Laura Howard: Workshopping 101 with Mel Jones Walsh


Workshopping 101 with Mel Jones Walsh

Today's post is by a friend I met in April during Robert Lee Brewer's
Platform Challenge. 

Mel is a seasoned writer and blogger. It seemed like the perfect fit when I learned she was going to a writing retreat this month- I knew my readers would love to learn about workshopping!

Workshopping is an integral part of the writing process-
a part often overlooked by novice writers. 

It’s the part seasoned writers often find most valuable. Hollywood has painted the picture of the lonely writer in his or her tower churning out masterpieces. 

But it doesn’t work that way. There is an ongoing, fairly substantial debate about whether or not Shakespeare wrote his plays. I’m in the camp that believes he did, but I think he workshopped…

Hey, Will, we go live tomorrow, what’cha got?

The girl is talking on the balcony, “Where could he be? Oh, I’m so lonely. What should I do?”

Ouch, not very catchy. How about, Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou, Romeo?

Yes, yes! That’s it!

Did that happen? I don’t know. But with the depth and breadth of his work, I assume so, because no one is that perfect a writer all the time. Writers need other writers. Tolkien workshopped with C. S. Lewis – makes ya think about Middle Earth and Narnia in a completely different way, doesn’t it?

I have been actively workshoping my writing since the early 80’s. When I can’t find a viable group, I create one. I am currently working with The Midlothian Writers’ Workshop, which I founded three years ago. We meet every two weeks and talk writing, we write, we critique. 

Recently, I organized a writing retreat; a wonderful trip to the mountains of Virginia with a group of (mostly) seasoned writers and workshoppers. People I had worked with in different places in my life. When Laura asked me to write an essay about the workshop experience, what better to use? It was going to be an amazing experience. Well, except that the weather didn’t cooperate—at all. We were without power and water, off and on, for three days. You should read that as no coffee or air conditioning. No working toilets. Not ideal conditions. After the first workshop session, I wondered how I would compose this essay at all.

As a seasoned workshopper, I know the rules. Two of us in the group facilitate workshops on a regular basis. We could do this.

But we couldn’t.

We assumed everyone was on the same page. We didn’t take into consideration, the weather, the Derecho, wildfires, emotional baggage and the prejudices each of us brought with us.

Without first discussing the appropriate protocols, we plowed into the first piece on the table. We made a lot of assumptions. Someone who was at a very vulnerable place in her life wrote the piece. And we hadn’t laid any groundwork. She exploded twice in the course of that one workshop. She felt violated and lashed out. The rest of us felt violated and retreated.

Lots of eggshells to walk on.

There are several approaches to workshopping and any group needs to decide which method they will use. And then the protocols need to be laid out at each meeting. The two primary methods I have been exposed to are the Iowa approach, and Amherst Writers and Artists philosophy, formalized by Pat Schneider.

Almost every writer has heard stories about writing workshops at Iowa State. It’s a negative approach. The first story I heard was about an instructor throwing a chair at someone. Really. It’s the slash-and-burn-you-suck-at-this-give it up approach. It’s the man-up approach. I’ve been in groups like that, briefly.

Amherst, on the other hand, presents the idea that we all have talent and the desire to write, that’s what brought us together. We find the positive in the text, what’s working and then discuss anything mitigating. The writer remains silent throughout this discussion. At the end, the writer has his or her say.

We weren’t quite Amherst, but not quite Iowa either. We vacillated.

The end result of our lack of definition was almost disastrous. 

People were attacked (beyond the scope of the writing on the table), egos were bruised, and friendships compromised. People lost sleep, thought about leaving. Cried. I thought, nope, I won’t be able to write that essay.

We didn’t workshop the next day. We were all nursing our hurt.

Three days later, we decided to try again.

We came together in the parlor. We discussed what was acceptable behavior, and what was not. Talking points:

¨      Each workshopped piece will have a facilitator – someone to direct the conversation and keep the group on task, and be aware of the writer.

¨      The writer will be silent. However, if the writer thinks we are beating a point to death, he or she should make the group aware.

¨      Readers/critiquers will not address questions to the writer, but rather have a group discussion about the work. Exceptions are made to this rule occasionally.

¨      Readers will not assume that the piece is about the writer, and will refer to “the narrator” or “the character” thus offering some distance between the writer and the work.

¨      We will discuss strengths first and then anything mitigating.

¨      We will refrain from personal attacks and remain focused on the words on the page.

One writer made the comment, “You don’t get to say stuff about my work, it’s mine.” I wasn’t sure how to interpret this statement, because that, for me, this the whole purpose of the workshop, to have people talk about my work, offer opinions and suggestions.

Successful workshops are based on both philosophy and group dynamic. Finding a group of writers, with whom you share common ground, and similar ideology is important. Some groups are genre based, and that’s good for some groups. Some people need that. For me, diversity in a group is important. Having poets and fiction writers read my nonfiction essays gives me a completely different perspective. It gives me the ability to see my work in a way I never would have on my own. And that’s a good thing.

Probably the most important thing to remember about workshop groups is that the other writers are really there for you. It’s a selfish act. My writing needs this, my creativity needs this connection. I need this and it is up to me to find what I need from the group, and take it.

Workshopping is one of the most vital steps in the writing process (draft, workshop, rewrite, submit, rejection, workshop, draft—it’s a cycle), so if you’re not in a group, log on to Meet-up and find a group. 

Be sure to ask a lot of questions. Try several groups until you find a group that works for you. If you find yourself walking on eggshells, walk away. Or, the group might be too touchy-feely for you, again- walk away.


  1. Gosh Mel, you have more stamina than I do. That sounds like the most stressful workshop – but then I haven’t been to many writing workshops. Mine usually have to do with art. Good for you for sticking it out!

    1. I've never been to one... sounds very stressful!

  2. Excellent - i like the amherst approach best; we learn more under encouragement; it's all a learning process; way to go

  3. Wow...that sounds so stressful! It's hard to reconcile the value of workshopping with what you described on the 1st day. Maybe that was a good example of how it shouldn't go! :)

    I did learn a lot about workshopping. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. I am so sorry that Mel's workshop turned out to be such a flop... I know she was looking forward to it :(


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.