The Writer’s workshop and why I think it works.

I’ve been thinking about workshopping recently. It’s something I really miss.

It’s not so much the comments from other people, they are of course immensely useful, but the spur to go back to a piece of writing, re-examine it, and improve it.

Pootling along as I do in my own virtual vacuum, I spend quite a lot of time, moving my work from one screen to another, so that I can get a little objectivity.  Even a different chair, a different type face, different lighting. I work on three different computers, one a Mac so that I have a new view of my WIP, because the hardest thing is to see those words afresh when you’ve read them a thousand times and frankly, you could recite them in your sleep.

When I was lucky enough to be on the Bath Spa Writing for Young People course, I had a fantastic workshop group including Gill LewisSam Gayton, Che Golden, Sarah Hammond, Giancarlo Gemin, Titania Krimpas and totally lovely Julia Green.  Everyone’s comments were really valuable.  Sam Gayton would always begin with “I REALLY like this piece”, and Sarah Hammond with a carefully considered “Well…”.  Everyone made pertinent comments, pointed out things I’d not spotted, and things I knew deep down were wrong.  We’d discuss where the story had been and where it was going, whether the central character had the right voice, whether it was even written in the right tense.  We played with each other’s ideas, lots of hypothesis; lots of laughter.

Afterwards, I’d tear home and spend the evening editing, re-writing, dredging up more ideas more ways to say what I wanted to say.

Each time we workshopped my enthusiasm grew, I wrote faster, I tore through ideas and made millions of decisions about the manuscript, all informed by what other people had said, but not necessarily influenced by them.

It made writing a whistlestop experience.

For about two years, we kept a tiny intermittent workshop group going, we’d meet over strong coffee and tons of biscuits and jabber at each other for four hours.  Ultimately everyone’s lives became too complex and scattered and our group foundered.

These days, (with the exception of the Story Adventure*) my WIPs have a tiny number of first readers – my husband, my agent, and ultimately my editor so until my husband reads that second draft, it’s all horribly up to me.

It means that the desire to rush back and reconfigure the manuscript only happens after I’ve got to the end, and even after I’ve done the first edit.  And it’s quite hard to keep the enthusiasm going for that long. I read what I’ve written and I have doubts.  There’s no-one there to tell me what I’ve done right and what doesn’t work.

And then, because my lonely head’s been in that manuscript for so long, it’s pretty scary to show it to anyone else.

*With the Story Adventure, I had the weird experience of being edited every week – and THEN editing the whole thing again at the end.  But editing isn’t the same thing as workshopping.


6 thoughts on “The Writer’s workshop and why I think it works.

  1. Jane

    Lovely thoughts Fleur …. I still remember the first piece of yours I heard at one of our early workshops – so it must have made an impression! I am lucky to have formed a really good group after the MA at Bath Spa, and it has kept me going ….. Jane

  2. Jasen Booton

    Hi Fleur

    As it happens, I am looking closely at the relationship between author and editor, to help pupils in primary schools improve their writing. In the state of Victoria, Australia, the writing curriculum has a strand dedicated to editing. In England, the progression of editing is not as explicit. It is fascinating to hear your views regarding workshops. I wonder what the important questions that a ‘learning partner for writing’ should ask? For children ‘writing for others’ is the most challenging aspect, as it requires the self-confidence to change what you have written; not because it is wrong, but because some one else needs something different in order to build a clear picture in their head. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. Fleur Hitchcock Post author

      Hi Jasen,
      Very interesting.
      I think it’s very hard for children to spend a long time on a piece of work. As a writer, I really like to have distance from my work, put it on one side and re-examine it. Children tend to want to bury it, or put it out there straight away, like we did with the Story Adventure. I suspect you have to build up to it, so that they have a body of work behind them, and can see perhaps that it has improved, even without the editing process. This allows them to look back at the first piece they wrote and maybe see how they could improve it. We tried to work on editing with yr 5s during the Write Team in Bath. We found it very difficult, even with the most able pupils to get them to cross out and change. One of the biggest issues, is that children still work on paper, so to actually stick a line through something makes the page messy, and on the whole, they don’t like that. Whereas if they could save the original and then have another, free, fiddle about copy, they might find it less terrifying.
      All this is theoretical, and I imagine that someone out there has found a way that works. Will be doing an all day workshop with 25 children in Cheltenham next week, and I’m going to have a crack at it then.
      It may or may not work!
      Will continue to think on’t….

  3. Jasen Booton

    Thank you for this Fleur. I know that an increasing number of primary schools are encouraging upper KS2 pupils to use word processing packages. The whizzy teachers track the changes that children make, able to provide feedback on improvements. I will be exploring this further and welcome any observations, hints and tips.


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