A Writing Workshop Primer: What, Where, Why? Part One


Are you ready? How do you figure out what workshop/conference may be right for you?

First, a Little Navel-gazing

In order to choose a writing workshop, you need to assess, as objectively as possible, what your writing needs are. Are you ready to compete to win a spot in a workshop group, or would you rather go with a lower-key, non-competitive setting where all levels of writing are welcome?

Just because you don’t want to compete for a workshop space doesn’t mean you won’t learn; you will. Many writing workshops are open to writers at all levels of experience. Often, I learn as much responding to someone else’s writing (regardless of the level of sophistication and polish) as I learn from the comments on my own.

Ask yourself:

  • How mature is my work?
  • What kind of feedback do I want?
  • What feedback do I need?
  • In what type of setting will I be most comfortable?
  • Most importantly, what will challenge me to be a better writer?


Grow a Thicker Skin

What kind of feedback are you ready for? What’s your reason for going? Do you want a pat on the back, to be told your work is wonderful—or do you want to know, really, how to make that one piece better and walk away from the workshop experience a smarter, more proficient writer?

Andre Dubus and Dennis Lehane, Writers in Paradise/Eckerd College. Photo courtesy of Morgan Engle.

Andre Dubus and Dennis Lehane at Writers in Paradise/Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL (2012). Photo courtesy of Morgan Engle.


I attended a novel workshop at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise (St. Petersburg, Florida) in January where I worked with novelist Ann Hood. I had submitted a new book start I figured might draw criticism, but I wanted to see if the idea would float as a novel. Two years ago, I’d won a prize at WiP. Was my ego on the line? You betcha! But this wasn’t a polished piece yet, and I knew it.

I came away with no prize this time, but with affirmation of the writing and sound advice about the new book’s possibilities. Ann is a strong teacher. She and the workshop members zeroed in on what was working and what was not. I was ready for that. A few years ago, I might not have been.

Writers in Paradise co-founder and author Dennis Lehane says this:

The students I’ve known or know now who either make it or could make it always bring the same attitude to the table: They check their egos at the door, they show a real love of craft, and they consistently ask, “How do I get better?”1


Homework, a Necessary Evil

When you’re ready to look for a workshop, Google is your friend. Learn as much as you can about a conference and its teachers. Note the sizes of the groups, the additional activities. Read the workshop leaders’ bios and look for their craft essays and interviews. Read their published work. You’ll learn a lot about the writer’s style, knowledge of craft, and teaching philosophy. These matter. Working with someone whose style or genre is different can be stimulating, but know as much as you can about the teacher’s work and background before you sign on.

If they’re available online, read the “testimonials” of previous conference participants, realizing, of course, that the conference isn’t likely to post negative comments.

If you know someone who has attended a conference, ask questions about the workshops, the overall schedule, and the general atmosphere. Was it friendly? Were there obvious cliques, to the exclusion of others? Did the faculty mix with the participants, or did they keep to themselves? Was it a drunken, hook-up orgy? Within the workshops, was there an air of mutual support, or did competition reign?

Each individual’s experience will be different, but personal feedback can be invaluable.

So: research, research, research (some tools are coming later). Read. Ask questions. Take your homework seriously!


Coming Friday in Part Two: Conference personalities (they all have one), budget, and benefits.


If you have gone to a conference, what do you wish you’d known before you attended?


1McCabe, Scott. “Reconciling Violence and a Life in Literature: An Interview with Dennis Lehane.” The Writer’s Chronicle Volume 39 Number 1. September 2006.

7 comments for “A Writing Workshop Primer: What, Where, Why? Part One

  1. juliatomiak
    February 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I’d like to attend something like WiP- I’m so glad you are sharing resources. I’m also glad you got helpful tips from your time at WiP. How wonderful to actually work with a novelist! How many writers go to WiP and how much does something like that cost?

    • February 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Julia, I love this conference. This was my second time. It’s manageable in terms of location and the number of participants. I can’t say exactly, but I’d guess we had about 100 participants in a total of 9 workshops. They offer short story, novel, nonfiction, poetry, and YA workshops. Or at least that’s what they offered this year, plus lots of craft talks, panels, and great readings by the faculty. Go to the Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise link in the post. Their info for 2013–re presenters, cost, schedules, etc.–is still available.

      • juliatomiak
        February 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm

        Thanks Gerry!

  2. Amy
    February 14, 2013 at 1:58 am

    I attended a conference last year. I wish I had known that I should have done more homework. I should have read the books written by the presenters. I should have tried to do a better job at making friends with other attendees.
    Otherwise … I had a grand time. LOL!

    • February 14, 2013 at 10:32 am

      That’s a great attitude, Amy! Go and enjoy and absorb everything you can.

  3. Gale
    February 19, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    This is great advice for a new writer considering a conference. Not all conferences are created equal but each one has something to teach.

    • February 19, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks, Gale. You’re so right. Every conference is unique (even those that are patterned on others), and each has something to offer us. We just have to choose wisely.

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