Book Review: The Writing Workshop Notebook by Alan Ziegler

One of the required books for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University is The Writing Workshop Notebook (Reference/Resource 180 pages) by Alan Ziegler. This is probably the most effective writing book I’ve read in the course of my studies so far, and I strongly wish I’d been assigned this book instead of Self-Editing For Fiction Writers in the early parts of my genre-fiction writing educational program.

When looking at writing workshops, or really any workshops designed to improve an artist’s craft, they’re mostly a collaborative learning experience, where the student being critiqued will generally learn just as much, if not potentially more, from their fellow students as from the instructor or teacher. The instructor or teacher shoulders a lot of burdens and responsibility for the manner in which the workshop is conducted and this really hit a chord with me. My main focus in taking the Teaching of Popular Fiction and Writing is in getting myself prepared for a future as a creative writing instructor at a college or university. This book brought up a lot of really good points that I can use to best manage some of the burdens of that occupation.

One of the really great parts of this book, in my opinion, was the section with writer exercise from page 67-77. This selection of “No-Risk, Risk-Taking Exercises” would be a great way to help students (or any writer) who are stuck with either their work or their style to start putting words on the page. I think the reason I like this section on warm-up exercises so much is because I’ve learned the value of all sorts of writing in the last few years. There was a span just over a year for me where I wasn’t able to get any fictional writing done at all because I was producing a thousand words or more every day for work and I had no energy left for anything else by the time that was done. So even though I spent all those months not writing about dragons, demons, aliens, or super-humans, I learned a lot about writing, writing style, and tone.

For instance, if a student is struggling with what a main character might do next, they could work through the “Personal Effects” section on page 71. This could provide the key clue to solving a mystery or giving the main character a tool to use against the alien or to helping that romantic lead understand that their true love misses them and really is their true love. Or if a student is struggling to keep the readers emotionally invested in the characters, the student could use the “Time Bomb” section on page 74 to help infuse some strong emotional content back into the story.

I think that Alan Ziegler sums up the role of the instructor or teacher best on page 97: “It is a studio, not a gallery. You come to the workshop to improve the work, not to perform and be judged. You do not solicit – nor offer – book reviews. No single critique (or entire workshop term) should lead to the determination ‘This is how good I am and will ever be.'” There are so many ways that a workshop can go badly, however, and most of it depends on group dynamics. The instructor or teacher has the responsibility of providing just enough encouragement to keep the student moving forward but not enough so that the student becomes arrogant or egotistical. The instructor or teacher is also responsible for providing a sense of balance to the comments and ensuring that the students understand when positive comments are made that those who made the comments are sincere and for keeping other comments as critiques and not as criticisms, as mentioned on page 119.

The Writing Workshop Note Book offers an entire section on “Workshop Do’s and Don’ts” from pages 105-110, and the vast majority of these are absolutely solid examples of things that will help an instructor or teacher to facilitate a good workshop class. I think the way that SHU conducts the workshop sessions are a model of the way things should go, where each student is given an appropriate and equal amount of time to talk while the student whose work is being critiqued is not allowed to voice their thoughts until the end. This process works very well for the mature and responsible students such as those at SHU, but may not work as well for younger, more immature, or less experienced individuals such as those you might find in a local, technical, or community college.

I really do believe that the biggest challenge for the teacher or instructor of a writing workshop is maintaining the balance. You really do have to be careful about how you phrase your words and how well you know your students. Earlier in this class, there was a lot of reading about how knowing your students will help you to best facilitate their learning, and this is absolutely correct. Some students may ask the instructor or teacher to mark everything up, and they are genuinely capable of accepting all those comments about their work and making the necessary adjustments. Some students have such shattered self-perceptions about their own writing that even the smallest comment will give them the impression that they aren’t capable of doing things correctly.

It’s all really just a matter of balance. I actually thought this book was remarkably helpful and there were a lot of sections that I marked for future reference, either as extra writing prompts for days when things are just blocked and confusing, or as sections that will keep me mindful of things I need to pay attention to when I am the instructor or teacher who is working to convince these students that their writing, and they, have potential.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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