Students enrolling in college level (and sometimes even high school) creative writing classes need to be prepared for the writers’ workshop. The workshop is often an important part of the creative writing classroom.

What is a Writers’ Workshop?

The word “workshop” sometimes conjures up images of hammers and saws, but a writers’ workshop is something very different. While there is much creating and perfecting happening in a writers’ workshop, the only tools being used are pencils and brains.

Creative writing workshops actually began in 1936 at the University of Iowa. The university developed-and is well-known for-its Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and most creative writing classroom workshops are modeled after the Iowa classrooms. Students who have participated in a peer review in a composition class will be familiar with the idea of the workshop, even though the finer points are different.

How Does a Writers’ Workshop Work?

Basically, the workshop is comprised of students. While every instructor runs her creative writing class a little differently, many of these basic ideas are the same from one class to the next.

Each student offers his workshop piece to the class. Every student writes something creative (such as a poem or short story, but it depends on the instructor guidelines or the particular class) and makes copies for everyone else in the class.

Each student then takes a turn sharing his writing. When it is a particular student’s turn, she reads the poem or story aloud. Then all other students offer suggestions or comments about the poem, as well as writing suggestions on the student’s paper. The instructor’s comments are offered last, not because the instructor is necessarily an authority, but because the instructor doesn’t wish to taint others’ opinions.

The most difficult part of the workshop is that the student whose work is being critiqued does not speak, whether to offer a defense or explanation. The student is expected to be silent throughout the critique. Students who are critiquing the work are meant to offer constructive suggestions but are expected to be respectful. After everyone critiques the work verbally, the student collects her papers so that she can revise her work based on the suggestions she received.

Writer Workshop Guidelines

Writers will probably be expected to follow most, if not all, of these guidelines:

  • Writers should bring enough copies of their work to class so that everyone (including the instructor) has a copy. All of these copies will be returned to them at the end of the workshop.
  • Writers will need to read all or part of their work out loud to the class. Sometimes the writer will perceive potential revisions just because she read her work out loud.
  • Writers must stay silent while their work is being critiqued. The good news about being quiet is that only the writer can choose what criticism is helpful, and she can disregard any criticism that she feels is not.
  • A writer should seriously consider what her peers say about her work, particularly if someone else was confused or misunderstood something.

Reader Workshop Guidelines

Writers are also readers and, as such, will likely need to follow most of these suggestions:

  • Readers should always be respectful of their peer, remembering that all creative writing has worth. They should try to be sure to mention the positives as well as the areas that they think need improvement.
  • Readers should ask themselves questions about the work they are reading (instructors will probably have suggested questions). For example, what impression did the piece leave on the reader? What questions did the reader have? What seemed to be the goal of the writer? What suggestions does the reader have for revision?
  • Readers should leave written comments on the page as well, including suggestions for spelling and grammar. Most often, though, the reader should be offering global suggestions. Editing (line revisions) are sometimes more appropriate with later drafts. However, if there are glaring errors that take away from the piece, these types of suggestions are important.

Using the Workshop to Aid Revision

The ultimate goal of the workshop is to perfect one’s writing. A writer should take the suggestions to heart but know that he is, of course, the only person who knows what suggestions will work best for his revision. It’s usually best to listen to the comments of his peers and read the written comments and then-if possible-set the piece aside for a few days. Then, when he’s ready to revise, it’s best for him to conjure up in his head what ideas from the workshop continue to resonate with him. Most likely, those are the suggestions he should use when rewriting.