Strategic Engagement: Finding the best workshop for you

by Kelly Jarosz and Chantal Panozzo of the Zurich Writers Workshop.

In 2010, three American writers decided to stop complaining about the lack of English-language writing instruction in our area, and the Zurich Writers Workshop was born. Since then, we’ve organized four workshops and attended several others.

ZWW logo An ongoing challenge for organizers is providing valuable instruction and inspiration for writers at all experience levels. The challenge for participants lies in finding the right event so the topics aren’t overwhelming or yawn-inducing. Here’s our breakdown of the typical kinds of writing workshops, and which writers would benefit most from each. Keep in mind that many writing events offer a mix of these types.

1) You’re just starting out in creative writing. Maybe you’re already a technical writer or journalist and want to expand your writing abilities. Or maybe you’ve always dabbled in creative writing for yourself and wonder if you could write something other people would enjoy.

A conference with a variety of short sessions is for you. The program will offer a combination of panel discussions, question-and-answer sessions, and workshops. The sessions will have names like “Writing For Magazines,” or “Finding your Story,” and many will focus on how to generate ideas, from playing language games to mining your own life for literary gold. Also common are sessions about building sustainable writing habits, which is often the biggest obstacle for new writers.

These conferences are great if you have the passion for writing but are unsure whether you prefer fiction or non-fiction, or if you need a boost to get started. You should leave the conference inspired and motivated, with at least a few ideas to develop.

Example: Northwestern University’s Summer Writer’s Conference, Geneva Writer’s Group Conference

2) You’ve dedicated some time to learning the basics of the writing craft. Maybe you’ve started working on ideas for a story or personal essay. Maybe you even have a draft, but you don’t know how to shape it into something great.

The second kind of workshop often is set up like the first, with a variety of short sessions, but they’re focused on specific aspects of the writing craft, like “Bringing your Characters to Life,” “Writing Realistic Dialogue,” or “Point of View: Whose Story is It?”. Other times, this type of workshop is led by one instructor, who covers a variety of topics with one group of participants.

Reading examples as a group shows how an aspect of the craft plays out in published works, and in-session exercises provide techniques for developing it in your own writing. You should come away from this workshop ready to delve into learning the craft more deeply on your own and with ideas of how to develop the craft in your own work.

Example: Zurich Writers Workshop 2013, WriteCon 2012

3) You’ve dedicated serious time to studying the writing craft, and you’re actively working on a big project: a novel, a memoir, short stories, personal essays. You’re familiar with the vocabulary of writing, and you have a good sense of what should and should not be in your piece. What you don’t know is whether readers understand the story on the page the way you understand it in your head. You’re ready for a critique-focused workshop.

These workshops require participants to submit a 10-20 page excerpt of their work a month or so ahead of time. The majority of the workshop is dedicated to group discussion of each participant’s piece, often led by an award-winning author. This kind of workshop demands much more time from participants to prepare their own pieces and thoughtful feedback on others’ pieces.

The focused feedback received in these workshops can be invaluable for writers who need fresh sets of eyes on their work after toiling away alone. You should leave with a list of specific revisions to be made in your piece and, best of all, an understanding of your piece’s strengths. If you especially appreciated a participant’s feedback, this is your opportunity to invite her to continue working together as critique partners after the workshop ends.

Examples: Paris Writers Workshop, ZWW 2012

Before signing up for a writing event, think about your current writing goals, then carefully read the description of the event and its sessions to see if it matches up with your expectations. Feel free to contact the workshop organizers to determine whether they offer what you’re looking for. If not, tell them. They will likely keep your suggestions in mind for future events.

Whatever your current writing needs, there’s a workshop out there for you. And if there isn’t one nearby, consider organizing one yourself!

ZWW aboutPsst!! The Zurich Writers Workshop will announce its 2014 workshop soon. Find out first by joining the ZWW e-mail list.

Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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