Sunday, 14 June 2009

Writer's workshops

I have been meaning to write this blog entry for quite some time. My notes and personal journal writing date it back to early February. Strange but I have a range of themes that date back a long way. Sometimes they sound like a good idea and then drift out of focus.

The writer's workshop has is a tool used by literary writers and picked up by the pattern writing community. Richard Gabriel wrote a book (2002) to help the pattern writing community but it has wider applicability.

When I was reading Gabriel's book, I was looking at ways of fostering interaction in a software architecture forum. Gabriel had mentioned his use of the workshop in this type of context so I felt it was worth trying.

The basic principle of the writer's workshop is to provide feedback to the author of a work in a fairly positive environment. The authors work is circulated before hand so that participants get an opportunity to read it and prepare comments.

During the workshop, the writer has a brief opportunity to read a portion of the work and to point towards something that they would like the group to look at. The writer then steps back and takes no further part until invited to do so at the end of the session.

The moderator then directs the session. Comments during this section should always be made as though talking to other group members and not to the author.

This starts by endeavouring to summarise the work. This isn't a time for judgement but simply trying to show that the participants have picked up the theme of the work and to come to a consensus about its intent. The author will pick up quickly whether they have presented the key thoughts well.

The next stage is highlighting the good things about the piece of work. This helps focus on being positive rather than negative and helps the author see what things people like about their writing.

The next step is suggestions for improvement. Although there is some implied criticism of the work in this section, the goal is to ensure that each criticism has a positive suggestion for improvement. This isn't so much telling the author what to change as providing some feedback about how the work might better communicate its message.

The final step is to invite the author back into the discussion. Since the author has heard all the comments, they get a chance to gain clarification and to some extent respond. The aim isn't to be defensive about the criticism but to try and improve the understanding of the issues.

The moderator then thanks the group for their contribution and in the pattern writers' workshop often a small gift is given to each participant by the author. This is an appreciation of their input on the writer's work.

One of the reasons that I have put this up as a blog is to encourage feedback on some of the topics that I raise and in particular some of the design ideas that I will be putting forward. I also hope that it will be the tone of this blog going forward. I don't want to be a negative critic nor do I want to claim to be some outstanding expert or genius. We all have something to contribute either large or small. Ideas can really be improved through sharing and open supportive discussion.


Gabriel, R. P. (2002). Writers' workshops and the work of making things: Patterns, Poetry ... Boston: Addison Wesley.

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