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The Writing Life: The Scoop on Workshops

2015 March 20
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The Writing Life

Belly flop or swan dive? Tears or triumph? Many of us have been there, many more of us will go there again… into the workshop and onto the hot-seat. How will we take it? What can we expect? Maybe more importantly, how can we model the kind of workshop sportsmanship that we hope will abound on the days we offer our own work up for criticism?

“Workshop” had become this ominous word, in my perception, in the CW scene. We dread it. We berate it. We think we are above it, and yet we keep coming back. Because we need it. Every writer needs feedback and it seems that the workshop is our current paradigmatic solution. But sunuvvabitch, those growing pains! How can we make the onerous workshop work for us? This week, I’ve asked poets and fiction writers to shed a little light on their personal experiences and ethos surrounding workshop etiquette and technique, because I think back to some of my more mortifying workshop fouls and I sure-as-hell wish I’d have read a list of do’s, or even don’t’s, before running my eager mouth off on my peers’ best efforts.

These four writers are currently academically involved in the Creative Writing program at Oklahoma State University. Todd Osborne (Poetry), Kate Strum (Fiction) and Michael J. Haskins (Fiction) are finishing their final semesters in the MFA program; Katherine Markey is a second-year PhD candidate in English with a creative focus in Poetry. (Find their bios below.)Here, these gracious writers weigh in on some of my most burning questions about the workshop experience.

Hazel & Wren: When you pick up a workshop piece for the very first time, what do you look for first? What catches your eye?

Todd: Usually I am looking at the lines—how they are enjambed, how they look on the page. That’s the first stuff that catches my eye. I’ll see if there’s any rhyme, if it’s in a form. If it’s in stanzas, I’ll see if the line-count for each stanza is consistent or not, and then take that into account when I re-read the poem.

Michael: I always feel a little guilty trying to label a piece within a genre, but I definitely check length first. Am I reading a piece of flash fiction, a story that needs to be expanded, a would-be novella? If the page count seems odd—for example, a ten page piece is a little long for flash fiction but a little short to develop a full story—I spend some extra time asking myself what should have been cut or included. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules, and there are some good ten page stories, but page count can be telling.

Katie: I don’t know that I have a specific element of the poem in mind that I’m looking for when I first get to a workshop piece. In fact, I try to resist looking for something, and rather just read the piece for what it is. Of course, even though I might say that, I am probably always looking for that somewhat ineffable something. Whether it’s something surprising that the poet is trying in way of technique or an image that sticks out or a place where the poet’s voice seems particularly strong. A line that I know will be stuck in my head the rest of the day. My favorite moments in poems are also those where there is a little bit of slippage. Where the honesty of a particular moment can break through the overall polish of the poem and you can actually see the poet there, no matter how “messy” this might seem.

H&W: Do you have a reading routine? [Pink pens?, red marker?, blue ink? etc. How many times do you read a piece before workshop?]

Michael: I read a piece twice and I try not to mark it until the second read, although sometimes I can’t resist. I keep a pen in hand, even if I tell myself not to use it.

Kate: In addition to marginalia and notes in the text, I always type up my comments and reflections. I usually take at least 24 hours away from the piece before I write up the formal feedback. The feedback helps ME process and understand the piece as much as it offers commentary to the writer. I don’t mean that in a selfish way, just that I think my feedback is more valuable this way. The write-up forces me to express my thoughts on the piece in a coherent way that I hope will be useful to the writer.

H&W: What do you write on the actual page of the creative piece? [i.e. margin notes? grammar/punctuation/line edits? questions? suggestions?] What do you find to be most useful when you get your own creative drafts back?

Michael: I write a two-part response: line edits and marginalia first and a personal letter second. Line edits are mostly geared towards rhythm and style; I don’t worry too much about grammar because I assume the writer will catch those mistakes in revision. The marginalia tends to be very blunt, with lots of question and exclamation marks, all caps, sweeping generalizations, and the like. I’m not trying to be fair per se because most editors won’t be; instead, I’m trying to give an impression of my emotional reactions to the piece as I read. The personal letter is more diplomatic. I hedge my criticisms and I take the time to think through why the writer might have made a choice I initially didn’t like, and I often come to appreciate that choice. Combined, the marginalia should give the writer a glimpse into how the work might be seen coming out of slush, while the personal letter should give the writer a sense of how the work will be seen by a fair and trusting reader.

Todd: I usually just write in the margin. Anything from x’s through commas or other punctuation, to questions about a word choice or syntax. I am a stickler for consistent punctuation use and tend to get up in arms about that kind of thing. These kinds of concerns are usually second-order for me, however. I am more concerned about whether or not the poem has used its images or conceits well. Is the language original? Does it take old ideas and present them in a new or interesting way?

Obviously, if I have done something wrong, mischaracterized something, or mis-used a word or phrase, I would like to know that. But mostly, the comments I find most useful are those that engage with what the poem is trying to be. Don’t try to make my poem fit your aesthetic. It’s a real game of empathy. The best workshop participants can fully inhabit the world of someone else’s poem, story, or essay.

H&W: In your opinion, or in your genre, what’s the best way to respond to the writer? Do you have a template of sorts for your responses?

Michael: My template is the personal letter and I usually follow the compliment sandwich, but the compliments have to be sincere. If I truly cannot muster up a sincere compliment, then I tell the writer what I think they were trying to do. Assuming I get it right, the writer knows that at minimum that I am a competent reader. I also think there’s something said for balance [between criticism and positive feedback.]

On the criticism side, I always present my feedback as a set of options. I consider the choice the writer made, why I think she made it, and why I disagree with it. Then I present at least one alternative, why I think it would be beneficial for her, and some possible shortcomings of my own alternative to reinforce the idea that all writing is a set of choices and that all choices have advantages and disadvantages.

Most importantly, I conform to the internal logic established by the writer. I always meet the writer on the terms her piece establishes. I will point out when I think a piece violates its own terms, but I don’t challenge the terms themselves because, at least in my experience, that creates resentment rather than productive revision.

Kate: I try to think of it this way: I read alone, but I respond with the writer, if that makes sense. I give the writer the benefit of the doubt and believe in them and believe that they have a vision for the piece, even if that vision is only partially realized on paper in the draft I’ve read. So I think about the pieces that are there and what those pieces need to work on in order to become that fully realized piece that the writer sees or is striving to see.

H&W: Let’s imagine a (typical) workshop where the poet/author reads a portion of the piece and is then expected to listen during the discussion of the work. How do you, as a participant, begin?

Kate: You know, it’s cliché and it’s standard and formatted and all that, but I think that if you don’t begin on what’s positive or “working” or some general strengths of the piece, things can get real bad real fast. There’s really no good way to start with the problems or questions, because people just seem to pile on and more than that, it doesn’t make sense. We’re cutting things before anyone knows what might stay. That just seems backwards. I’m not talking about blowing smoke or giving undue compliments, just starting with what’s strong and from there you can more easily talk about how to build on what’s good and more often than not it becomes clear what wasn’t working and that falls away, rather than having to be highlighted.

I don’t say this as someone who is afraid of criticism. I’m absolutely a “tell it like it is” kind of writer, no sugar-coating, please. Just cut to the chase, but my reasoning is much more about productivity and energy. Productivity for the writers directly correlates to the energy of the participants. Starting with the bad, well, you get the idea.

H&W: Another workshop participant has a very different understanding of the piece at hand. How do you share your reading? 

Michael: If I think the other person’s read is valid, I’ll say, “That’s really insightful. I saw it differently [and here I explain how], but I think you might have changed my mind or, at least, two readings are possible.”

If I think the read is invalid, I’ll say, “For me,” it’s always important to get that personal qualifier in there, “I thought the piece was about [explanation].” I don’t try to argue or convince, only explain. The writer is the one that needs to hear, not the other reader.

H&W: How do you view the role of the workshop? For example, should the group work toward a consensus about how the writer might approach revision, or, is it more important to offer a variety of revision possibilities?

Katie: I think the goal of the workshop should be to offer a variety of revision possibilities. A lot of times it feels like the group might be trying to reach a consensus, which can be helpful to the writer because they can see how readers can (and will) come up with multiple interpretations of their piece, but even if consensus is achieved, it’s still up to the writer to decide where to take their work after the workshop is over. And, there are always going to be voices/opinions that you hold higher than others, so it’s often best to make sure all voices are heard, rather than synthesized into one general reading. If, for example, some members of the group decide a poem is “about” the loss of a loved one and they spend the majority of the workshop trying to convince other members of the group who think the poem is “about” something entirely different how to best revise it to eliminate any doubt on the part of the reader, and then the poet, finally getting a chance to speak, says that everyone was wrong, then the whole workshop has essentially been wasted trying to come to a consensus that, in the end, doesn’t really apply to the piece at hand. No doubt, it’s helpful to hear the different interpretations of a piece, but if these readings are causing so much disagreement that it takes the focus away from  discussing the poem itself, it seems best to simply point out that there might be some clarity issues and leave it at that.

Michael: When I’m being workshopped, I appreciate consensus about the problems in a piece. For suggestions for revision, I appreciate variety so that I can weigh my options. I think I would be a little put-off if there was total consensus about revision because I don’t like to imagine such a formulaic approach to writing. Mostly though, I want a workshop that, when I walk away, doesn’t send me straight to the nearest drink.

H&W: After a sincere and thorough reading of a piece, you have to admit, YOU DO NOT LIKE IT. What do you do? 

     a. If you find the material potentially offensive, do you communicate this to the writer? If so, how?

     b. If the piece is weak in many ways, how do you tactfully offer constructive criticism?

     c. Do you have any tips for focusing on the positive aspects of such a piece? How might you hone in on strengths?

Kate: That’s irrelevant. Sometimes I’ll say in a workshop if I was particularly ‘into’ a piece. We all have styles and even topics and locales that we’re suckers for or maybe once in a while we’re awe-struck by the work of a colleague. I hope we all are. Otherwise, what a boring world if we all wrote things that everyone else liked. Sometimes it’s even more productive for me to critique a piece that I don’t particularly gravitate towards. I’m not emotionally attached and I can really take a step back and think about what’s best for the piece.

Michael: I’m not afraid to be blunt. Blunt does not mean rude, however. It means a fair assessment after a fair read. And as a rule, the focus is on the writing, not the writer. The exception is material that is offensive in the racist, sexist, classist, etc. types of ways. To my mind, not being racist, etc. is more important than quality writing. But I do not usually call out or label the person as such in the workshop because that tends to create a hostile, defensive environment. I save those concerns for my written response, and even then, I say that I think the writing is offensive, not the writer, even if I think the writing might represent the writer.

Todd: If a piece is offensive, that must be communicated to the writer. Either they are unaware, or they think they are being provocative. Either way, it’s probable that what they are trying to accomplish can be done in a much better way. It’s never easy to broach that subject in a workshop, but you must do it. Be polite, but firm. Don’t back down. […]

H&W: Have you witnessed a nightmarish workshop? What went wrong? How brutal was the suffering? How might crisis have been averted?

Todd: Just recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and don’t act like you do. Humility is never a bad thing in a workshop. (Obviously, be proud and confident in your work, but do not act like writing is a science that you have figured out.)

Katie: The workshops that stick out in my mind as particularly “nightmarish” have been the ones where the writer being workshopped got visibly upset during the critique and then made matters worse by attempting to explain themselves after the piece had been discussed. Sure, everyone probably gets a little upset when workshop doesn’t go particularly smoothly, but showing that you can’t handle a healthy dose of criticism is almost the surest way to guarantee people will think twice before giving you their honest opinion again.

Personally, my own “nightmarish” workshops have been those in which the work I was doing was not necessarily true to who I was. Times when I’ve doubted myself as a writer and was trying to mimic the style of another or writing the poem I thought people wanted to read, rather than simply letting the poem exist on its own. Which, of course, I got called out on. Spend enough time with the same writers and it becomes pretty hard to hide behind rhetoric and moves that seem “poetic.” It’s not exactly fun when those kinds of things happen but if you’re in a good workshop and you trust the writers around you, moments like that are both beneficial and necessary.

H&W: Let’s talk about honesty. What’s your take on disclosure in the workshop setting? How do you find balance for your feedback?

Michael: I try to be completely honest, but filtered through empathy. My younger self used to mistake honesty for unfiltered, complete, and immediate reactions, and the less I took people’s feelings into consideration, the more honest I was being. But my younger self was also a jackass. Honesty is not about telling people exactly what I think; honesty is about telling people what I think will help them the most.

Todd: Be honest without being hurtful is the best thing I can say. Never tell someone their piece is awful just because they didn’t like something you wrote. The workshop is not a place for revenge. Leave your feelings toward a person outside the workshop setting.

Katie: Honestly (haha), I try to be as straight-forward as possible in my feedback, although I like to think I’m always mindful of the sometimes damaging effect of being too honest. While I think that, yes, we should strive to uphold the integrity of the craft by being as frank as possible when it comes to responding to each other’s work, there is a line between honesty and cruelty. This seems to be a somewhat unpopular approach to workshop, at least in my experience. A lot of people might point out that editors and others of the professional world will not be worried about safeguarding the feelings of writers. And again, yes, while I agree that those who cannot take the criticism probably shouldn’t be a part of a graduate workshop, if the ultimate goal is growth as a writer—what we’re all trying to achieve by being in MFA and PhD programs—then eviscerating someone for writing a “bad” poem is not really beneficial to anyone. Anyways, it’s just not how I roll.


Do you have any successful tips for workshop? Feel free to share them with the H&W community here!


Todd Osborne was born in Nashville, TN. He has poems forthcoming in Juked and Slipstream Quarterly and his poems have previously appeared in Storm Cellar Quarterly, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, and On the Rusk.

Kate Strum lives and writes in Stillwater, OK.

Michael Haskins is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Fat City Review, and elsewhere. 

Katherine Markey is a PhD candidate in poetry at Oklahoma State University and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her work in Cave Region Review.