Chapter 75: The Case Against Workshopping
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
* * *
Thanks for reading Writerland! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
It has long been an article of faith that the best way to teach writing is by having a small group of aspiring writers read one another’s work and then all offer comments guided by their teacher.
This approach, as anyone who has ever taken a writing class knows, is called “workshopping” and is foundational to some of the nation’s elite writing programs.
There are good things about workshopping. I know this because for many years I used it as a teaching tool and in certain circumstances still do. But, at the risk of committing an act of pedagogical heresy, I have come to believe that workshopping comes with downsides as well, and they can be counterproductive to the creativity that the teaching of writing encourages.
The premise of workshopping is a sound one: that lessons learned in the abstract – a teacher instructing students on the best ways to do things – have generally proven to be the least effective. Rather, the lessons that stick are those that students in effect teach themselves.
By reading a classmate’s work, and being asked to critique it, a student sees not only what worked and didn’t work in that story, but absorbs and applies those lessons to his or her own writing.
The approach is also a welcome departure from the hierarchical view that all knowledge resides with the teacher, which in turn can produce work whose primary aim is to please a single authority figure, no matter their skill as an editor, their willingness to consider different ways of storytelling, or their sensitivity to alternative ways of seeing and being.
Rather than satisfying a single person, workshopping gives writers the chance to present their work to a range of people – their classmates. And therein, I believe, lies a problem.
It is the rare writer who does not want their work loved, or at the very least liked. By having it read and assessed by, say, a dozen or so people with presumably different sensibilities – to say nothing of being guided by different political, social, or creative imperatives – an aspiring writer risks trying to satisfy everyone. And with good reason; because workshopping is so widely practiced and so highly valued, writers are well familiar with how this works, and will adjust their writing to the pitfalls that await.
I am not talking just about the peril of classmates who try to score points at the expense of others by criticizing too harshly, and even gleefully; a skilled teacher knows how to put the suckups in their place. Rather I mean the knowledge that because everyone is encouraged to weigh in, that process can result in a story – and with it a writer’s belief in her or his ability – being punctured by a hundred little cuts, inflicted not necessarily to cause pain, but to help, to make things better.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when a writer came to me with an update on a story she’d had to put aside for several months as she dealt with a family medical emergency. As I’ve written in earlier chapters, at The Delacorte Review – as well as in my classes – we don’t believe in first drafts; over the years we’ve seen too many iterations of what the writer-on-writing Anne Lamont calls “shitty first drafts” – drafts that lack the confidence, the authority and ease of a writer saying, simply and clearly and as a result eloquently, “I know.”
Instead we ask writers to send us periodic reporting memos, or rather letters (“Dear Michael, This is what I learned these past two weeks…”) which a) allows them to write without being self-conscious of the writing and b) allows the reporting of that story to unfold and pivot rather than adhere to a direction outlined in a pitch.
This young writer wrote a terrific first memo. It was vivid and compelling and felt – yes, felt; an important quality I’ll come back to shortly – very much told in her voice, her way. Months passed. The emergency abated. And she was ready to follow up.
The second memo arrived and as I began to read my heart sank. Gone was the power in the story telling, the feeling of someone in command of her writing voice. Instead, to put it in a musical context, she was no longer playing that instrument; it was playing her.
We met a few days later and all I needed to do was suggest that the new memo read differently than the first when she interrupted to say, yes, I know, I know.
What happened? I asked.
As it happens the writer is a student in a top-flight MFA program, one that places a premium on workshopping. No matter that she was not writing for class. She had, she admitted, slipped into “workshopping head”. I was, she said, “pre-editing.” By “pre,” she went on to explain, she meant writing and editing in anticipation of criticism. Which resulted in writing that was tentative, predictable, and lacking in the creative spark that I knew she possessed. (Let me state here and now that writers do not produce good work by accident or chance; the good work is who they are; it’s the lesser work that does not reflect them accurately.)
She smiled as she said this, knowing exactly what had happened and why.
I asked her to try again. She did so, eagerly. She sent another memo several days later. The sparkle was back. When we spoke again, I asked how long it had taken her to write the first and third memos.
No time at all, she replied. It just flowed.
And the second?
Forever, she said. Endless second guessing, and with it self-doubt.
I knew just what she meant, having experienced much the same thing in a professional context.
Many years ago, The New York Times Magazine employed an editing process which made it notorious as a particularly maddening publication to write for. Rather than limit the reading to an assigning editor, with a second read by a higher ranked editor and a final read by the top person, every story was read by every editor. Workshopping on steroids.
Every editor weighed in. Every editor had questions, thoughts, comments, ideas, which in turn were sent back to you by your assigning editor with the admonition that you work to incorporate what could sometimes be literally 100 queries into your revision.
I recognized that to save my stories from being killed I would need to find a way to satisfy everyone. And so that is what I did. It came at a cost: the sense of urgency, curiosity, and confidence that had gone into my original drafts.
I checked with the magazine’s present editor, Jake Silverstein, who assured me that the process had long ago been abandoned. Stories are read by the assigning editor, and then a second editor before being sent to him. The result is dramatic when you compare stories of the past with those that run today.Like that young writer saddled with “workshopping” head, I wrote for the Times Magazine to avoid problems, to keep the criticism to a minimum, to get the damn thing published and my payment in full.
Over the years I’ve seen what happens when much the same process is carried out by a group of students whose skills as writers – which they often began acquiring when they are very young — far eclipse their skills as editors. They may have written hundreds of thousands of words by the time they are twenty-five. But they have not edited, nor read with an editor’s eye, thousands of stories.
The result is that their comments, even when well intentioned, can sound like someone lost overseas rifling through a phrase book looking for the right words to direct them to the train station: The story needs more “texture.” If you are the writer being “workshopped” you hear only one thing: I have failed and everyone knows it.
Still, even if aspiring writers lack the language of editing, they do possess judgment. They are, after all, as familiar with reading as they are with writing; they have a gut, a feeling for when a story works, or falls short.
And that, to my mind, is where workshopping can be useful: as a test audience.
After my students have finished their reported memos, but before they are ready to write a full draft, I ask them to come to class with the first 100 words of their stories. I do not say lede and nut graf.
If people read at the average rate of 200 words a minute, the thinking goes, then the first 100 words represents 30 seconds of a reader’s time. Can you get them to stick around for 30 seconds? Can you get them from the 10-second mark to the 20-second mark and then on to 30? With each 10 second barrier passed, the odds increase of the reader sticking around longer.
I read these 100 word openings out loud; I don’t want to put students on the spot by having to perform. And when I’m done I look around the room and ask one question: did it work?
I wait for a visceral response. I look to see if people are nodding slowly in a way that says, yeah, it’s good. The way people do when they hear music they like. Uh huh. Yeah. Damn that was good.
I don’t want their words. I want their gut reaction, the aforementioned feeling.
It falls to me to be the diagnostician if those 100 words don’t quite hit it. That is what I am paid to do. I have edited thousands of stories, after all, and have a sense of what stands in the way of success.
So I will ask the class: what if Bob or Sally replaced the word work with labor? Let’s see how that sounds. Let’s test it? What do you think?
I recognize that I am being heavy handed here, that I am taking from the students the chance to offer their critiques.
But if my job is to teach them how to be better writers, I believe that it falls on me to show them how to articulate what’s missing – so that they can apply those lessons to their own work.
So yes, I believe in workshopping, but in a way that draws on students’ strengths – their sensibilities, their visceral sense of whether a story works for them – and uses that as a springboard for me to give language to what they feel.
* * *
We suspect many of you may have differing views on workshopping and we’re eager to hear what you think. Please feel free to leave a comment here or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
* * *
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. Writerland, The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.
Thanks for reading Writerland! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.