Posted on

The writers’ workshop at work

Rachel Toor
Rachel Toor

When I first went back to graduate school in creative writing, after a lifetime in the publishing ‘hood, I told my friends that if they ever heard me use “workshop” as a verb, they should shoot me.

But now, with one foot in the academic world and the other in the muck of teaching creative writing, I think the writers’ workshop is an appropriate model for academics who want to make their manuscripts better. Creative writers have been “workshopping” each other’s stuff for a long time. The workshop model can lead to tears, to bruised egos, and, occasionally, to black eyes. But the right group can produce better work.

The first thing to do is to gather people who are serious about giving and receiving help, and then to decide what the process should be: how often to meet, what kinds of work to be submitted, who will bring the food. My own model is like Ben Franklin’s Junto. He limited the number of members in that mutual-improvement club to 12. More than 12 in a writers’ workshop is difficult, and I think six to eight is best.

If the workshop is to be multidisciplinary (as I believe it should be), the group will have to decide how much of each member’s work is an appropriate amount to read. Just abstracts? Only the introductions and conclusions of books? Entire grant or book proposals? Whole manuscripts? How often should the group meet and for how long? A lot depends on the energy and commitment level of the members.

Last month I had the opportunity to put into practice something I’ve been proselytizing in presentations around the country. I’d given a talk on academic prose in the fall at a small, liberal-arts college, and the director of a teaching-and-learning center there asked me to come back to lead a faculty workshop. She sent a message to the 45 folks who had attended my earlier talk and sought two volunteers to submit unpublished writing for a critique. Given the interest in my talk, she thought people would be clamoring for the opportunity. Wrong.

Six faculty members signed up for the workshop. Only one brave person volunteered to submit material. I had forgotten how much courage it takes to show unpublished writing to colleagues.

The idea behind writing workshops is to simulate an editorial meeting, where interested but dispassionate readers evaluate the strengths of the work, point out weaknesses, and wonder about possible ways to solve problems in the text.

Only after we have talked about the strengths in the piece will we move on to a discussion of which aspects are confusing, which parts might benefit from revision. If your writers’ workshop is multidisciplinary, some pieces of writing—indeed, some entire academic disciplines—may not be to your taste. There are ideas and positions you won’t agree with. But as a member of the workshop, you need to put aside personal predilections and instead focus on art and craft.

The process works best when everyone writes comments on the manuscript ahead of time, discusses the work, and then hands over the pages to the author at the end. That way the writer can get line editing and see where different readers got hung up. Sometimes, during a discussion, people will change their minds and realize that things they thought were the author’s problems were really their own reading mistakes.

I allot a specific amount of time in a workshop meeting to discuss each piece, capping a discussion (depending on the size of the group) at 45 minutes to an hour. That forces people to triage their comments—to make sure they make their most important points first.

I’ve found that the best readers of my own work are often people far afield from what I do: a psychiatrist, a physicist, a philosopher, a historian. They often say “I don’t know anything about this, but …” and then what follows is usually fantastic. That’s why I think it’s good to be diverse in the disciplinary makeup of the group.

At the workshop I ran for the liberal-arts college last spring, we had a scholar in communication studies, a sociologist, a psychologist, a physicist, a literature and film-studies guy, and a philosophy and literature gal. Two men, four women, all at different rungs on the academic ladder.

I had asked for the volunteer’s draft to be distributed a week before we met. When I read it, I realized that we’d lucked out: It was on a topic of general interest, something most of us felt we knew something about.

The prose was clean and not terribly jargon-laden. It was short, only 13 pages. When we got together, I realized I had omitted an important step: to ask the writer to explain what kind of publication the piece was for, identify the intended audience, and mention any page constraints. As it turned out, this piece was supposed to be 10 to 12 pages. That’s important to know upfront.

I started the discussion by asking each person to state the thesis of the piece. That we each came up with a different version alerted all of us—but especially the author—that the thesis was unclear. We couldn’t tell what she was arguing, which came as a surprise to the author. She thought it was obvious. It wasn’t.

She was doing a nuanced “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of argument. But it wasn’t apparent on the page where she came down on the issue. When we talked about it in the workshop, she had forceful arguments for what she was trying to say. Write that, I said. And write it just as you said it. Being clear in your writing is different from being simplistic.

While it was a pleasure to read about a topic of general interest, it was also a problem. Inevitably, we each brought our own ideas and opinions; people proposed alternative theses. There’s always someone who says, “I want to hear more about the grandma,” even in an essay about neurotransmitters. When I run a workshop, no one—including me—is allowed to say “I want” about someone else’s writing. It’s not about what you want. That might be an entirely different essay. It’s about what the writer is trying to do and how you can help.

My job at the college workshop was to remind the group that the author had her own thesis. We were there to help her sharpen it. When there were passages that seemed vague, we asked for explanations. What do you mean by “energizing the space”? She said “I mean marches and protests.” Write that, we said. Oh, she said.

Each time someone questioned her about a term or some shrapnel of jargon, she offered a brief, lucid explanation. Include that, I said. No one will think you’re stupid for reminding them of something they already know; in fact, it makes them feel smarter. Readers like to feel smart. Much of academic prose seems geared to do the opposite.

On page three of her paper, she had a quote that illustrated exactly the point she was trying to make. Why bury it, I wondered. Why not start with that provocative example? She would have to do work to set it up, but it would pack a punch. When I read aloud my version of how I would start the piece, one of the other workshop members said it gave her chills. But it wasn’t my writing, it was the material, better positioned to grab a reader’s attention.

Academic writers are so steeped in their material, they sometimes forget what’s compelling about it. It’s good to give someone chills.

For scholarly writing groups, especially those composed of people from different disciplines, it’s important that the writer whose work is on the table gets a chance to interact, explain, and be interrogated. The downside of that approach is it can make people defensive. “But that’s what I wrote,” the author might say. “It doesn’t matter what you wrote,” we might reply, “if the reader isn’t getting the point.”

It’s hard not to get sore when your work is being poked and prodded. When you hear people saying things to you that you say all the time to your students, it’s hard not to feel exposed. When peers remind you of things you already know but forgot, when they note mistakes, sometimes pointedly, it’s hard to listen without explaining or excusing.

In the college workshop I led, the group—more than strangers but less than friends—was able, in the course of two hours, to create a productive and supportive atmosphere. After we finished, the group decided to meet regularly and to meet once a week just to write—to have a group writing date. After all, if you are going to critique, then there has to be something to critique.

When workshopping works, there’s no better way to improve your writing.

Rachel Toor was for a dozen years an acquisitions editor at Oxford and Duke University Presses. She currently teaches creative writing in Eastern Washington University’s MFA program and is on the faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. She is the author of three books and writes a monthly column on issues in writing and publishing for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission.