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Historical role of the workshop

The ‘workshop’ is not a new idea, nor is it a neutral one. In this article we interrogate the ideas of the workshop. Read this article by James Draper

Interrogating the role of the workshop (not just a neutral concept)

The Creative Writing Workshop can be imagined as a relatively straightforward forum, where participants share and develop their literary work-in-progress through receipt of and response to peer and tutor feedback. But planning – and taking part in a workshop – requires ongoing choices and the navigation of a set of complex dynamics, meaning the workshop is not always just a neutral concept.

If you are setting up a workshop, you are more than likely preparing to take on the role of the workshop leader, and you have options for how you approach that position. One method is to play the part of the kindly conductor facilitating discussion with an emphasis on encouraging and valuing expression of a mixed range of views in close consultation with the author to ensure they get out of the process what they feel they need. Another is more akin to a master/apprentice arrangement with what Michelene Wandor characterises as “heavily directed guidance in which the receiver (student) … follows the knowledge and wisdom of the leader” – the workshop leader imagined here as a guru-figure, with a clear expert-to-novice dynamic in play (Wandor: 2008:126).

So you have a choice to make. What sort of workshop leader will you be? That should, to some extent, be steered by the group you are working with. Are they hungry for a download of information to get them started, or would they benefit from being coached through a more interactive approach to help them overcome anxieties about making and sharing creative work?

Alongside the relationship between leader and participant, there is also a dynamic among the participants themselves, and decisions to be made about how to manage that. Workshop participants are expected to make judgements on one another’s writing through review and discussion, while receiving (and digesting) responses to their own work-in-progress. Things can get personal and there is a fine balance to be struck between expressions of individual taste (“I didn’t like that”, “this is right up my street!”) and offering critical feedback that can be of practical use to a writer.

Livi Michael and Joe Stretch, two lecturers from Manchester Metropolitan University, offer some strategies for achieving this balance. They take the position that thinking about whether something is “good” or “bad”, or calling out whether an author has got something “right” or “wrong”, is not useful and can in fact be immobilising. They encourage their students to stay within the realm of craft – to consider material under review in terms of form, style and technique. They foreground the importance of learning how to give useful criticism and take a view that the more detailed and technical feedback gets, the less personal and judgemental it feels, so the more useful it becomes to the recipient. Joe’s way into this for workshop participants uncertain about how to prioritise craft over taste is to ask to them to start by defining the piece that they are reading, rather than by offering an opinion. Livi asks students to name two specific areas for improvement alongside at least one they think has been successful in the work. They also encourage students to take note of how much they can learn as writers from reading and feeding back to others, building a bank of knowledge and experience that can be applied to their own practice.

In some workshop models, the person whose writing is being considered is required to stay silent while the material is discussed by the other participants. This is often presented as a useful technique to ensure the focus is on the text rather than its author, and that the material can be reviewed as it would be out in the “real world” by “general readers”, without the benefit of any framing or explanatory context from its author. As Felicia Rose Chavez outlines in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, this can be problematic. Not least by reflecting in-workshop a broader context where minority groups have been denied a voice or actively silenced, but also through the biases inherent in the concept of that “general reader”. Does writing to them – whether in initial drafts or through editing in response to the workshop process – comes at the cost of representation and inclusion (Chavez: 2021:2).

Chavez goes on to outline an alternative workshop model where the writer chairs their own feedback session, having prepared an “artist’s statement” accompanying their writing, which asks carefully considered and detailed craft-based questions of their readers. The idea here is to allow the writer to guide a workshop response which is more directed, personal and useful to them, and the development of their project (Chavez: 2021:7). Manchester Metropolitan University Lecturer Malika Booker talks about the importance of workshop participants simply just hearing their own voices in the room so they are all engaged and feel comfortable contributing views. This is part of a mechanism to achieve fairness within the group dynamic by fostering inclusion and dampening down dominant voices by encouraging everyone to speak out. Malika has a suite of ice-breaker activities to achieve this, which she calls her “writing stretches”, and quickly generate material without too much concern for its purpose and which may (or may not) contribute to or be the starting point for future efforts.

The Creative Writing Workshop can be a challenging space to navigate, with decisions to be made in a complicated and moving environment – so it’s often far what could be considered “a neutral concept”. But it doesn’t have to be what Joe Stretch calls “an arena”, where writers come to get a definitive judgement on their work. With some careful consideration of the needs of your group and the dynamics at play, it can be a place for writers to congregate to collaborate on – and appreciate – the development of one another’s literary craft.


Beck, H. (ed.) (2012) Teaching Creative Writing, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chavez, F. R. (2021) The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

McAbee, D. (2020) Shifting the power dynamics in the Creative Writing workshop: assessing an instructor as participant model. New Writing: Routledge [Online] [Accessed on 16th March 2023]

Wandor, M. (2008) The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

With thanks to Malika Booker, Sarah Butler, Anjum Malik, Andrew McMillan, Livi Michael and Joe Stretch for their insights via Manchester Metropolitan University’s Teaching Creative Writing unit.

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