13 October 2007


Yesterday, we had a get-together with a lot of other Prof Writing teachers from around the state. Such days are tremendous -- a chance to talk about what we teach and how we teach it, to throw around ideas and glean insights to what goes on in other campuses (and how well off we are or are not sitting in all sorts of areas). We had a couple of guest speakers, one from Lonely Planet, to talk about working there as an editor and one to talk about managing students who are having problems. But perhaps the most useful part of the day was when we got into subject groups to talk about our subjects.

I was astounded in the novel writing group to hear one teacher say she was yet to be convinced that doing workshopping in class was at all useful. At all useful? I think it's vital! Mind you, there are a different number of ways workshopping can be done, and not all of them are as useful as others. Here are some ways I've been part of a workshop:

(i) the writer reads out their work and, after listening, people give comments back. Really, as a means of getting constructive feedback, this is useless. Great if all you want is a pat on the back, but I always find it's difficult to maintain concentration, and to some extent my engagement with the story is determined by the writer's reading-out-loud voice. A bad writer can mangle a great story. I've seen it poems too: a performance poet who makes a dull-on-the-page poem sparkle, and a monotonous reader who makes a thoughtful poem come out flat and boring.

(ii) the writers read each other's work on the day and make comments on the page. Often the writers work in small groups (and in a classroom situation, this usually means that the teacher hasn't read the work). Sorry, but I don't think this works well either. It might work if you have great workshoppers who know what they're doing, but for new students who need guidance... Nope, you're not going to sell me on that one as a method. And as a teacher I like to hear what everyone has to say, which I can't do if I'm moving from group to group. Plus, I like to take part in the workshopping -- it's a great chance to discuss what's working and what isn't and to use this as a further, real-life teaching tool. And I think you get far better comments when people have time to take home a story and let it digest. Doing it on the spot puts some people under too much pressure.

(iii) writer's take copies home (or email it to each other). They write notes on each other's hard copy and then come and discuss it -- either in a whole class (my preferred method because the more voices you have, the more things will get picked up), in small groups (necessary sometimes in big classes) or in small groups in front of the whole class, which can work. I loved the whole-class workshop best as a student, and I love it best as a teacher. Again, I have the control and can monitor how much effort everyone is putting in. And I get to hear everyone's comments, which can be informative for me too!

My classes always use method three. I have variations -- special directions that they can follow for intense workshopping, and use the Clarion variations: the "ditto" and "anti-ditto" rules to stop unnecessary repetition, and also in forbidding the workshopee from speaking until everyone has finished discussing their story. Really, I think this works well.


Lisa66 said...

As a student I agree that the first two methods aren't that helpful.

When I am reading a piece, sometimes it takes me a while to work out why something is not working for me, or why I like a certain part so much. My first reading is usually to get a gut feeling about the piece and I try to ignore niggly things like spelling errors, and even awkward phrasing. My second reading I try to focus more on why certain parts are working or not and the third reading is for the niggles like spelling etc. I can only do this if I have a decent amount of time. There's no way I could give useful comments after hearing the work read aloud once.

Also, not all workshoppers are equal! If you are in small groups and are unlucky enough to get a group where not everyone pulls their weight then it's a waste of time. Personally, I want to hear the teacher's comments on my work!

I can't believe anyone could teach novel writing without including workshopping. I learnt so much from reading and workshopping the work of others. Also, writing is a tough business. I think having my work critiqued in class helped toughen me up!

Sherryl said...

Totally agree. If you're not workshopping effectively, it is a bit of a waste of time. First year students need help - they need to hear how the teacher comments to guide their own responses (but of course the teacher needs to be good at commenting! and the teacher you're referring to...)

Anonymous said...

I agree with lisa66. As a student, I am more than happy to have my novel workshopped. I want to know what's vague, what's not working, etc. But sometimes I feel that others in the class aren't so keen - and I come out of the session feeling like I've been taken as patronising, or a bitch, instead of constructive.

I like to have the pieces at home so that I can read through a few times. The first read is just a straight read: what's the story about. The second read I mark any structural or character inconsistencies with a Post-It Note. Then I leave it for a bit. Later I read through again and mark these up on the page.

Like lisa66, I couldn't do this if I had only heard the text read aloud, or have twenty minutes of class time to look at the page. When I've workshopped this way, it has just been a waste of time.