Writing Workshops: What Should They Really Teach?

trash can writing workshop

If you want to get better at writing, just sign up for writing workshops, right?

Maybe not.

How writing workshops meet the need for a little pain

In an article for The Practical Writer, Dan Barden argued that writing workshops don’t work. And the problem is twofold. We take a democratic approach and assume everyone has something to offer, and we maintain the idea that readers have some sort of obligation to us (they don’t).

According to Barden, serious writers essentially need a trial by fire. They need to be put through the wringer, to feel a little pain about their craft. Without that struggle, people never are really sure that they want to be artists enough. They don’t find their real voice or understand who they are. So instead of being about improving the writing, a workshop should focus on transforming the writer’s relationship to it.

This doesn’t mean that a good workshop can’t help you with the more technical aspects of the craft, or that it can’t prepare you for how to deal with different aspects of publishing. It certainly can. But Barden’s point was that those elements are far less important than grasping why a reader would want to pick up your manuscript. And it’s here that workshops so often drop the ball.

How much will your story stick in someone’s mind?

Like Barden, I think writers focus too much on the fact they just love to write. It’s OK to talk about it as if it’s a compulsion, a lust you have to stroke. I’ve done it myself, because that’s honestly, truthfully how I feel about it. But it is nothing if you don’t also recognize that readers don’t really care about your feelings. They care about having a story they can’t get out of their head. It’s not about whether you deserve their attention. It’s about whether what’s on the page does.

So if you really want to be a good writer, sure, work on those commas, figure out how to write query letters, all that. But first, ask yourself if the story you want to tell genuinely has something worthwhile to it. There always should be a clear message. Ideally, that message should be something entirely new, something so enormous and penetrating that we’re not the same after we’ve heard it. Some concepts deserve the trash can, and the sooner you focus only on the ones that don’t, the sooner you’ll have the audience that naturally follows you.