Rules for my workshops

People seemed to like (and/or hate) my recent post where I shared the exam I give my students, and so I thought I would post here the sheet I hand out to everyone for workshops, which intermingles rules, guidelines, and my personal preferences (which I try to label as such to my students—I am a fan of coherence in writing, as you will see from the list.) The workshops I’ve been doing this semester have been great—the students are really good at forming a loosely collective opinion, and advising on what a submission seems to lack.

Workshop rules:

Before the workshop:

1. Hand out paper copies of your piece one week before it is due to be workshopped.

2. Put on the first page the kind of piece this is: memoir, essay, short story, part of a longer story. Copies should be stapled, have page numbers, be double spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font.

3. Be aware that certain types of story tend to workshop poorly. Stories where a crazy person meditates on life in a stream of consciousness before killing himself / herself tend not to be good—please avoid these. Similarly, please ask me if you intend to hand in a story which turns out to “just be a dream.” The memoir equivalent is harder to think of, but it may be a series of short flashes bundled together, which are so short, unconnected and impressionistic that the class struggles to give useful advice. Take the plunge, and try to hand in a coherent artwork, no matter how long or short it is.

4. Try to avoid starting or ending with a note to the class, especially apologies for the work’s roughness. We are all handing in drafts—it’s okay. Let us do the judging.

5. For every piece you receive, first read it, and then write a one-page response to the author. I personally use a structure of 1. Praise. 2. Major advice. 3. Minor advice. Also mark up the manuscript with sentence-level advice. Try to give one suggestion about prose style per feedback.

6. If you describe a problem, try to offer a solution. The technical language of style, plot and point of view we have studied all semester may come in useful.

7. It is easy to get caught up in issues of plausibility when reviewing classmates’ work. If something seems implausible, rather than merely pointing it out like a police officer, suggest an alternative, or work out how to make the implausibility work for the story.

8. Leave the writer out of the feedback, even if it is memoir. Say “the speaker” or “the narrator” or “the protagonist.” Respect the submission as an art work struggling towards coherence and completion; it is not meant to be a window into the writer’s soul/habits/past. “Did this really happen?” is much less important than: “Does this piece work?”

9. Print out two copies of your feedback—one for the writer, one for me.

During the workshop

1. Every workshop has five phases. 1. One student explains, briefly and simply, what the piece is and what happens in it. No value judgements—just the facts. 2. Pure, non-stop praise. Everyone says what they liked and enjoyed in the piece. No half-compliments or transitions to a criticism. Pure praise. 3. Your critiques, problems, confusions, suggestions. Everyone should say how they think the piece should be improved. Try not to repeat what classmates have already said, and try not to always speak first or last. 4. The teacher speaks. At this point, workshoppers should go silent and let the teacher (me) give my feedback. You can scribble how much you disagree with me across your written feedback, but you must let me advise. 5. The workshoppee collects feedback sheets, and can ask the class and teacher questions.

2. When you are being workshopped, take notes, smile occasionally (no matter how much you are seething inside), nod thoughtfully, but do not speak. Do not explain or justify yourself. Let the class talk, even if people seem to be missing the point—the workshop falls apart once someone starts rebutting his or her classmates.

3. People are sensitive and we are all learning the craft. Be clear, but also be polite.

One thought on “Rules for my workshops

  1. I like the part about smiling occasionally even if seething inside. Also like the part about praise. It must be difficult to sit there and have one’s work dissected. I once had an undergrad English class where we had to submit essays on any topic. The instructor would call on various students to read their essays or we could volunteer. Students would ask the instructor to call on one particular young male student because they enjoyed his essays which were very graphic concerning his weekend sexual exploits. He was a good looking young male and very popular.

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