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Four Lessons I Learned From My First Writing Workshop

After taking multiple classes at the Loft Literary Center over the past three years, I finally decided I was ready to take a workshop. I chose the Loft’s Advanced Novel Writing: Craft, Workshop, Revision course with Robin McLean, and it was the perfect first step into workshopping and critique.

Over the course of eight weeks, I learned to approach my writing, and the writing of my peers, in an entirely new way. Below, I share a few of the lessons I learned and have carried with me, including to my second workshop!

1. Come to the workshop with an open mind.

If I had any expectations going into the writing workshop, it was that my work would be critiqued and my technical skills evaluated. I quickly learned that, although I would grow a lot, the methods of workshopping were not what I expected.

Each workshop session started with a word dump: every participant, other than the one whose work was being evaluated, shouted out words or phrases that the work evoked. For example, some of the words used to describe my young-adult fantasy piece were “deities,” “intrigue,” “toppled statues,” and “gemstone eyes.” At first, I thought it was a little hokey, and I didn’t know how it could improve my writing. But after my session, I was a convert. The exercise helped me understand what readers were getting from my first pages—touching on building blocks like atmosphere, setting, character, plot—without ever mentioning a single craft element.

I still refer back to that list when I am feeling stuck in my story, and more often than not, a particular word or phrase will spark some new idea or connection. I even shared the word dump exercise with my writing group at a recent retreat, and they liked it as much as I did.

2. Know what kind of critique is helpful.

This lesson can be summed up pretty easily—almost no one in a workshop is looking for line edits. I learned that the most helpful writing critique is not a “critique” at all. The most elucidating thing you can tell a writer is what you understand about their story and what you don’t. The question to ask yourself as a reader is What message am I receiving here? not Wouldn’t this story be stronger if the message here was X instead of Y?

In the workshop I am taking now, we start our critique letters with a paragraph stating what we think the story is about and give our neutral impressions and predictions. To my surprise, those are the most helpful paragraphs in the letters I receive. I am able to evaluate whether my first pages are telling my readers everything I want them to understand. It is also one of the most encouraging parts of the process. There were several things people wrote about my submission that made me think, Wow, someone is getting all that out of this chapter? It feels good to have confirmation that I am going in the right direction, and it motivates me to work on the more substantive feedback and make the chapter stronger.

3. Fully participate in critiquing other writers’ pieces, in a respectful and helpful way.

Ego has no place in a writing workshop. One of the first things Robin instilled in us was the importance of trusting one another—and honoring that trust. The purpose of a workshop isn’t to show how much you know. Instead, go into it assuming that you know very little and have much to gain, because you do. Dive into your classmates’ writing. Read everything at least once before you even think about critiquing at all. Sit with the piece and figure out what it is telling you and how it makes you feel. That is the information that is most helpful to the writer. If you do this, you will grow as a writer too. The weeks I was able to set aside a decent chunk of time and really devote my energy toward my classmates’ pieces were the weeks I got the most out of the workshop. Of course, life gets in the way sometimes, but to the extent you can, try to prioritize the workshop and give meaningful feedback to your classmates.

4. Opportunities to connect don’t end once the workshop is over.

Even though my workshop took place online, I was able to find ways to connect with other writers in the class. We have an email chain going where people share new classes they are taking, publication successes, and literary events. When Robin was recently in the Twin Cities, she organized an in-person “class reunion.” One of my classmates even recommended another workshop for me, a speculative-fiction course based in Brooklyn (also virtual), and that ended up being my second workshop! These opportunities for connection were one of the unexpected highlights of joining a workshop.

If you are on the fence about taking a workshop, let me tell you that I am glad I took the leap! And if you are looking for a supportive, no-fear place to start, I highly recommend a course with Robin McLean at the Loft.

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For seven months, from November 2022 to June 2023, the only responses I got to submissions were rejections. Some of them were encouraging, some were form emails. None of them were the result I wanted.


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