-participatory component. The clue is in the name, really; in a workshop, attendees come to work. They are prepared to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the content of the session. In that case, the facilitator becomes more of a guide, helping participants to question, analyze, discuss, create, and share. And the added personal connection means a good facilitator can tailor the workshop to the specific goals and needs of the participants.”

Which way should you go – presentation or interaction? I suggest you choose based on your personality, your comfort level with either approach, the type of event, the participants’ expectations, and time constraints. Most teachers will tell you that interaction is the superior technique, and I agree – if you’re talking about a class that meets over weeks and perhaps months. But for a workshop that lasts maybe as little as an hour? You might only have time for the participants to do a single exercise, and some of them may feel that they didn’t get as much as they hoped for their time (and perhaps) money. Some people want to get as much information as they can during a workshop session. They figure they can do any exercises on their own time. Other people love exercises, and they’d prefer to spend most, if not all, of the session writing and sharing their writing. Not all participants like both types. At the beginning of workshops, I used to ask attendees which they’d prefer – an interactive or presentation approach. They’d raise their hands, and I’d deliver the workshop in whatever manner the participants chose. Invariably, when the workshop was over, I’d receive feedback – sometimes formal, sometimes informal – from some participants who wished we’d done the other technique, even if they originally voted for the opposite approach. You can’t please everyone, so you should try to please the most people you can.

If you’re nervous about presenting or just new to it, presentation style works great because you have an outline to follow. I’d suggest leaving some time for an exercise toward the end if you can, and also time for questions and answers. This way, you can cover all the bases and hopefully satisfy the majority of the participants.

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