- Alan Ward
What I learnt delivering over 40 creative writing events in less than three months
Between 23rd January and 31st March I delivered over 40 creative writing events as part of my work as writer in residence at Hastings Library.
I've delivered plenty sessions in my time, but never with this intensity before. I kept a note of a few lessons I learnt along the way, which I thought I'd share here to help anyone new to delivering writing workshops, or coming back to delivering workshops after a time away.
What do you need to know to deliver a creative writing workshop? My advice is as follows:
1) Sit in the middle of the table, on the long edge
If you're delivering a workshop to between 10 and 15 participants and sit at one end of the table on the short edge, you're going to be really far away from some of the people you're trying to engage.
The advantage is that you can see everyone more easily, and you might feel like a proper teacher, but if you're a distance away from some of the participants it's hard to keep track of whether they're following the session (particularly with younger groups).
Allow some time before the session for rearranging the tables to your liking. My preference is for one big block of a table that everyone sits around. I try to sit on the long edge so that I'm in the middle of the group. This feels cosy and collaborative, and it's easy enough to chat to everyone – you're not hollering down the table to ask them if they travelled far to be there.
2) Plan, plan, plan
You can't over-plan a creative writing session. I go in knowing exactly what we're going to do: I need printouts for some exercises or readings, and I need to have a good idea of how the time is going to be used.
This doesn't mean you can't have a basic structure you reuse each time (mine is: introductions, discussion, readings, warm-up exercise, and then one or two longer writing exercises depending on the time available), but for the participants to get value for money (or a sense they've used their time well) they need to feel confident you know where you're taking them.
3) Have backup ideas
Despite all this planning, you can't account for every eventuality. Sometimes a discussion goes on longer than planned (because people are having a good time), or an unscheduled debate breaks out, or everyone wants to read out what they've just written.
You have to tailor your plan for each group and not be afraid to tweak it as you go. I have a supply of readings or exercises to plug in the gaps when timing means I can't do a longer exercise I was hoping to. I don't have to dip into these often, but when I do I'm grateful to have them with me and to have thought about them in advance.
4) Pause longer to give participants the chance to speak
I read somewhere that doctors are likely to talk for much more of any appointment than their patients. When interviewed, they are liable to overestimate the amount of opportunity they gave their patient to speak. The same goes for writers delivering workshops.
If you say "and what does everyone else think?" but only wait five seconds before getting scared of the silence and give your own opinion instead, chances are you've missed out on an opportunity to hear from a participant. Wait longer than you think feels right (the silence feels longer to you than it does to them), and don't be afraid to ask again. People can be shy, but they like to be listened to.
5) Adopt a no pressure approach
I'm very clear from the outset of every workshop that there will be no pressure on participants to read what they write aloud to the group. I think it's important they know that so they don't hold back when they write.
At the same time, I plan in time for participant readings at the end of every exercise. There are normally at least two people who want to read, though you have to manage the event well to make sure you don't just hear from the same people over and over. Often, if the first three or so people read, everyone else will too. On occasions where no one volunteers to read, I've offered to read their writing for them, and that's gone down well, or else I get the whole group to tell us something about what they've written without actually reading it out.