What Kind of Creative Writing Workshop is Right for You?

Rarely, outside of the world of stretchy, cotton spandex, does one size actually fit all. There are several kinds of writers all looking to improve their craft, but with differing goals and skill levels, these diverse writers have very different needs. To make the most of your time (and sometimes money), identifying what kind of writer you are can be very helpful.

1. The Weekend Writer/”The Journal-er”: In most cases weekend writers have been writing, if nothing more than keeping a journal, since high school. They seldom share their writing outside of a coterie of friends and family who have always positively reinforced their writing ability. Most of their writing consists of creative essays of their own life, forays into poetry, and the occasional based on a true story fiction piece. While weekend writers will continue to write for the sheer need to express, the thought of ever publishing their work is very remote. A weekend writer, however, may seek to improve their writing simply as a personal challenge. They also might seek the opinion of a readership outside of their regular fan club to see if others think that their writing is actually “good.” While weekend writers want to test the waters of constructive criticism, a harsh critique could kill their passion and send them straight back into the writing closet, from which their writing may never been seen again.
The Ideal Workshop: The weekend writer is best suited for a writing group. These groups can be organized by a group of friends, or there are sites on the Internet, like meetup.com, where local strangers with common interest can meet regularly. If there aren’t already several groups in an area, then it’s pretty easy for a person to start one. This group is ideal for the weekend writer because for the most part, the participants of these groups are wonderfully positive and like to look for the good in what they are reading. Going to these groups, one might also pick up a tip or two. The downside is that they lack a voice of authority. Everyone’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s and bad advice and habits can spread like cholera and infect the writing of its group members. Even worse, one unqualified person in the group who knows little more than everyone else will emerge like Jack with the conch. The final caveat of the writing group is that in a small, static group of writers, people might start writing for their audience. If most of the group consists of Star Wars fans, you might start writing sci-fi. However, these groups are free, and the weekend writer is just looking to share, not publish.
2. The Part-Time Novelist: The part-time novelist considers writing more than a hobby, but might have come to it later in life--post marriage and children and the career that actually pays the bills. Part-time novelists might even have a friend who is a writer or in the publishing industry to whom they pitch ideas. “Hey, that sounds like a great idea. That could actually be a book someday.” However, these kind affirmations are not enough for part-novelists to hang all their hopes on, quit their job, cash in Junior’s college fund, and run off to join a writers’ colony. It is enough for the part-time novelist to dedicate a significant amount of free time to writing. This is how Stephenie Meyer, the author of the bestselling series, Twilight, explains her experience:
"Though I had a million things to do, I stayed in bed, thinking about the dream. Unwillingly, I eventually got up and did the immediate necessities, and then put everything that I possibly could on the back burner and sat down at the computer to write, something I hadn't done in so long that I wondered why I was bothering."
While the impetus to tell the story exists, the part-time novelist doesn’t know if he or she is “doing it right” and the one writer friend is getting tired of answering questions and reading every new paragraph. The part-time novelist needs an objective and expert opinion. Part-time novelists beg for criticism, and while they might cry initially, they are overjoyed by the education.
The Ideal Workshop: The part-time novelist does best in an instructor-led workshop. In this type scenario, opinions still fly around like gnats in summer, but there is a credentialed and experienced writer present to mediate the discussion. Also, the instructor can actually teach about the craft rather than each writer trying to piece together “best practices” from the varying success of other writers in the group. By being a part of an educated writing group, the feedback during workshops can be much more useful. The downside of the instructor-led workshop is that writers do have to pay, which can be both discouraging or motivating for some writers since many part-time novelists lack discipline and often “forget to write” because careers, life, and bills can often steal time from creativity.
3. The Career Writer: The Career Writer is the person who is kept awake in the middle of the night on a semi-regular basis by a narrative voice that won’t shut up. Often times when the career writer feels inspired to write, he or she emerges from reverie with pages of genius. Their writing is good. They know it, their friends know it, and perhaps they have already been part of a class or had a story or two published so that professionals who are supposed to know, know it. Although this person is probably waiting tables at the moment, the career writer has dreams of being a writer someday. However, the quality of work of the career writer is hit or miss—sometimes the work is brilliant, and other times, that inspiring narrative voice just won’t come. Career writers have little control over their gift and berate themselves as hacks until their muse visits and tells them otherwise.
The Ideal Workshop: The MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree is a gift a writer gives him or herself. This program will shelter the career writer for two years from the world of responsibility and real jobs while they write. However, beware the MFA workshop. It consists of writers who have been told they are special their whole life and believe themselves to be the next voice of their generation. The hopes and dreams of the career writer rest on the successful completion of the program. It’s like an episode of Survivor in a shark tank. While much of the criticism is correct, it can often be overly harsh and sometimes petty as students vie against each other like a Highlander competition (“There can be only one!”) Before applying for the MFA program, career writers must be sure they have appropriately identified themselves. After completion, the career writer is well pigeon-holed into a career as a writer (usually not fiction—think technical, copy, or grant writer) or in publishing. So a career has to be what the career writer wants.
For whatever kind of writer you are, there is no better teacher than practice. Keep writing.

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