It’s September, which means it’s back-to-school season for grade school and college students. But here at The Writer’s Workout, it’s back-to-school time for you too! Education doesn’t end once we’ve graduated school; everyone continues learning for their whole lives, whether it’s life skills, a hobby like crocheting or diamond painting, or in our case, writing. For writers, active learning is essential to our practice. Whether you just picked up a pencil last week or have been writing novels for twenty years, there is always room to grow and improve your craft!
Implementing learning into your writing practice
What does learning look like for writers? There’s the obvious answer: taking English courses and writers’ workshops at a school or even a public library. These may seem like the only options (albeit solid ones), but there are actually many different ways you can learn new ideas and techniques. This self-teaching can look like anything from reading books, trying out a new writing mode like poetry, or perhaps switching it up with another creative medium like painting or sculpture. And whenever possible, have discussions with other writers and creatives. You can track them down in the wild, but the internet is a great place too! Reddit pages r/writing and the #writerscommunity on TikTok are popular online spaces for learning writers. There is so much to learn from other creative minds and their work; we should always be widening our nets of knowledge and experience.
For a writer, I’d argue that apart from actually writing, nothing is more important than reading. Reading is the best way to find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Read within your own genres, but also outside of them; it’s a great way to find something new and exciting to add into your own work. Try reading a writing craft book as well. There are a ton of them by some very successful authors like Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Anne Lamott.
But by far the best way to learn is by writing. Writing, as with any other art form, is improved through practice. Remember the saying, “practice makes progress, not perfect!”
And what better way to keep yourself accountable than by joining a writers’ workshop? Or better yet, creating your own?
Workshopping the writers’ workshop
Writers’ workshops are unique spaces to learn and receive feedback from fellow writers. Most writers have participated in a workshop at some point. Some love them, but others may have had negative experiences that have deterred them from returning. You may think all workshops are the same, but did you know that there are a few different formats to pick from?
The Iowa Workshop: Seen as the most traditional workshop model, the key (and most contentious) feature of this type of workshop is the writer’s inability to speak during discussion. Generally, each reader gives a broad reaction to the piece before discussion opens. The writer must sit and listen; only after discussion ends are they allowed to ask questions. Some writers like hearing readers’ raw thoughts and reactions without their interference, but sometimes the conversation can get off topic and be unproductive for the writer.
Liz Lerman’s “Critical Response Process:” Developed by interdisciplinary artist Liz Lerman, the Critical Response Process is a more interactive approach to the writers’ workshop. The Process begins with readers giving “statements of meaning” or their initial reactions, focusing on what was “meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting, and/or striking” about the work. Then the writer is given control, asking guiding questions to lead the discussion. Readers are allowed to ask neutral questions that the writer can choose whether or not to respond to, and if the writer gives permission, readers can offer opinions. Overall, the writer has more significant control over the workshop and is (hopefully) able to get the most out of it they can. (You can read more about the Critical Response Process here.)
Most times, though, workshops won’t adhere to strict rules like these, especially if you’re doing something informal with a group of writing friends. What’s most important is to agree to a set of expectations for the workshop format. A writing group I was in last year decided to take an approach similar to Liz Lerman’s: the writer would provide some context for their work and speak briefly about what they thought was working in the piece and what wasn’t. Then they were able to choose whether they wanted to guide the discussion or open it to any suggestions the readers had.
For a bi-monthly meeting between a handful of students and recent graduates, this worked perfectly, but a different approach may be a better fit depending on your specific circumstances. The good news is that you can run your workshop any way you want to! What’s most important is that you’re practicing, learning, and growing as a writer. Happy workshopping!
About the author: Lindsey has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.