How to get More from Online Workshops


Having taught and taken online workshops, I’ve some thoughts on how I think folks can get more bang for the buck. I’ve also taught in classrooms and at conferences, and it’s a whole different animal when you go online.

The good news is that most online workshops are cheep–there’s no overhead for classroom space, no issues about traveling to the workshop (which can be wearing if the workshop runs for more than a day or two), and you get to attend when you have the time.

The bad news is that both the instructor and the attendee miss out on face to face interaction: that’s bad, because a good instructor can gauge where/how a class is going by the interest shown in the attendee’s eyes–you can’t do that online.

With an upcoming online workshop on Writing Regency Set Novels that I’m teaching for Lowcountry Romance Writers this August, and one on Show And Tell: An Interactive Workshop, for OCC RWA chapter in September, I’ve been thinking about things that attendees can do to make the class more interesting–and to get more from the workshop.

1-Participate. In every online workshop, there are the lurkers, the participants who don’t participate. I’ve been one of them more than once. There are a hundred reasons to lurk in the electronic shadows, including lack of time, however, I’ve always gotten more out of the workshops where I’ve participated. This may mean trying some writing exercises, or just asking questions.

2-Ask questions to the group. Each workshop there’s at least one person who wants to communicate outside the workshop. As the instructor, I can’t do that–everyone benefits from every question and every answer. So ask those dumb questions to the group.

3-Stay on topic. This one’s hard. In a classroom, it’s easy to get off topic and to bring the workshop back on topic. These side branches can be useful. But online, getting off topic tends to snowball into anarchy. If you have a question that’s off topic, preface this so that you let everyone know you’re aware this may be off topic. Or find a way that it fits into the overall workshop theme and structure. Do keep in mind that you signed up specifically to get information on the workshop topic.

4-Follow the structure. This one’s very difficult. Online is a great equalizer–meaning it’s too easy to ignore posting guidelines, and to start side conversations, and to wander off on your own path. Unfortunately, if you do this in an online workshop, you take the workshop with you — meaning you’re missing out on what the instructor had planned. And remember you can always ask questions about how flexible the structure is to help you get the information you need.

5-Let the Instructor instruct. Side comments can be a great way to participate, but again, if you hijack the workshop away from the instructor, chances are you’re going to miss out on the benefits the instructor might be able to give you of that person’s experience and knowledge.

6-Give good feedback. If something clicks for you, don’t forget to post the “ah ha” moment. That may help someone else and will help the instructor.

7-Keep asking questions. If something doesn’t click for you, look to rephrase the question and try again. Provide more detailed information in follow ups. Communication online can be tricky since you don’t have someone’s face and body language to read–you just have words. This is good in that we’re supposed to be writers–we’re supposed to communicate. But we also have to always check back with our words to see if what we intended made it onto the page.

Whenever I take an online class, I try to follow the above guidelines–I don’t always succeed. Sometimes the workshop assignments seem more work than I’m willing to tackle at that moment. Sometimes I just feel like hanging back.

But I know that I get back from any workshop what I put in–that includes the workshops that I teach. And I figure if I get one gold nugget of information, I’m that much a better writer.

As an instructor, I love the attendees who contribute ideas, and comments, and who participate. They make the workshop more interesting for me as well as for others. And I have to keep reminding myself when I take a workshop to be that brave soul who steps up and participates fully, instead of being the lurking writer who likes to sit back and observe.

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