Why writing workshops fail, and why you need one

Imagine a group of mechanics, faces grimed with sweat and dirt, hands grazed by friction burns, overalls grubby with grease. Imagine them standing around the carcass of a motor car, stripped down to its component parts, sucking their teeth about why it won’t run.

“It needs more oomph.” Says one. “Oomph?” Says another. “Yeah, oomph. You know. More go. More VROOOM!”

“To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria.”

“Naaaw. It’s the seats. I can’t stand faux leather seating. I’d never put those seats in any car of mine.”

“I’ll tell you the problem,” Says the garage’s hotshot young mechanic. “It hasn’t got four wheel drive, that’s the problem.” “But…it’s a tiny little commuter car, what’s it need four wheel drive for?” “Every car needs four wheel drive!” Bellows the hotshot.

“Actually I think you’ll find the problem is ideological. This car was built as an expression of the principles of consumer capitalism, that’s the problem.” The boss sent this guy to college for a semester, and now everyone regrets it.

The old gaffer steps forward, he’s figured his way to the root of the malfunction. “What we’ve got here is the wrong driver. This car works just fine, the driver just doesn’t understand it.”

Everyone nods, because when the gaffer speaks, you nod. Even when he speaks nonsense.

Now. Would you trust these guys to fix your car? I certainly hope the answer is NO, for your car’s sake.

But these are exactly the kind of comments you will encounter in most writing workshops. I teach creative writing and have led literally hundreds of workshop sessions. I’ve been a member of numerous writing groups since my teens. I’ve heard all these comments and many more equally useless and unhelpful ones. “It needs more pace.” “I don’t like the characters.” “There’s no plot / there’s too much plot.” “I don’t get what it means.”

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The basic problem in most writing workshops is that the members do not know how to write. They’re like a gang of amateur, untrained mechanics. So in place of actual expertise these writers employ opinion and, most corrosive of all, emotion. The sad truth is that the majority of the criticism dished out in workshops is actually the critic puffing up their own ego or pre-empting criticism of their own work. This is why workshops can, at their worst, become festering feud pits.

To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria. First, every member must be at least competent in their technical knowledge of writing. Second, all the members must have a shared language to express their technical knowledge. If you can’t recognise and name a carburettor you have no place in a garage. If you can’t recognise and name a three act structure you have no place in a writing workshop.

A good writing workshop can be invaluable. The Clarion writers workshop I joined in the summer of 2008 helped my writing immensely. It wasn’t perfect. But all 18 workshop members had sufficient knowledge of writing to effectively critique and help each other. That also helped stop the workshop collapsing in to personal feuding, even when very negative and contentious critiques were delivered. Is a workshop essential for good writing? No. But critical reflection on your own creative work is, and unless you have a supreme level of ego control, you won’t be able to achieve that without help from other people.

So how did we get into this situation?

 

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7 thoughts on “Why writing workshops fail, and why you need one”

  1. I’ve often used this same analogy – of a mechanic – usually as a means to rebel against people who want to define something as “art” as a way of avoiding the need for technical proficiency (or ongoing study of style). Even the stuff that’s less like working on a car is like… well, designing a car, based on who you expect to ride it, as opposed to, you know, sitting lazily in a gazebo, waiting for Calliope to wet your cheek with her kiss.

    The workshops I had in college were useful in the sense that they were encouraging, and that I got a taste of what it would be like to get input from other writers, but I didn’t really learn much. Periodically, some of us would complain that having our better descriptions underlined and the teacher write “GOOD” in the margins wasn’t really providing much instruction.

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  2. Agree.

    I read English literature at University, and on our first day the 9 of us taking the course were sat down by the Director of Studies, and told that we need, in our own time, to become very familiar with 2 things…

    The first was the Bible (it was a very traditional *English* lit course, and studying Chaucer, John Lydgate, Milton, Shakespeare etc is just made harder without good Bible knowledge…).

    The other was that we teach ourselves English grammar, because good writing is, indeed, a sentence-by-sentence objective thing. (He made it clear of course that language should never be a slave to grammar…). He was right, too. Highlighting why a particular passage sounds awful is that much easier when you have the technical language to describe the problem (“you’ve used that transitive verb intransitively”, or “conditional subjunctives take the indicative “were”, not “was” etc.).

    Obviously there are many other tenets of good writing; but that seminar was the first time I was made to think about the objective qualities of good writing.

    Tom.

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  3. I agree with Damien’s argument here. There is a real craft to learn with a range of complex skills and bouts of inspiration or will-power or ‘self-expression’ cannot substitute for the hours of work needed to acquire those skills. But they CAN be learned and indeed taught.

    On workshops – I also consider myself very lucky to be a member of a writing community – Leicester Writers’ Club – where every member is a practising writer with a good level of skills already in place. That means our weekly workshops involve critiquing that is not only constructive but often quite precise about the techniques and approaches that can improve a piece of writing. The range of genres we work across also really helps I think to encourage a flexibility of voice and style.

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    1. This post got written because I read the Oxford Essential Guide to Writing this week, which reminded me of all kinds of stuff I;d forgotten I knew!

      And good to hear LRC is alive and well ;)

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  4. I made quite a few enemies in by book club when I protested that the (Giant-prestigious-award-winning) novel by the famous writer wasn’t good even though the NYT and everyone else said it was superb, because I detested that the author eschewed proper sentence structure and punctuation.

    I’ve also made enemies by insisting that another author (famous, has hundreds of books in which the author’s name is bigger than the print) whose readers are stereotyped as being dumb oversexed women, is in fact, an expert writer, because this author writes hundreds of books with millions of fans, and therefore must be doing something right, even if the readers are merely “dumb” women rather than Literature professors.

    I think that “good” writing is, in fact, very subjective, especially because so many people think that the easier something is to read, the less intelligent its writer/reader. However, I’ve read some terribly written books that are still worth reading, books with continuity errors, bad editing, zero plot, weak structure, etc. Examples include The Bible, The Canterbury Tales, and The Jungle.

    (Agree with you about the writing groups, btw. Clarion seemed to be the notable exception to the blind-leading-the-blind.)

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