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Throughout my years of schooling, I received Ds and the occasional C in my English courses. My confidence in my ability to write was quite low as I entered my first writers' workshop. It's true I had spent years working on improving my writing on-the-job, but I still carried the scars from my teachers' assessments of my inability to express ideas as an adolescent.

During my virgin writers' workshop experience, I learned something about my particular paper, what worked well, what was confusing, etc. But beyond those interesting pieces of feedback, I learned something more important—I learned I could write something that others appreciated.

This workshop healed my scars, savagely inflicted upon my young mind by English teachers who knew harsh feedback was good for me. This experience gave me the confidence to write a book, which is now published and selling well.


Writing is one of the craziest things to do—it's hard, and often what gets written surprises the writer. After the hard job of getting a draft, the writer is elated and the result reads great—a masterpiece in the making and a life of fame and accolades; the writer can do anything. Then the writers' workshop.

For many people the expectation of their first writers' workshop is that it will be a glorious affirmation of their own talent and skill as a writer, but for many at the end of the writer's first workshop experience, there is emptiness—the experience has neither affirmed nor condemned. For some there are tears, doubts, shame. For a few there is only the question: How could I have ever felt I had talent?

The writer goes on, or the writer quits.

The writers' workshop has been in use for decades by fiction writers, poets, and writers of creative nonfiction, and in the realm of creative writing it is praised as essential and criticized as vicious, loved and hated.[*] Like any long-lived institution, the writers' workshop has drifted from its origins, and some of the aspects that make workshops wonderful have been rubbed away or replaced by others having less effectiveness or good will—that is, like all magic bits, the magic has been worn off as the energy of its practice dissipates.

[*] I use the term creative to distinguish the creative writing community from other communities that write. These other communities are full of highly creative people. When you see phrases like creative writing and creative workshops, read them as jargon.

In 1994 the writers' workshop had a rebirth—in another field, with entirely new participants, and in a setting where the magic both reappeared and was understood. Since 1994 the writers' workshop format has been in use by the software patterns community, both as a way to improve patterns and pattern languages and as a way to share knowledge and experience, as a sort of alternative to presentations and standard scientific workshops.[2]

The patterns community experienced the writers' workshop mojo right away, but the important news is that this particular community, perhaps like few others, has the habit and practice of trying to understand and articulate why beautiful things are beautiful and why comfortable things give comfort. The workshop—something wildly new and unconventional to them—was studied and its nuances captured.

What makes the writers' workshop tick is roughly what makes large, open-source software projects tick, where sometimes hundreds or thousands of programmers are working with shared source code. We see it in creative brainstorming sessions where a diverse group is brought together in fast-communication situations. We can also see it in the swarming behavior of all sorts of groups in which order emerges where there once was chaos.

But knowing how and why a thing works when it works is different from being able to make it work any given time. The writers' workshop works through sociology and psychology; it is only as good as its participants; its direction depends on the work at hand and the order it is read; it can spin cruelly wrong; but it usually brings out the best in us.

The writers' workshop is bundled paradoxes: the private act of writing mixed with group criticism, the gift economy of shared works mixed with mercenary workshop moderators, and the generosity of supportive comments in a forum that seems better suited for cutting people down.

Writing is an intensely private, solitary act; the writers' workshop is one of the few parts of the process in which the public—the other in the guise of colleagues and strangers—is invited in. For the writer new to the writers' workshop, it appears to be a forum in which the writer, infallible and exhausted, faces the first check, the first test of the work itself, and given these expectations, the test can be harsh. Where moments before the feeling was total power, during and after, the feeling may be total incompetence.

On the flip side, writers experienced with the workshop bring work they are unsure of but feel contains a kernel perhaps without direction, and the workshop helps find that direction. Before the workshop they feel uncertain about the work, but after it they are brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm. Workshops are where writers gain invaluable advice and feedback, and in the best of circumstances, workshops are where writers learn to trust themselves and grow beyond the workshop.

The work goes on, the words improve, the ideas are sharpened, what was important is made bold, what is irrelevant is trimmed, the awkward matures to grace. And the transformation from pure thought to thought-in-words on the page goes on.

The arc from doubt to elation and omnipotence to doubt to completion is common to all creative activities. Its absence is the prime symptom of a mere job, rote engineering, repetition. That something like the writers' workshop is needed in this process needs explanation. In this book I hope to answer this question and more.

We will look at the writers' workshop process, and I will point out as best I can what conditions are required for it to work. I want to try to provide an understanding of how it works, and lay out a road map to its workings both as a ritual and as experience—how to run one, how to participate in one, how to survive one, and how to use it to further your own work.

I come from a background of both the arts and the sciences: My principal education and activities are from the world of mathematics and computer science; my second education and avocation is creative writing—poetry, in fact. I have experienced the writers' workshop in both realms. In creative writing it is a more emotional experience because the stuff that's on the page perhaps means more to the writer as a person than does the more technical and “objective” stuff on the pages written by a software developer, computer researcher, or manager. In creative writing, the discussions tend to be about the narrative structure, what the piece is about, how it is constructed, craft elements and how to improve them, aesthetic concerns, and the positions and stances of the narrator and audience. In the technical world, the experience is more antiseptic—a little more about the stuff than about the person, but not overwhelmingly so—and objective; the discussions tend to be more about the facts presented, the accuracy of the claims, the technical and scientific basis for judging the correctness of the material, and less about presentation and aesthetics, even though the strength and intention of the writers' workshop is to the writing.

The writers' workshop is a dance, and without knowing the steps, a participant might trip, even fall. Feet could be sprained or even broken—one should never participate in a writers' workshop without an introduction to it of some sort and the ground rules being set. You need a moderator or workshop leader—someone with experience and, even better, expertise in the workshop and a master writer. The feet that are most badly hurt will not be those of the experienced, but those of a new writer, a young person, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that a career might be changed by the wrong kind of statement at the wrong time. The conversations in a writers' workshop are not a debate, not a chat, not an argument, not a forum to show off, not a flame war, not a love-fest, not a shouting match, not a lecture, not a demonstration, and certainly not a cakewalk.

But the young writer is not the only one at risk: I've seen seasoned writers—poets with hundreds of poems in their portfolio and dozens of writers' workshops behind them—break down, run from the room in tears, leave a conference that was devastatingly unaffordable after the wrong two or three comments. I have watched senior computer scientists with dozens of publications turn bright bright red in embarrassment and then anger. The workshop is a crucible in which every part of the human equation is tested: creation, destruction, leadership, control, privacy, exhibitionism, voyeurism, love, hatred, fear, collaboration, cooperation, order, chaos, victory, devastation, humility, pride, shyness, bravado, and spirituality. For technical people, the raw emotion is surprising; for the creative writer the clinical coldness is alarming.

When it works well, though, the writers' workshop works better than almost anything else at getting to the best work in the shortest time. If you're trying to get quickly to the release of a usable work, you will get there faster without the writers' workshop process, but if your goal is the best work, the writers' workshop will get you there faster.

Through this book, I hope to introduce or reintroduce the ideas of the writers' workshop to a wide audience: to writers new to the workshop, to writers who want to understand how the workshop works, to new writers who want to find out how to get good fast, to veteran workshoppers who have experienced too many bad parts of workshops, to technical people and scientists who have never thought of their work as including writing, to businesspeople looking for better ways to improve collateral material and presentations, and to software developers.

For creative writers for whom the writers' workshop has perhaps grown stale and drifted from its roots—by talking about how and why it works, I hope to rekindle your faith in it and help you find a renewed focus on the work and on the gifts the workshop represents. For scientists and technologists already using the writers' workshop, I hope to bring you some of the insights of the creative writing community on writing and their more pedagogical use of the workshop so that you can use the workshop more effectively and more thoroughly.

The book is broken into two major parts, introduced by a two-chapter overview. To understand why the writers' workshop can work requires an idea or a model of writing and the writing process. I have no choice but to give you my view of writing and process, and I hope you'll recognize some aspects of it in the work you do. For both creative writers and scientists it is a creative act with risks involved. The first part of the book covers these topics and is called The Work of Making Things.

Part 2, Writers' Workshop, explains the steps in the writers' workshop and provides stories and examples of what goes on in the workshop. It refers to concepts and discussions in Part 1. Readers who wish just to find out what the workshop is and how to run one can simply read Chapter 1, Writers' Workshop Overview, and Part 2, Writers' Workshop.

I've mashed together examples from both the scientific and the literary writers' workshop. By doing this I hope to introduce the two communities to each other, because I believe there is more commonality between them than either would admit. But I've tried to make my discussions of topics particular to each community understandable to the other.

For clarity I'll use the term creative workshop for the workshop as practiced in the creative writing community and the term technical workshop for the workshop in the technical, scientific, and business communities. Workshop refers to both varieties. Similarly, I will distinguish between creative writing and technical writing, though by the latter, I'm not talking about documenting software or technology but writing in a technical or scientific vein.

I hope to present everything I know about the workshop and how to make it work for you. And if you are a creative maker of things working on your own, I hope to present enough for you to get the writers' workshop going and working for you so you can make things better and get good fast.

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