The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 2. The Trouble with Workshopping

May 1, 2014

Tags: 1. The Mastery Path

These days, most people who want to write find themselves at one time or another in a writing workshop, perhaps a course at a college, or a group that meets in someone’s home. That’s because the workshop model for learning prevails in the teaching of creative writing (and often composition as well). Participants in the group present work in progress, and give each other “feedback” on their work. This is supposed to help them improve as writers. But does it?

Now, imagine a group of kids who want to learn how to play baseball. Each one swings at pitches in front of the others, who give him “feedback” on his swing. How much do you suppose these kids are learning about hitting a baseball?

This example may sound silly, but in fact it’s quite similar to what happens when a group of inexperienced writers give each other “feedback” on their writing: they don’t really learn anything. Even with a teacher guiding them, it’s very difficult for people who don’t know much about writing to offer helpful comments to other writers.

Think, for a moment, if you will, about what’s really happening in a writing workshop: people are talking about writing; they’re not doing it.

But writing—like baseball or cooking, car repair or painting—is a practical activity. You can’t learn how to do it by talking about it; you can only learn how to do it by doing it.

Perhaps this is why so many writers teachers tell their students, “Just keep writing, you’ll get better.”

But this approach doesn’t work either: it dooms aspiring writers to frustration and despair and the wasting of vast amount of time. That’s because if you just keep doing only what you already know how to do, you’ll never learn anything about how to do it better. Think about it: would a baseball coach ever tell an aspiring major-leaguer, “Just keep swinging the bat, you’ll get better”?

In baseball, no one gets any better without plenty of teaching from a knowledgeable coach or a highly-skilled player. The same thing is true with writing: if you want to get better, you need a good teacher.

Good writing teachers do exist, and you may be lucky enough to find one. It’s also true, though, that many writers don’t know much about how to teach. They may create a workshop atmosphere that is uncomfortably critical; they may promote the unhealthy attitude that writing is all about the writer’s self and personal experiences or feelings; they may pass on as truth the latest clichés of writing advice—Show, don’t tell! Eliminate all adverbs! Never use the passive voice!—thereby depriving their students of techniques that are sometimes useful.

Most of all: in a writing workshop, you are unlikely to get the opportunity to do the real learning every writer needs: namely, the learning of skills.

You’ve probably never thought about writing as requiring skills. It's more likely that, like just about everyone else, you think about writing in terms of talent: Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.

Let me tell you how I discovered that talent doesn’t exist.


  1. June 10, 2014 12:09 PM EDT
    Loved the baseball analogy for workshopping and it's true - how can other inexperienced writers offer you constructive criticism? I do not believe in writer's workshops although I succumb to them on occasion at a conference or seminar but the people leading the workshops are all published authors!
    - Christine Bagley
  2. June 23, 2014 3:28 PM EDT
    Thanks, Christine. I agree that workshops can be helpful when the leader is an experienced writer and teacher. But this is not always the case.
    - Barbara
  3. August 18, 2015 8:53 PM EDT
    "Uncomfortably critical" is what I am seeing on a blog by a published author who is attempting to teach writing to his classroom of blog readers. I believe that these reader's level of experience with writing is as wide as the ocean. While he has some sound advice at times, his methods of publicly shaming his students makes me cringe! I've said to my husband numerous times, this man may be able to write a book, publish and sell a million copies but he is not qualified to teach!
    I'm not sure how you feel about critique groups, perhaps that is in another lesson, but I do feel that when a writer takes a workshop, joins a group or attends a conference he/she is seeking motivation, acknowledgement for their work (efforts) and to connect with other writers on various levels and not necessarily seeking to be taught the craft of writing. Writing is an individual effort (mostly)and a person can get lonely, negative thoughts can creep in and we can experience a plateau in our efforts. Connecting can relight a spark to keep trying. I've actually done none of the above. Maybe that's why I'm connecting here. I haven't decided what the best path to knowledge about the craft of writing is at this point. But I understand what you're saying.
    - Meg
  4. September 2, 2015 11:07 AM EDT
    When the blind lead the blind, no one gets anywhere useful. When ignorant newbies comment on each others' writing, very little useful can happen. Beginners don't know what to do with a piece of imperfect writing--that's why they are beginners--and comments on a piece of writing that leave out "what to do" just waste time.

    Writing is built up from habits, and when those habits are bad, more practicing just cements the bad habits.
    - John Maguire
  5. September 19, 2015 10:57 AM EDT
    Meg: Yes, I agree, people come to workshops for all kinds of reasons (some of them having not much to do with writing). But a person who wants to build skills is going to find many workshops of little use. I always advise my students that before joining a workshop (or a critique group, which is just a workshop with no teacher), they should always check out the teacher, or the group, very carefully. There are, unfortunately, many workshop leaders like the one you describe, who may know a lot but don't know how to teach.

    Thanks, John. You are so right.
    - Barbara Baig