It's not that I haven't thought about these things before and it certainly isn't that I thought they were unimportant, but, recently, as I analyze my dissertation data (a study of the writing self-efficacy of adult writers) I have come to appreciate anew how important creating a sense of community is for a newly-formed group of writers and how essential it is to help those writers (who typically don't think of themselves as writers) develop their writing muscles.
I am not claiming either of these issues is new information to experienced writing teachers -- they certainly aren't for me (and I have the t-shirt to prove it) but reading through the comments of the writers I'm studying has made me more aware of their importance and will force me to emphasize them more in future incarnations of my writing classes.
Too often I have succumbed to pressure (from students as well as administration) to emphasize the business of a course up front (or at least place too much emphasis) but instead I vow to focus those initial days to activities that will build community and trust (among the group in general as well as between coach and writer) but even more importantly begin exercising those (often) flabby and underdeveloped writing muscles. The writing growth and development that I am studying has taken place as a result of these two elements and as the growth and development of writers is my primary goal as an instructor it seems a no-brainer to me that I need to focus even more on those elements in future classes.
A supportive community is an essential part of a successful writing workshop. This means a leader who provides lots of writing opportunities that not only give writers the chance to develop their writing muscles but also a safe place to push and challenge the writers to stretch beyond their safety zone. Of course the leader is also responsible for mentoring, teaching, and otherwise supporting the writer's progress through the development of individual pieces and growth as a writer. It also means a true community of writers that shares common goals to support each individual member's growth and success. In this community every writer contributes toward these goals by participating in workshops and offering feedback -- providing a real audience with a real response to the work. The support of both instructor and community are of equal importance to the growth process. I've always believed this but my recent research has given me even more reason to do so.
I've also long believed that writing practice and experience are essential. Just as you need to build your tolerance for physical activities so must you build your tolerance for mental activities. But I think we need to build (force or enforce?) more writing time on our developing writers. Time and practice are essential to writing improvement and I've always thought if there was no instruction but lots of time and practice we would see more improvement than if the reverse was true. While I don't believe no instruction is the answer -- I think we have a tendency to do too much pushing (direct instruction) and not enough pulling (giving the writer opportunity and getting out of their way until they need us). It is probably a response to our need to feel like we are doing our job but I can tell you that running a workshop is work.
I am pretty excited about the implications of my research for my teaching but now I better get back to it!