This is a guest post by Katherine Hetzel.
Creative writing workshops sound easy to do—you just find a load of different prompts, give them to the people who come, and let them write about them.
‘Simples,’ to quote Alexandr the meerkat.
That might be a bit of a simplistic view, (it’s actually harder to do in practise) but with adults that’s usually what happens in a writing workshop, because adults will sit still, concentrate, and nine times out of ten focus on writing according to your instructions.
It’s still the same principle with children…but there are a few more considerations to take into account.
My own experience is based on workshops mostly held in schools, for anything between 100 pupils in a hall to a handful of students in a classroom.
If you’ve never done anything like this before but you’re thinking you might like to, here are my top tips for a successful writing workshop with young folk.
1. Have some experience of working with children, preferably having enjoyed it!
For me, this meant many years as a guide guider, plus several more working first voluntarily and then in a paid position in a primary school.
Being able to quickly develop a rapport with the children is vital—they will quickly get the measure of you and decide whether or not you’re the kind of person they want to work with.
There’ll always be one or two that try to push the boundaries even if you are used to working with young folk, but if you’re experienced, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
And if you don’t enjoy working with children? Stop reading. Now.
2. Know what you need and what you’ll be getting.
Do you know how many children you’re expecting?
Their age range?
How long you’ll be expected to work with them?
What is the organiser expecting you to cover?
Where will you be based in the building?
Will you have desks and chairs to work at?
Will you need access to flip charts or white boards?
Will you have to factor in setting up and clearing away time, or will you have a friendly premises officer to do that for you?
These are just some of the practicalities to consider before you even begin to design a session, regardless of whether you’re doing it off your own back or because you’ve been asked to.
The more information you have up front, the better.
3. Plan to be flexible.
This sounds a bit contradictory, because if you plan, you know what’s going to happen, right?
In a session with children, anything can happen.
You can plan the best schedule in the world but if—as happened to me in a school once—the children don’t all reach you until 15 minutes into the session, you probably won’t get everything done.
Equally, there’ll always be at least one bright spark in the group who whizzes through everything you’ve set and wants more—with twenty minutes still to go.
So plan realistically for the activities you’ve taken, but always have something up your sleeve that can be cut or added if need be.
My own approach is to plan the bare minimum I hope to cover in my allotted time, but have several extra activities to fill spare minutes if need be.
It might take a couple of workshops before you can judge timings well, both in advance and on the day.
4. Have questions and answers first.
Most people leave Q&A until the end of the session, but if you’re introducing yourself and your work (you’re probably published or working in another capacity as a writer) then it gives the children a way of getting to know you.
Make them laugh and prove that you can be fun as well as serious—I have a fabulous rainbow hat that I take to wear (briefly), or show photos of me at the children’s age, to demonstrate that I was young once, too!
Once the ice is broken, you can lay your ground rules.
Mine are simple—I tell the children I’m not a teacher, so I’m not looking for perfect writing. I’m looking to capture ideas for stories and for them to have fun.
5. Keep it simple
If you don’t know the children you’ll be working with, you need to have activities that can be achieved, regardless of ability.
This is especially important in school settings, and if you can find the right activities, you’ll enable even children with lower abilities to ‘capture’ their ideas.
The end product will not be perfectly spelled, or have correct punctuation etc, but by allowing every child to work in the way that suits them best, I guarantee they will be capable of the most amazing storytelling.
(Note: I always distinguish between the storytelling and story writing. There are many more ways to tell a story without words, and I focus on the business of storytelling in a workshop situation.)
6. Ask questions
With children—younger ones particularly—I’ve found the best way of helping them to think through a storyline is to encourage the asking of questions.
So, for example, I often use a ‘three things’ activity.
I literally have a bag of objects, and we pull three out and use them in a story.
Baked beans are a winner—they’ve been in my bag ever since one story had a fire-farting dragon!)
Most students will be able to see a connection, but don’t worry if you have to encourage their thinking by giving them a few ideas of your own, or help them to develop their often very basic idea into something bigger by asking questions based on what little they’ve come up with.
7. Be positive about everything
The stories the children come up with may not make sense.
That’s ok. Sometimes they might be very silly.
That’s ok too.
Sometimes they’ll ask you to read their work and you can’t read or understand it—ask the child to tell you instead.
That’s still ok.
And a lot of the time, children’s stories won’t be written very well at all.
Even for the worst, try to find something positive.
Many adults don’t like writing because they were told they—or their writing—were rubbish at an early age.
Be an enabler, an encourager, and find ways of gently suggesting improvements.
8. Be prepared for anything—and try not to get fazed when it happens
It is a very good session indeed when everyone behaves.
You may find that you’re warned about certain children in advance, who might struggle to sit quietly or stay on-task.
If you are lucky, there will be someone on hand to help if things get a little tricky in the behaviour department.
You might want to consider taking a helper with you anyway, for moral support.
Whatever happens, don’t judge—in my experience, it is often these children who, when given the freedom and encouragement to create stories in a more relaxed setting, will come up with the most amazing work (often to the surprise of their teachers or parents).
9. A few ideas…
Simple ideas work best for activities. Like my three objects bag.
But you could use a random title generator. Print out pictures of interesting places and/or people.
Even something simple, like a key, can become the basis of a session; ask, what does the key open? If it’s a door, what’s behind it? If it’s a box, what’s in it? Who’s using the key? And so on…
10. Be professional
If you’re being paid to run the workshop, then make sure you give value for money.
Be smart but comfortable in what you wear—you might spend a lot of time crouching by tables for example.
Send in your invoice on time. Ensure you have PLI and if necessary, a DBS certificate.
I believe it’s a privilege to be able to work with youngsters in such a wordy way. Remember you may well be the inspiration for a future author—so enjoy yourself and share your own enthusiasm with the next generation of writers. And above all, have fun!
Katherine Hetzel is ‘the short author who tells tall tales.’ She mostly writes fiction for children, and visits schools to share her love of creative writing with lots of little people.
Granny Rainbow and More Granny Rainbow are collections of short stories for younger readers, based on a character with a knack for solving problems using colour and a touch of magic. Katherine’s novels are fantasy adventures for middle grade readers but have proven to have a wide crossover appeal; StarMark, Kingstone (longlisted for the Leicester Book Prize 2018) and Tilda of Merjan, Book 1 of the Chronicles of Issraya series, are all published by Dragonfeather Books.
She’s had stories included in several anthologies, including Stories for Homes Vol 1, Something Rich and Strange, A Seeming Glass, and was longlisted and published in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize Anthology 2017.
She blogs about life and writing at Squidge’s Scribbles, runs a small creative writing group called NIBS, and is a volunteer librarian at a local primary school.