How to Run a Creative Writing Workshop or Class

Whether it’s fiction, poetry, plays, or screenplays, all writers can benefit from a creative writing workshop. So how do you run one, or organise one with your friends and colleagues? 

I’ve taught, or run, creative writing workshops at university level, and I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you below.

The Technical Elements of Running a Creative Writing Workshop

Creative writing workshops can be any size you like. I’ve taught them to up to twenty students, and I’ve heard that they get a little unmanageable beyond that size.

Remember that for each additional member of the group, you will get more feedback, but you will also have less time to workshop each student’s work!

You can run a workshop in a formal class setting, such as at a high school, or university. You can also set up a creative writing workshop with your friends and colleagues / peers. They are organised in a similar way. 

Each week or session ask a certain number of writers to submit work for the group to read and provide feedback on.

The writers should submit their work at least one week before the workshop to give the class time to read and to think about feedback.

When a student’s work is being workshopped, all writers should be encouraged to provide some comments to create an atmosphere of sharing. Nobody wants to feel that they are giving more to the group than they are getting out of it. 

Create a Supportive, Positive, and Judgement Free Environment for Creative Writing Workshops

First of all, you want the students to feel totally safe to reveal their work to the group. Creative writing can be a very vulnerable experience, because the writer may be drawing on their own experience of life (they have to to some extent, right?). 

When people reveal their creative writing they often feel like they are revealing a part of who they are, or a little bit of their soul. So remember to always be encouraging, because self expression is a valuable and fragile thing! 

Remember to advise everyone to always start with a complement and end with one. Start by identifying what you like about the work, and what is working. 

Then move to comments that may be harder for the writer to hear i.e. harsher criticism. Then make sure to end on something positive as well! 

Remember that each person in a workshop will be there for a different reason and hoping to get something different from the experience.

Some very nervous students may be trying to build confidence, some very confident ones will be seeking the harshest criticisms they can find to test their writing in a cauldron of fire. 

Make sure to think about what the writer wants, and needs, and stay sensitive to the fact that every writer is different. 

Students are ready to hear different things at different times. If you sense the student isn’t ready for your super hot truth bomb, consider not dropping it on them, or giving them a little taste and letting them know they can approach you for further comments if they like. 

Remember There is no Right or Wrong in Creative Writing  

Ultimately, all assessment of writing, without a rubric, comes down to a matter of taste. Don’t’ tell writers that they are wrong, or that there is a better way of doing things. 

This is subtle, but suggest that they consider doing things in a slightly different way, if you believe their writing would benefit from experimentation in that direction.

Also direct the writer to what other authorities have said about creative writing. You might want to mention Heminway’s Iceberg theory for instance. 

Basically, just try to move away from the idea that there’s only one way of doing things, and find a happy existence in the gray zone!! 

Try to Help the Writer Achieve Their Own Goals, Not Yours

If the writer wants to writer Fast and the Furious Ten, then help them to do that. Don’t try to get them to write Hamlet 2. 

Another way of saying this is don’t try to get them to abandon their project and work on a better one. Try to see what they are striving to achieve and help them to achieve it. 

How do you Assess Creative Writing in a Formal Environment? 

If there is no right or wrong in creative writing, then how do you formally assess it, and give it a mark? 

Often in creative writing classes there will be a course component. The essay that accompanies that component will often form the majority or a significant amount of the final mark for the course, so most of the marks often do not come from the creative work itself.

If you do two rounds of feedback for your student, for example a workshop, followed by a submission of a final work for marking at the end of the the course, then the final mark can be derived largely from how well the writer has engaged with the comments of the workshop.

There is always a subjective element in marking creative writing. This is why it is generally preferable for the person marking the submission at the university level to have had some success as a creative writer.

Don’t worry at all though if you are leading a creative writing workshop at the school level and have not had work published yourself.

Writers at this level are generally not seeking publication yet, and are still being exposed to writing concepts that are foundational.

Try to guide your students to a better understanding of the core principles of writing like showing and not telling.

Creative writing courses will often provide a rubric which outlines exactly what is being assessed in the creative submission. This reduces the subject element involved in marking, because the marker is assessing how well you can perform a technical creative writing task, such as ‘creating subtext.’ 

Another way to reduce the subjective element of assessing creative work is to assess how well the creative submission embodies the lessons taught as part of the critical component of the course. 

When assessing creative writing it is also possible to assess the work according the criteria established by the writer themselves.

For instance, if a poet has submitted work written as a sonnet, you might want to assess how effectively they have utilised the poetic rules applicable for the sonnet form they have chosen. 

Creative Writing Workshops Should be Fun!

Creative writing should be fun. Don’t buy into the whole suffer for your art thing. If you don’t enjoy writing go do something you do enjoy. Life is short.

So make sure if you are running a workshop to make it fun for everyone involved, and I hope you have fun too 🙂