Ways to get Started
Writers' Groups and Workshops
Writing can be very exciting and rewarding career. But as any writer, regardless of their ability, success or reputation, would probably agree, it’s not without its disappointments - and it can be lonely, too. For the new writer, getting to grips with the business of writing for an audience before you’re even published at all is especially daunting.
Of course, the image of the writer in the garret, waiting on the arrival of the muse, and eventually landing a four-book deal (or not), is a popular and enduring one in the public imagination. And, well, it’s certainly one way you could go. But, as many established practitioners could tell you, it’s not always the most promising of approaches. Few writers are able to confidently develop their work without being in touch with both their writing peers and the wider literary culture they aspire to be a part of. Fewer still are able to sustain their efforts alone. And absolutely nobody, but nobody, can get by without some form of constructive criticism. Friends and family may well take an active and supportive interest in your work, of course, and they may even be prepared to offer you an opinion or three. But what you really need is a really objective assessment that can be of some genuine, long term practical use to you and your work.
So, exactly how do you establish that first critical audience when you’re just beginning to find out what it is you have to say and perhaps still trying to discover just how you want to say it? How do you get support? Make that vital first contact with other writers? How do you find out others are doing and how they are going about it? What they are reading and thinking about? This is where the writers’ group or workshop comes in.
There is nothing really new about the writers’ group or the workshop. Almost as long as there have been writers, they have been exchanging advice, ideas and criticism, helping to shape, improve and even directly inform each other’s work in some way or another. Many a literary movement has started in precisely this way. Pick up any Collected Letters of a major literary figure, for example, or indeed any biography. Wherever there’s a fine writer you will generally find him or her in good company. The writers’ group or workshop, with its opportunity for critique, putting likeminded and similarly focused individuals in touch with one another, actually has a very long and illustrious tradition – if perhaps a less organized and formal format than it has now. And the reason is really quite simple. The plain fact is that writers tend to need other writers. So if your aim is to get published it’s advisable to seek out them out sooner rather than later.
Joining a group will allow you to see how your work fares once it’s sent out into the world. People who attend writers’ groups come from all walks of life and from all age groups. In this respect, they arguably represent the best audience any writer could ever ask for. Your peers in a group will offer you useful pointers, suggest improvements, question and challenge. Perhaps most importantly, they will encourage you to do something that’s very, very difficult to do on your own: to step outside of the writing process. Many writers tend to take for granted what’s not always clear at all to their readers or is maybe far too clear. Or, in the end, is simply, well…ineffective. A writers’ group develops your sense of an empathy with your audience. In turn, empathy enhances and refines your abilities to independently self-critique and to edit yourself. This all brings on your writing, of course. But it also stands you in very good stead for the demands of a professional future in the literary world if that’s what you‘re aiming for: magazine or book publication, the editors and reviews that come as part of that whole package. Being able to recognize the value in others’ input as well as your own output and to balance these with maturity, confidence and good judgment is absolutely key; the writers’ group offers an excellent training ground.
But a good writers’ group can do more for you than help you to get some much-needed feedback, polish your technique and enhance your own editorial skills. Engaging with others of similar interest and ambition can help fuel your enthusiasm and commitment. It can help you to sustain your writing projects. It can help to put you on the trail of exciting new writers you should be reading, as well as allow you some insight into others’ experience of writing and publishing, and the lessons they have learned on the way. Networking also naturally enough provides the opportunity for a useful exchange of handy information, such as news on competitions or literary readings and talks in your area. And another thing: as diverse and thriving as the literary world in Wales is, it’s also relatively small. Become part of a group and get into the good habit early on of making contacts.
A writers’ group can help you to practically improve and professionally connect.
Types of Groups and what to expect
Writers’ groups in Wales make for a thriving scene, with new ones emerging all the time. Groups tend to operate around the commitments of daily life, with most taking place in the evenings or, occasionally, on weekends, so they can prove very convenient for those in full-time employment. Even better, they’re pretty local, so the chances are there will be a group or groups where you are. Writers’ groups or workshops can be divided into two types: the informal group and the more formal setting of the adult education or evening class. Both are generally run along the same key principle, however, bringing together likeminded individuals looking to develop their writing in a supportive environment, and usually towards a publishable standard.
The Informal Group
The Informal Group is in the main based largely upon the straight ‘workshopping’ experience, where writers meet and read out their work to the group - this may be a poem, a short story, an extract of a novel or Creative Non-Fiction. The group will then discuss everybody’s work in turn and provide feedback and constructive criticism on the results. Many groups will also discuss contemporary published work by leading writers of the day. While some privately-organised groups are run along the lines of a ‘collective’ of writers, others are sometimes ‘chaired’ and convened by a published writer or an individual qualified in the teaching and practice of creative writing.
Groups can vary in the weight which they place upon creative writing genres, so be sure to find out exactly what the specialisms are before joining. Many do have a more broad-based, comprehensive approach - taking in Fiction, Poetry and Literary Non-Fiction, such as memoir or life writing. These groups can be particularly useful if you’re starting out and are still perhaps undecided about where your strengths or talents may lie, or if you have an active interest in developing your technical and critical skills right across the genres. However, the more general workshop may not be for you if you are particularly keen on honing a specialism, since some amount of time will be spent ‘out’ of your genre. Groups also focus on a specific genre or genres, such as Poetry or short fiction. So find a group that reflects your aims and ambitions.
Meetings are usually held once or twice a month – though some do meet on a weekly basis - and take place in hired rooms in libraries, community centres and even pubs. Certain groups meet ‘virtually’ through an online workshop, ideal for writers who, due to personal commitments or disability might otherwise find it very difficult to participate in the more traditional group setting. Some well-established groups also self-publish pamphlets and anthologies of members’ work.
Joining a group and costs
Some groups require a small annual subscription fee for joining, but others will ask only for a very small ‘sub’ every time that you attend. The overall standard of the group, i.e. the publication record and general ability of members, may determine whether or not you will be required to send in a short sample of your writing before you join. For some you are. But most groups will only require a positive and enthusiastic approach to developing your writing and a willingness to support others as they develop theirs, and will generally comprise of writers at varying stages of ability and experience, whether published or unpublished.
A list of selected writers’ groups in Wales and their contact details can be found by clicking here. New groups do continue to form, so be sure to check Literature Wales for listings regularly. The noticeboards at your local library, community or arts centre will also provide excellent opportunities to find out what’s going on in your area.
Adult Education Classes and Workshops
Writers’ classes and workshops within the adult education setting, generally taking place weeknights, are becoming an increasingly popular way and effective way of bringing on talent in an environment which falls somewhere between that of creative support and ‘vocational training’. Many published writers have passed through this route. Facilitated by teachers and practitioners of creative writing, groups in the adult education setting offer an opportunity to work across the genres, as well as more specifically, such as in the fields of Poetry, Fiction or Creative Non-Fiction - with a professional there to help you establish those foundation skills and guide your progress.
A group will usually meet once a week for a 10 week period, during academic term-time. Courses may be taken for this period only or can be continued into a second and third term. Most tutors will generally place a very good emphasis on the importance of reading contemporary published writing as well as producing your own work. You can expect to be set writing exercises during the session to provide a stimulus to get the creative juices flowing and enable you to find new ways into your writing. New material from students will get ‘workshopped’ during a session, and the tutor will chair the discussion. You may be set specific exercises for ‘homework’ as well. Courses often provide reading lists, the structure of a ‘syllabus’ and assessment, as well as a breakdown of the core skills which should have been attained or developed by the end of the course – which can be very beneficial for writers in helping to assess their development.
Courses and workshops are run by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in local colleges and community centres, as well as by universities and Institutes of Higher Education. Universities and Institutes of Higher Education offer many accredited courses in creative writing that also carry points which can count towards the Access to Higher Education Diploma, enabling those without traditional academic qualifications to eventually progress to degree level study if they choose to do so. For detailed information on the Access to Higher Education scheme visit Access to Higher Education and enquire at your college or university who will be happy to help you.
In addition, many Institutes of Higher Education are offering distance learning options for those unable to attend the traditional class setting. These courses typically involve one on one development of your writing with an assigned tutor - although the degree of opportunity for online group workshopping with fellow students can vary. The Open University also runs several year long courses covering various aspects of creative practice across the genres as well as more specifically, and also offers ‘virtual’ online workshops with other students. Financial support for Open University courses may be available depending on your circumstances.
Joining and Costs
Fees remain very reasonable for the ‘professional’ workshop experience through LEAs and universities in Wales, with a term costing generally no more than around £60 and often less. Concessions are available for students, those not in full-time employment and the retired. You may be able to claim a full fee waiver for a course if you do not hold a first degree, wish to pursue a part-time accredited course and have been a registered job seeker for at least 6 weeks, are claiming working tax credit or are in receipt of DWP benefits. Some colleges do also offer more flexible payment by installments for those who require it. You should approach your local college or university directly to discuss options.
You do not need any qualifications or publication record whatsoever to join a course, simply a willingness to create, contribute, listen and learn. But because of popularity, courses do tend to fill up rather quickly.
To find out about creative writing courses and workshops offered by your LEA, you should contact your Local Education Authority’s Lifelong Learning Unit who are there to support you with advice and information. Details can be found on their website. Many LEAs also provide online brochures of courses on offer for you to browse, which will give details of starting dates, venues and times. To get contact and/or website details for your LEA, visit here for a ‘Find Your Local Education Authority’ search option on its home page.
To find out about creative writing courses and workshops at your local university or Institute of Higher Education, visit their website. A downloadable brochure of available courses, as well as enrolment form, is usually available. Alternatively, universities or Institutes will be happy to send you a copy by post.
Another good source of information is hot courses which carries listings for a number of courses offered in Wales. For those based in or around the capital, Floodlight offers listings of many adult and community education courses in the Cardiff area.
Courses are also regularly advertised on the Academi website on its Opportunities for Writers page.
Other Courses and Seminars
Literature Wales is committed to helping to creatively and professionally develop writers in Wales and runs a number of ad hoc courses and seminars led by leading writers, usually over one or two day periods. Recent seminars have included The Metalife of Dance: Writing and Dance and Writing Libretti, with tutors including Gwyneth Lewis, David Harsent and others. Literature Wales' courses are free and enrolment is on a strictly first-come first-serve basis. Writers should check regularly on the Literature Wales website for details of these. Literature Wales also provides support to many other ad hoc workshops or courses, and privately run workshops or courses are also regularly advertised on the Literature Wales Opportunities for Writers and Events pages.
The Seven Golden Rules for the Writers Group
A workshop is one of the best places to develop your writing, increase your critical insight, enrich your understanding of the current literary culture and form stimulating and creative friendships. Observe the seven golden rules below to get the most out of your experience.
- Do learn the protocol. In other words: get the etiquette. Every group has their own way of doing things, of course. Some groups will have slightly different formats from others. A few things are, however, pretty much universal rules. Don’t bring 5 poems to your group or twenty pages of a short story (unless invited to, though this will be a highly unlikely event!). Remember that other people want the opportunity for feedback on their work, too. Do bring copies of your work for everyone (preferably typed, and as you would like your work to appear if it was being published). Start as you mean to go on and practise being the professional.
- Do give as good as you get. A positive workshopping experience is always a two-way street: an exchange of criticism and ideas. As well as providing you with the opportunity to get some objective feedback on your work, the workshop requires something of you. It’s vital that you also concentrate on the work of your peers and contribute. As well as ensuring that you become a valued member of the group, you’ll be surprised at just how much you can learn by looking at others’ successes and misfires, and how this can bring on your own work. An intelligent critic is not always a good creative writer, but a good creative writer is always an intelligent critic. Be supportive and generous to others and play your part.
- Don’t take things personally or be personal. Over-sensitivity is perhaps the most understandable of all faults and is far from uncommon in the workshop environment; insensitivity is perhaps the most unforgiveable. Respect others. Be careful to criticize the work not the writer and to provide constructive comment to help improve both. Be honest but tactful, incisive and, most of all, upbeat. Equally, remember that you don’t take your car to the garage so that the mechanics can admire the bodywork. So be gracious in accepting feedback and criticism.
- Don’t explain your work or qualify it. Or, at least, don’t do so before the work has even been read out to the group – unless specifically asked to do so. There is perhaps little more irritating in a workshop group (particularly given the constraints of time) than the writer who feels it necessary to provide a 10 minute introduction to their work, including edited highlights of inspiration, autobiographical, environmental context and - spare us! - meaning. Perhaps the only thing worse is the writer who feels it necessary to point out that the poem/short story/novel extract he or she has handed out (and expects valuable feedback on!) is, in fact, ‘not very good’ or was ‘written in 10 minutes’. It’s a sad but true fact that every writer has to learn: an audience doesn’t want to know what you think, they want to know what they think.
- Do take risks. Challenge yourself. See the workshop as an ideal place to try out new styles/themes/approaches in an open, positive, non-intimidating environment. This is your chance to discover, develop and extend the things that you can do – so keep pushing the envelope.
- Do network. Networking is not a dirty word – it’s actually incredibly valuable, never more so than for new writers. Literary Wales may well be ambitious but it is still a surprisingly small world. A group provides an excellent opportunity to exchange information on all sorts of things, from competitions to readings or talks in your area.
- Don’t give up. Workshops, as with any group of people sitting in a room, are inevitably dependent on an element of ‘chemistry’. If the chemistry isn’t right or the focus of the group simply isn’t for you, don’t necessarily give on the idea altogether. You can always find another group. The costs involved in joining groups are generally speaking very modest indeed - but the creative rewards can be potentially great.