Friday, May 9, 2014

What Are Writing Workshops Really Like? (Part 2)


Last week, I wrote about what in-person writing workshops are really like. This week, I’ll talk about my experiences with online workshops. A lot of what I wrote about last week also applies to online writing workshops, so please check out that post. These are just my experiences. Yours might be different.

The Format


Online writing workshops vary a lot in how they’re run. Sometimes you post your writing on a website and wait until somebody critiques it. Sometimes your writing is emailed to the workshop members, and the critiques are emailed to you. The number of critiques that you’re required to write totally depends on the workshop.

My Experience


One of the best decisions that I made in my life was joining an adult online writing workshop when I was a teenager. I was just starting to get serious about writing. Almost all of the writers in the workshop were much better and more experienced than me. Most of them were extremely kind, patient, and helpful. They corrected all of my beginner mistakes. I learned so much from them that when I started taking beginner writing workshops in college, I felt like I was ahead of the other students. I already knew what the professors were teaching because I’d already learned it in the online writing workshop. It definitely made me more comfortable in the college-level workshops. I also probably got better grades than I would have if I hadn’t been in the online workshop for years before I started college. The online workshop was great for a beginner like me. For a writing workshop, it was also very inexpensive. I think it was $47 a year back in the early 2000s.

It’s difficult to find a good online writing workshop that doesn’t cost a ton of money, especially if you’re an experienced writer. Most of the free workshops that I’ve come across are made up of inexperienced writers who are just starting their writing careers. These free workshops might be great for beginners, but they might not give experienced writers the help they need. I’ve seen a lot of critiques of experienced writers that say, “This is a great story. There isn’t anything wrong with it.” That always makes me wonder if the person giving the critique isn’t experienced enough with writing to see the problems. That kind of critique also isn’t helpful for the writer. I ended up quitting the writing workshop that I joined as a teenager because as I became a better writer, the critiques became less and less helpful. I still wasn’t a good writer, so if I wanted to keep getting better, I needed to find a different writing workshop.

I tried a few other inexpensive online writing workshops, but I still wasn’t getting the help I needed. For every great critique, I was getting two or three that just said, “This is a good story.” Writing workshops can be time consuming. You have to write and revise your own writing as well as critique other people’s writing. There are often strict due dates. I did learn a lot from critiquing other people’s writing, but the critiques that I was getting weren’t worth the work that it took to participate in the workshop.

By far the best online workshops that I’ve done were run by colleges. A lot of colleges offer online classes, including writing workshops. The workshops are led by professors. The workshop members are taught how to write good critiques, and the critiques are often graded, so there is incentive for the workshop members to do a good job on them. I almost always got helpful critiques from college online writing workshops. The only drawback to these workshops is the cost. They’re usually several hundred dollars. You might also have to apply and be accepted to the college before you’re allowed to take them.  

The moral of the story: if you find an online workshop that fits your needs and gives quality critiques, then join it. Good online workshops seem to be rare beasts.

The Trolls


A lot of online writing workshops don’t have a workshop leader who keeps tight control over what’s happening. In many cases, anyone can join an online workshop, and the workshop leader doesn’t read the critiques unless somebody complains about something. There are often trolls in these workshops who join just to cause trouble, give cruel critiques, and upset people. Be prepared to get a few troll critiques in an online workshop. Either ignore them or report them to the workshop leader.

The strangest thing that ever happened to me in an online workshop? Nothing too bad has ever happened. I once got a religious sermon instead of a critique. The person who gave me the sermon then flooded my inbox with Bible quotes. When I was a teenager, I got a very detailed critique that compared my writing style to cat food. According to the critique, my writing style was chunky, unappealing, and not something that you want to look at very closely or for very long.

So, that’s online writing workshops for you.





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