Workshop classes: a blessing or a curse?

Spring break is over and all eyes are focused on the end of the term just six weeks away. For seniors, that also means looking at the end of their college careers. No more professors demanding papers or oral presentations, no more homework, deadlines, grades, or workshops looming overhead.

For some, the prospect of never having to critique a classmate’s work or listen to their work being dissected is a welcome thought.

But don’t be surprised when September rolls around and you miss those workshops, even the ones in which your classmates didn’t love or even critique your poem or short story, even the ones with the condescending classmate who talked too much.

And you will. I know. I was that student once. Because even in the workshops you complained about, you got something valuable: feedback. And that’s what writers thrive on.

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Workshops exist because writers need to hear how readers interpret what they’ve written. Without workshops, writers would reread their own work, sigh, know they said what they intended on saying and be done with it. Until they sent their work out to editors and had their work rejected.

Writers need first readers.

So first of all — to those still here — read.  Read all the work assigned — both the published works your professors insist you read and your classmates’ work you’re supposed to critique. The more you read, the more your writing will improve. Your teachers pick pieces for you to read and your classmates have gone to the effort of writing pieces for you to critique, so read them.

The workshop class isn’t set up as a tutorial for each student to have a one-on-one with the instructor.

You learn from hearing what works and doesn’t work in your classmates’ pieces, not just your own. So sit up, wake up, and take notice of what’s going on.

Workshops excel when each participant is invested in the process — when every student reads every piece that’s written and comes prepared to discuss.

To ensure this, I require students to write their critiques out in some of my workshops to guarantee a lively discussion. If students have done their work, I can facilitate conversation, not dominate it.

I also believe that if students have gone to the effort of critiquing a classmate’s work, then writers should go to the effort of rewriting. Writing, after all, is rewriting. The only way you can really learn any craft is to practice, practice, and practice some more. Rewriting every assignment in class, especially the ones you think are crap, will inevitably teach you the value of rewriting.

If, after a second attempt, you still don’t like a piece, then put it away — never throw anything away — and move on to something else, but I promise the more you rewrite, the more you’ll understand how fluid writing really is.

Students will also pay more attention to the critiquing process if they know their classmates are actually going to use their suggestions.

Successful workshops run on respect. You aren’t going to like every piece of writing produced in a class. I don’t, but sometimes you can learn more from material you don’t like. But choose your words carefully when you tell your classmates what you don’t like about their work.

Be polite. I am not a fan, nor member, of the “if you can’t take the heat…” club. Workshops succeed when students and professors respect each other and the work. The minute that respect is lost, the class dynamic begins to fail.

In any class, there are going to be students who are more comfortable talking than others. My job is to try to find a balance — to encourage the quiet ones to speak up more without causing them panic attacks, and to reign in those who think they should run the class for me.

As much as you don’t think so, seniors, you will miss the workshop. When you’re ready, find a writing group, or better yet, contact some of those trusted readers from your past workshops at Emerson.

And while the rest of you are still here, invest in your workshops; they’re only as good as the individuals who make up the whole.