Presenting writing workshops has been very much a part of a professional writer’s life for a long time now, and it’s only increasing as an important source of a writer’s income. Indeed, in a time of contracting publishing lists and vanishing advances, for some writers it may be the major source of income. Some are still resistant to the idea of attending workshops, quoting the traditional truism ‘you can’t teach writing,’ but good workshops offer three very important things, especially for aspiring authors: inspiration for new directions, the honing of craft, and the opportunity to connect with like-minded people.
Over many years of giving writing workshops all around the country as well as overseas, I’ve learned ways to successfully tailor workshops for different audiences and age groups. In this post, I want to pass on some tips for both the creation and presentation of workshops.
- Whatever your audience, it’s a good idea to focus on one theme. Unless you are creating a workshop series or writing course held over several weeks, don’t just call it a ‘creative writing workshop’ as that’s much too broad. Instead, zero in on a genre, or an element of craft, whether broad-brush or drilled-down. For instance, I’ve constructed workshops around writing convincing YA fiction, around the elements of characterization, and on suspense as a plot device in any kind of fiction.
- Timing is important. Is your workshop an hour? Two? A half-day or full day? Pacing the introductory elements and subsequent activities/exercises is important so you don’t spend too long on one thing and not have enough time for the rest. For example, the introductory section of a short, hour-long workshop should be kept to no more than 5 minutes.
- Think about your potential audience when creating a new workshop. Some workshops can easily be tweaked/adapted for different ages, but others just don’t work across the board, even with tweaking. Be flexible about it. When some parents stayed with their children during one of my Poem Artworks workshops and they got into creating their own pieces with great gusto, I realized that the class, which I’d designed especially for kids, worked equally well with adults. The playfulness of the workshop appealed to both. Those adults weren’t aspiring authors, of course; they just wanted to join in a fun activity with their kids.
- In half-day and full-day workshops aimed specifically at adults, make sure you have good hand-out material to give your students. People love having things to take away and it also helps to refresh their memory later if they’re wanting to follow up on what they’ve learned in the workshop. For instance, in the YA fiction writing workshop, which was over a full day, I provided a document of 10 pages of notes. Topics included a discussion of what YA means, the current market for YA fiction, sub-genres of YA fiction, the building blocks of successful YA fiction, tips for successful pitching of YA fiction, and then a series of exercises built around the ‘building blocks’ I’d identified earlier. All of this was covered in the workshop, but the notes provided students with a handy reference both during and after the workshop.
- Don’t get hung up about ‘technological aids’ such as Power Point slideshows. They’re great in talks/lectures, but I’ve found that they can be a distraction in workshops. The exception is if you are running a workshop on aspects of publishing, rather than writing per se, when slideshows can indeed be very useful. For instance, I’ve run workshops looking at book covers and blurbs, and being able to put up pics of relevant examples is essential. It also avoids the tiresome necessity of otherwise having to lug around actual examples of books. Basically, your workshop should be constructed in such a way that it doesn’t have to rely on technology—because, as we all know, glitches and technology go together. A technological aid can be a nice extra without being crucial to the success of your workshop.
- Create a simple feedback sheet which you can hand out to people at the workshop or provide to them by e-mail. These can provide great information which you can then use to tweak that workshop in the future. Keep it to one page only though, and no more than 3 questions.
- If you’re being asked to do a lot of workshops/talks/presentations, consider creating a simple website focusing on the kinds of workshops/talks /presentations you can give. This is not just about getting bookings, but is also a streamlined way to let organizers know about the specific kinds of things you offer. I created my own  last year, and it’s proven useful not only for direct bookings but also for the speaking agencies I work with. They can direct interested clients to my website. You can, of course, simply create a page on your author website about your presentations.
- Whoever is hosting the workshop should provide name tags/stickers for attendees so everyone knows everyone else’s name. For full-day, half-day, or series workshops, starting with a round-the-table introduction of everyone is a great way to break the ice as well. Just diplomatically make sure you don’t get held up by long-winded attendees—put a time limit on that introduction period. Group introductions aren’t necessary in short workshops, though the name tag/sticker is still good to have.
- Allow the possibility of questions throughout, but make sure they don’t hold things up too much.
- Do schedule breaks, if a workshop is more than 2 hours long.
- Allow enough time for writing exercises but not too much—exact timing depends on the complexity of the exercise, and how many you have planned. And vary them. For instance, a very short sharp exercise, which challenges people in ’instant’ creativity, can work well either before or after a longer, more complex one.
- In any discussion section of your workshop, try to make sure the same people don’t dominate input—but equally, don’t force people to contribute to discussion, as some people prefer to think quietly about an issue and not proffer an opinion.
- At the end, you may want to ask people if they’d like to share what they’ve written—but play that by ear, as again, some people prefer not to do it.
- Hand out the feedback sheet and/or ask students if they’d prefer it sent by e-mail.
Over to you: As presenters or attendees, what works for you in workshops, and what doesn’t?