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Make the Most of a Writing Workshop by Diana Cambridge

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Diana Cambridge

Diana Cambridge

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Inspired by a writing workshop – then find you can’t read your notes? Or remember much of the advice? You’re not alone, says author, writing tutor and journalist Diana Cambridge.

Writing workshops are exciting and enjoyable – there’s always a sense of happy anticipation. You may meet a well-known author, be asked to read your own work aloud, or talk about yourself and your own writing. Great.

But back at your desk, have you got all the notes – and can you understand them? Do you begin to use any suggested techniques?

Often the answer is “no”. You enjoyed being at the workshop so much you forgot to make a report of it. Or you scribbled down odd phrases and now can’t make any sense of them.

How to maximise the benefits of a workshop

 Take careful notes. A few well-chosen words might be enough to describe, say, the best way to write a feature:

“Economic. Short sentences. One idea in every short paragraph.”

Don’t try to get everything down verbatim. Make your handwriting a bit larger than usual.

Leave plenty of space between sections.

Ask the tutor for a written copy of her tips, if she doesn’t give you a handout. She may not have done one, but could if you request it. All writing tutors should offer handouts, or Powerpoint slides that can be e-mailed to you.

Don’t be distracted by your mobile (don’t even look at it ) or by your neighbour. Never start side conversations while the tutor is speaking.

If questions are called for, try to ask at least one question. This is daunting for many people – be brave.

Condemned to a let’s-go-round-the-group session? “Tell us about yourself” doesn’t mean a long summary of your life history. Be honest and economic with your words. “I live in Bath, was brought up in a council house, and went to grammar school. My mother was a school cleaner and my dad a taxi driver. I enter a lot of writing contests, but haven’t won anything yet. I suppose my main interest in writing is in relationships.” That’ll do! This provokes interest without sending people to sleep – and will attract the tutor.

Try not to be negative. At some workshops negative remarks are banned. “I know I’m not good enough”, “I never get anywhere”, “ I lack confidence”, means the tutor has to spend time reassuring you, and the group morale drops. Unless the workshop is actually about inspiring confidence, don’t waste time moaning. Instead, focus on the worthwhile stuff you’re learning.

If you’re asked to write during the workshop, put your back into it. Often there’s a feeling of “ let’s get this over with” – instead, aim for excellence. It might help to prepare a few things before the workshop.

Have a fresh notebook for each workshop. When you make your notes, you can divide them into “chapters”. If the tutor offers links and references, get these down carefully – don’t scribble. You may actually use them!

Never get side-tracked into talking at length about your life and its problems. I’ve been at workshops where students went on and on about their life or their marriage. It’s hard to stop someone in full flow and it spoils the workshop for the rest.

And how to survive a writing retreat

When you arrive at your writing retreat in, perhaps, Greece, you’ll be thrilled with the location. But this is a writing retreat – not a holiday! Book a slot in  your diary for your own writing, every day. Stick to it.

Don’t make friends too quickly. Late nights drinking can result in morning-after hangovers – so focus on your writing. Be friendly with all, but stay independent.

Write up your notes for the day, every day. Turn the advice into a diary.

Buy a fresh note book for every retreat you go on, and date them.

If you take books to read, make them books about writing. Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing and Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction have never been bettered, in my view. It’s worth investing in them both.

You may feel nervous at the retreat, or find you dislike some people and wish you hadn’t come. Work through these feelings and write them out. Concentrate on the benefits these retreats and workshops will give you.

Do ask for extra time with a tutor if you feel it would help. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

A laptop is not essential. It’s possible to lose stuff on it. Some retreats prefer you to use a notebook and pen. Many writers feel more inspired when using twentieth century tools!

The more pain you put into your writing – the better it will be. Feel no shame.

Ready to read your work aloud to the workshop or retreat? This may be on the final evening. Get your posture tall and upright, move around a little as you speak, project your voice and change your tone once or twice. Don’t rehearse this too much, or it won’t sound fresh. Never finish with “ I know it’s not that good, but…”

Comments from the group on your writing? Accept them all – positive or critical – and don’t try to defend your work.

Cliché alert – the more you put into a workshop, the more you get out of it. If you treat it as an entertainment, or relax into a contented stupor, you’ve wasted your money. Concentrate.

Get those notes down. Read them through in the evening – and for the next three days.

Always welcome criticism – it’s crucial. You’re a writer now.

(c) Diana Cambridge


Twitter @dianacambridge

Diana takes on writing students. E-mail her for details. She is the author of Don’t Think a Single Thought, her debut novel published in 2019 by Louise Walters Books.

About Don’t Think a Single Thought:

“Hello? Hello? Emma, is that you? Emma! It’s only me… Hello? Are you there, Emma?”

1960s New York, and Emma Bowden seems to have it all – a glamorous Manhattan apartment, a loving husband, and a successful writing career. But while Emma and her husband Jonathan are on vacation at the Hamptons, a child drowns in the sea, and suspicion falls on Emma. As her picture-perfect life spirals out of control, and old wounds resurface, a persistent and monotonous voice in Emma’s head threatens to destroy all she has worked for…

Taut, elegant, and mesmerising, Don’t Think a Single Thought is a captivating exploration of mental health, women’s place in society, and of the inner workings of a picture-perfect marriage.

Order your copy from the publisher’s website, or from:

About the author

Diana Cambridge is an award-winning journalist. She has written for many national newspapers and magazines, gives regular writing workshops, and is a Writer-in-Residence at Sherborne, Dorset. She was Agony Aunt to Writing Magazine. She lives in Bath.

Don’t Think a Single Thought is her first novel.

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