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About Writing

An Introduction to the Writing Workshop

To writers who have come through an MFA program, there's nothing exotic about a writing workshop. But to writers just starting out — which describes many of my students in classes at the UCLA Extension — the writing workshop may be mysterious and terrifying. It can be difficult to expose your work to (semi-) public scrutiny. Judgments abound, and some new writers feel that criticism of there is criticism of themselves, especially if the work is highly personal or drawn directly from personal experience. Think of the writing workshop as a group of writers sitting around talking about each others work moderated by a writer of greater experience (and, one hopes, insight). I am reticent about calling a well-run workshop a “safe space” because the work under consideration is always in process, subject to revision. Judgments abound. I tell my students that they should not come to workshop expecting praise. That's not our role and that doesn't help either the piece in its progress or the writer in his or her progress. Yes, you will hear about places in the piece that are working, where readers were interested, that readers enjoyed. You will also hear about places in the piece where readers lost interest, did not enjoy, found difficulty with aspects of the writing be it exposition in dialogue or a tendency to try steer a response with an overabundance of adjectives or too many voice tags in an effort to create variety when at some point the use of, he murmured, she whined, he inveigled becomes comic and takes us out of the material.

In a well-run writing workshop, the focus is on the work. Statements of like or dislike are supported by evidence from the text. The writer him- or herself is not criticized personally. Issues of craft are kept in the forefront to the point where some old-school workshop leaders want a singular focus on craft and nothing but craft. I believe there has to be some consideration of issues of gender or race or power or control should that be part of the content of the piece.

A writing workshop can be exhilarating, can send you back to the desk full of ideas of how to change a piece and make it better, fuller, deeper, more resonant. That's the best outcome.

©2014 Rebecca Dru Photography

Ian Randall Wilson's short stories and poetry have appeared in many journals including The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and North American Review. A faculty member at the UCLA Extension, he is the winner of the 1994 Cera Foundation Poetry Award.

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