Over the past six months, I’ve participated in three workshops and three seminars to help my writing. They ranged from a six-week workshop at a writing center to the two-day intensive workshop to a three-hour seminar. Some of my experiences were extremely helpful in propelling my writing forward while others frustrated me at times.

Workshops can be great in helping you break out of your shell. When I first attended a world-building seminar, I hadn’t written much of anything. Even in the short amount of time with some writing exercises, I still didn’t feel great about my own writing. I chose to do the six-week workshop because I needed to force myself to let others read a chunk of my writing and get over my fears.

So I did. We had to read the introduction to a short story in one of my workshops. I fretted for weeks to write something. I ended up in a sweat about two hours before the actual class staring at the blinking cursor in Scrivener. Then I started writing about a character who was a minor one from a novel idea I’d been kicking around, but who demanded I tell her story (not kidding, I truly did hear her). I wrote a scene with her and her sister. I read it out loud. And then something magical happened.

Within five minutes, I knew I had hooked my listeners. I could feel them leaning in invested in my characters and what was going on. I ended my sample on a small cliffhanger. When I finished, the instructor gave me helpful feedback. But more importantly, I knew that my writing didn’t suck. And really, this is an important feeling to have in order to get over the fear of just starting to write.

I finished the workshop and completed another short story. It’s a fun one, and something completely off my usual topics. Maybe some day I’ll do something with it. But after several people dropped out, a lot of what makes a workshop good didn’t happen (through no fault of the instructor who was great).

Sometimes, workshops can be helpful in getting you to actually write. You’re held to deadlines. You read and critique others’ works, which exposes you to different styles of writing as well as teaching you things you should and should not do in your own. And if the workshop is really good, you’ll do some in-class exercises that reinforce new techniques or help with sticky issues like creating dialogue.

So how can you tell if your workshop will be good? Well, you can’t guarantee it. But the best way is to find out through a little digging. What’s the word of mouth? If you’re attending a weekend workshop, who do they have running it? Is the workshop in the field you write? (Being the only urban fantasy writer in a room full of realism writers can be lonely and won’t get you the feedback you need).

One big negative to workshops is the cost. A short seminar may be the most cost effective, but it’s a short experience (although the one I took about dialogue truly helped me in an area in which I felt weak – see the compliment I got at the Dragon*Con workshop). But a six-week workshop can be expensive as can traveling to weekend workshops.

If money is an issue, try looking online to see if there’s an online community workshop where for a small fee, you can read others’ works and give feedback to earn participation points so you can submit your own work to gain feedback. There’s one for science fiction writers at http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/.

What are the biggest benefits to doing a workshop? Beyond receiving information you may not have had before, I think the biggest one that I’ve found is finding a community and making connections. My instructor for my one workshop continues to be a great wealth of information to local science fiction conventions and working with a small press. In another workshop, I met a very strong writer who has turned into a good friend. While we don’t write the same type of material, she keeps me grounded and excited about writing when we meet up.

Whether or not workshops actually work is questionable. For me, they helped me break out of the shell of fear and got me writing more regularly. The latest ones I attend now give me great information to help me think as a writer about the steps to take after I’m finished and as an editor in terms of information that might help my clients.

It’s a personal choice of how you want to help your own writing. Workshop or not –  whatever you do, just make sure you do keep on writing!