Productivity Writer's Block

How to Lead a Creative Writing Workshop

Alex Woolf
Dan Brotzel
Written by Alex Woolf, Dan Brotzel

A writing workshop has been described as a class that teaches itself. At their best, they can create an experience that exceeds everyone’s expectations – including the leader’s! Here’s how to give your next workshop the best chance of making that happen.  

As writers who have both attended and conducted writing workshops, we’ve seen firsthand how they can work well – and how they can fall apart. Every writing workshop is unique, and there is no magical formula to ensure success. But there are lots of things you can do to set up the session to have the best chance of generating some truly creative magic.

So much about your workshop’s success depends on the participants and how they work with each other as well as the exercises they are given. Even as the workshop leader, you won’t have complete control over these variables. But you can do your best to provide the right environment, ideas and support for the creative spark to ignite.

Choose a Conducive Venue

Getting the setting for the workshop right, if it’s not already determined as part of another event, is essential. You want a space that’s easy for people to find, with practicalities like parking, accommodations and refreshments covered. At the same time, it needs to be a quiet, self-contained space where you and your fellow creative writers won’t be disturbed.

If you are running the workshop to generate revenue, you may need to factor in costs like venue rental and hiring extra help. Training providers and creative companies will often be willing to rent out an unused meeting room at a reasonable rate, and libraries or even church halls can make good locations, too. So it’s a good idea to ask around before springing for an option that will look very swish, but will erode your profits.

Set Expectations

Give participants a good idea of what to expect before they arrive at the workshop. Let them know that they’ll be asked to write something during the session, and that their writing will be discussed in a nonjudgmental way by the group.

It’s important to communicate this up front, because some writers – however experienced – may be uncomfortable with the idea of writing spontaneously and sharing in a group setting. The writers that gain the most from workshops are likely to be those that are ready to take on a challenge and to push beyond their comfort zones in the hopes of developing their craft.

Lock Down the Practicalities

Inform participants about the length and overall structure of the session. A decent length of time per session is about two hours, typically broken down into an hour of writing followed by another hour of reading and feedback. Make sure the time and location are both clearly communicated beforehand, and that you have confirmation of the number of writers who will be attending.

In terms of numbers, five is probably about the ideal group size for this kind of workshop and timeframe. Many more than that, and there is the risk of running out of time before everyone’s had a chance to receive feedback on their work. Less than four participants, and it can start to feel a bit too intense, and lacking in varied opinions.

People sometimes forget to bring writing materials, too, so make sure you have a stock of spare pens and pads handy.

How to Structure Your Workshop

There are a number of different ways to structure a workshop, but whichever approach you use, don’t brief participants on the specific exercises you intend to give them. It’s vital that they arrive without any preconceptions about what they will try to write.

Warm-up and Rapport

Before starting any exercise, it helps to have a way to break the ice and generate a bit of group rapport, especially as some attendees may be strangers to each other and will understandably feel a little nervous about diving in.

A simple way to do this is to get the group to pair off and chat briefly about why they’ve come to the workshop and what sort of writing they do. Then, you bring everyone back together and ask each person to introduce not themselves, but whomever he or she talked to. Inevitably, the subject of each intro will want to chip in and clarify or supplement a few facts, and in this way people warm up and start interacting more freely.

From there, it’s straight into the exercise section!

The Single-exercise Approach: Pros and Cons

We’ve attended writing workshops where, after a brief introduction, everyone launches straight into a single, hour-long exercise. This approach has both benefits and drawbacks.

The main benefit is that it gives participants the time to attempt something ambitious and unconstrained. It’s comforting to know that you can always abandon your piece if it isn’t working, and still be able to produce something halfway decent by the end of the session.

The drawbacks are that, firstly, you’ve barely taken off your coat and uncapped your pen (or fired up your laptop) and you’re immediately expected to be creative – often the mind can freeze in such situations. Secondly, if you’re not inspired by the exercise you’ve been given, you’re basically stuck. So, this can be quite the risky approach, and we’d advise breaking up the writing part of the workshop into a number of different exercises to take some of the pressure off your participants.

The Multi-exercise Approach

A more common approach in writing workshops is for participants to begin with a short and simple warm-up exercise to get the creative juices flowing. This could be, for example, spending a minute writing down all the sounds they can hear. They could then extend this to imagine themselves in a forest or on a busy street and write down what they think they could hear now that they’ve extended the setting.

Another simple exercise to get people in the writing mood would be to ask them to use a couple hundred words to describe a recent meal, their journey to the workshop, or a room in their house or a view from a window. For an extra challenge, tell them they have to do it without using the word “I.”

These limited and circumscribed exercises can be followed by a more open kind of writing challenge, such as:

  • Write a story in which each sentence begins with a different letter of the alphabet
  • Write a letter to your younger self
  • Think of someone you know well and write a scene from his or her perspective

Other classic workshop exercises require some preparatory work on the leader’s part. You might, for example, provide a list of odd and mismatched words and ask the participants to write a story containing all of them. Or, you might hand around images cut out from a magazine as inspiration for a story. There are lots of other weird and wonderful prompts you could draw on here, too.

The Cumulative Approach

Personally, we prefer to structure writing exercises so that the results flow into one another and contribute to, and help shape, a larger story.

For example, you might start off by inviting participants to select one object out of a variety: a hat, a pair of shoes, an umbrella, a pair of glasses, a walking stick, a wristwatch, etc. They would then be asked to write a paragraph describing their chosen object in detail. In the second exercise, the challenge is to describe the person who owns or regularly uses the object, including that person’s personality and life story. The next task is to describe the person’s relationship with the object – how it was acquired, why it’s important to the owner, how it’s used, how it can be personalized, and how it’s changed its owner.

Finally, after briefly discussing what the participants have developed so far, they are asked to begin a story featuring the person and the object. This could be the origin story of how the two first came in contact, a moment of triumph or pride when the object helped the owner achieve something, a significant event when the object first became important, or a moment of crisis or loss. With this approach, the exercises feed naturally into one other, with each adding to the next, giving writers momentum, so that when it comes to the final exercise, they have fewer doubts about the stories they wish to write.

The Feedback Session: Balancing Praise and Critique

When the writing part of the workshop is over, the leader will invite participants to read out some or all of what they have written. No one should feel compelled to read – although it might be worth gently reminding reluctant participants that a big part of the value of any workshop is the feedback one receives from one’s peers.

The leader usually facilitates the discussion that follows a reading by offering his or her views, which should always be positive and constructive to set the right tone. Everything written in the pressure cooker environment of a workshop is deserving of sincere and wholehearted praise, after all. We praise primarily to show that we understand what the writer intended and can appreciate the work from the writer’s perspective, on his or her terms.

When it comes to the critique part of the workshop, you have to be careful how you express things. Avoid speaking in definitive or objective terms (“this is bad writing”) and refer instead to aspects that didn’t work for you as a reader, or what the writer might expand on, with suggestions of things he or she might do differently or try in the future.

It’s important that the leader doesn’t dominate the feedback session, but also encourages the other participants to give their responses to the readings. The leader’s main role, after offering an informed opinion, is to keep the discussion positive and on-topic, to challenge harsh or unfair criticisms, and to sum up at the end. The leader should also keep an eye on the clock to ensure that discussions don’t run on too long and everyone gets a fair share of feedback time. Once everyone has shared his or her thoughts on the readings, or there is no more time left for the workshop, the leader should bring the session to a close with a few final summarizing remarks.

Watch the Benefits Emerge

Often the real benefit of a workshop will only become apparent after the fact. The exercises, along with the feedback, may have sown the seeds of a potential story, or maybe even a novel. The experience might encourage a participant to work on and improve an aspect of his or her technique. The exercises themselves can be reused or adapted as writing prompts in the future.

In short, no one can be sure exactly what will be gained from a creative writing workshop until jumping in and doing one! The simple act of writing spontaneously and then discussing the results will always throw out surprises, and the leader is likely to learn as much, if not more, than the participants.

About the author

Alex Woolf

Alex Woolf

Alex Woolf and Dan Brotzel are co-authors of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a reader of this website, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – simply quote promo code KITTEN10.

Alex has written over 100 books for children and adults, published by the likes of OUP, Ladybird, and Heinemann and Watts.

About the author

Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel is the winner of the latest Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. Other competition shortlists include Flash500, Sunderland University/Waterstones, To Hull and Back, Wimbledon BookFest, Fish, Dorset Writers Award and Retreat West. He has words in places like Pithead Chapel, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect, and Fiction Pool. His first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, will be published early 2020. He is also co-author of a comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg, now available to pre-order at Unbound (discount code Kitten10).

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