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November 27, 2015

Claire's Writing Workshop Guidelines

For some reason, I've been having this discussion a lot lately with folks who are teaching and/or participating in writing workshops. I've brought up my own rules for conducting workshops several times, and it occurred to me that it might be useful to someone if I posted these.

For those of you who need qualifications: I have an MFA in fiction writing from SF State, have published some short stories and a short collection of stories, and have run two nonprofit community writing programs. I've participated in about 17 workshops (in my BFA and MFA programs, in adult community writing workshops, and at Clarion West) as a student and conducted about 15 of them as an instructor: as a TA at SF State, as an artist in residence at a high school, and in adult community workshops. 

I developed these guidelines out of my experience being fruitlessly (and endlessly) workshopped as a student, and wanting better for my students. There are plenty of instructors out there who run a good workshop and do it differently from how I do it. But this is what works for me and -- based on apparent impact and student feedback -- for my students.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

So, without further ado:

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CLAIRE'S WORKSHOP GUIDELINES

 What it is:

Workshopping writing is a process of gathering a group of people to read and discuss a writer’s work. The workshop process is intended to give the writer assistance in completing their piece through:

  • An outside perspective; a reader’s perspective
  • Multiple points of view on their work
  • Dispassionate (though never objective!) analytical assistance

How it works in my class:

  1. Everyone will have one week to read the pieces that they will workshop
  2. While reading, the reader will make notes in the margins (or using “track changes”) about what they are experiencing as they read. Note: boredom, confusion, excitement, pleasure, questions raised by the text, etc.
  3. After reading, the reader will write up an analysis of the piece using the tools we learned in this class.
  4. The reader will bring both the marked up manuscript and the analysis to the workshop class and give them to the writer afterwards.
  5. During the workshop session for that piece, the readers will discuss with one another their analyses of the piece. The participants should feel free to disagree and debate with one another, using concrete examples from the piece.

What to talk about in workshop:

Your written critiques and our workshop sessions will address the issues outlined below. We will be using the craft elements in the lessons (characterization, world-building, conflict, story arc, POV/voice) to talk about the following:

  1. Where is the power, heat, fire, life in the piece coming from?  What makes it feel alive, rather than inert?
  2. What is this piece literally about? What's the story? What did you get and what didn't you get?
  3. What is the writer trying to do with this piece? Is it a meditation on a particular theme?  a raging good story? an experiment with forms? 
  4. What techniques and strategies is the writer using to get at her theme or purpose? Talk about the craft elements of the piece (structure, character, dialogue, action, voice, etc.) 
  5. What are the advantages to the writer's strategy, and how can the disadvantages be avoided? (Please note: this is not an opportunity for you to tell the writer how you would have written the piece or what you would prefer to read or to encourage the writer to change her strategy.  This is a place for you to discuss the disadvantages of the writer’s chosen strategy and help him find ways to turn these into advantages.) 

Rules:

Workshopping is a difficult and unnatural process. Effective workshopping is a skill that must be learned. The process outlined below may seem awkward or counterintuitive to you.  Please trust this process and try it out.

  • No evaluative statements: these are sentences using the phrases I liked, I didn’t like, … was good, … was working, wasn’t working, etc.  Instead, please
    • make observations.  These are sentences that simply state what is there.  So, instead of I liked how you used dialogue to reveal character say You used dialogue to reveal character.  This showed us the characters in speech and action, rather than telling us in exposition, which can be awkward.  Instead of Your sarcastic tone wasn’t working for me say, The tone of the piece was sarcastic.  This can be disadvantageous if it alienates a reader who takes the theme seriously, but if your intention is to distance the reader from the action, this can be an effective tool.
    • ask questions.  Rephrase a criticism into a question about why the thing you didn’t like had to be that way.  Instead of I didn’t like the stop-and-start rhythm of the piece ask Why did you choose to break up the flow of rhythm in the piece? Was this deliberate?
  • No orders: don’t tell the writer what to do in phrases like You should or I suggest that you or Why don’t you try.  You are not here to rewrite the piece for the writer.  Period. You are here to:
    • reflect what you received from your reading back at the writer so that they know what their readers are understanding and what they aren't understanding. So tell them what you got without evaluative framing.
    • reflect what you understand of writing craft back at the writer, so that the writers can distance themselves from their work enough to place their work in the context of the overall discipline. So do this for them: take what you know about the craft, and use it to analyze the work. Remind them of the effect certain tactics tend to have; the advantages and disadvantages.
  • THE WRITER WILL NOT SPEAK. PERIOD. The whole point of writing is to "speak" to an audience that is dislocated from you in space and time. This means you do not get to stand over your audience's shoulder and tell them what they missed. They get it from your writing, or not at all. Thus, in the workshop, writers do not speak. You can ask specific questions at the end, but no explanations!
  • All work will be treated as fiction: which means that even if you are actually writing about yourself in first person, using your own name, we will still treat that character as a character … because it is a character in a story and not actually you. We will also be using the Law of Fictional Plausibility (see world-building handout), which states that if something doesn't feel plausible told in a story, then it doesn't matter whether or not it actually happened in real life.

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