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Student Critiquing in Workshops: Analysis and a Caution Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

While at lunch with a writer friend, and teacher of fiction writing, she confessed she rarely read contemporary fiction anymore.   It's not just lack of time; it's the poor quality of writing and the dearth of even rudimentary storytelling skills.  Why have good fiction writers become buried in the amazing proliferation of memoir and nonfiction, genre and therapeutic confessional stories?  More than a few would say writers are not being taught well.

In truth, the modern literary author with visions of creating memorable and lasting stories[1] has few resources for learning.  Workshops have become the predominant opportunity and most workshops rely–for a majority if not all of the teaching time–on students' critiquing their fellow students' work.  But student critiquing has a shaky foundation for learning: the inexperienced and unknowledgeable, and sometimes the untalented, teach each other.  Who could imagine eight to twelve wannabe neurosurgeons meeting to discuss the practice cases they've been doing alone, without guidance or supervision, in their garages, basements, or attics? 

What are the effects of workshops on writers?  The physiology of student critiquing in workshops was analyzed from eighty-six fiction-writing workshops taken over two decades.  The motivations for students attending sessions varied.  Almost all students wanted to be recognized as a writer  to be published and admired.  Few had developed, as a prime objective, the writing of literary fictional stories that would impact readers with a purpose, meaning, entertainment, memorability, and enlightenment.   It was apparent that dreams of publication and the successful writer's lifestyle were prominent with little desire to create excellence of a story art form.  

Almost all students believed that at their personal level of education, experience and intelligence, they were capable of writing great literature, although they would surely deny it if asked.  Almost all brought their work seeking reinforcement in their abilities and talent, and poised to reject a suggestion their writing was not up to the greatest literary achievement and creativity.  This prevalent attitude worked against learning, a clash between justification of my pride-in-my-work and a desire-to-do-better.   

One dominant effect of student-critiquing workshops was particularity, rather than entirety.  Teachers of workshops required student participation.  "I expect you to contribute."  A fair number of teachers methodically went from student to student when a student's work was considered so no required participant's comment was left out of the session.  In the atmosphere of required contribution, most general opinions and suggestions were stated by the first one or two critiquers.  As a result, many students–pressed by the need to respond with brilliance and uniqueness to meet there own need for admiration as a critiquer–descended into minutia rather than seeking ways to improve the fundamentals of storytelling and craft of the writer.  These students groped for edicts they'd read or learned to fill their need to respond.  Examples: Too many adjectives.  A misspelling.  A comma splice.  Don't use characters' names that start with the same letter or have the same number of syllables.  Show don't tell.  Never begin with dialogue.  Number your pages.  Write from what you know.  These were presented a maxims by those with varying degrees of ignorance.  This particularity without addressing entirety of a work resulted in insufficient learning about story and craft through insignificant and do-not-apply or dogmatic misdirected statements.

The imposed need to contribute also frequently caused student critiquers to default to useless  anecdotal "counter stories" or "global pronouncements."  I visited Paris once in winter and it wasn't cold at all, or, I don't think narcotics are necessary for sports injuries. or I taught sociology for twenty years, an enjoyable career.  Unacceptable in a serious, productive workshop.

Authors presented work with the often unconscious attitude that the work was finished and probably as perfect as they could get it.  Such thinking did not allow for improvement by the writer, but it also contributed to tensions and anger; the writer who believed he or she achieved perfection in their work, felt criticism was unfair and personal. They often smoldered into silence, or lashed out against the critiquer.  This type of response could be eliminated if students are screened for level of accomplishment and attitude toward their work, which should be focused on how to make the story better and improve the writing.

Emotion often dominated class sessions crowding out objective teaching.   A major contributor to this phenomenon related to class structure and ineffective teaching that inserted competition and tension into classroom settings.

Small cliques often formed within the class.  Surprisingly, some teachers were also members of these cliques.  These cliques served to reinforce a clique-member's imagined reason d'etre and generated unfair and often mean criticism of one or more fellow students work–with barely submerged derision–related not to writing but to certain personality features or ideas.  These cliques isolated nonclique students and targeted students the clique did not like by excluding or ignoring their participation.  At times, clique activity provoked anger and frustration with weeping, acid retorts, and in a few cases leaving the classroom not to return. These tension-filled, depressing classes were not necessary and could have been eliminated if workshop teachers would control  student responses related to personality and fortified with cliquish behavior. 

Because critiquing, especially by amateurs, was frequently hurtful to the writer under consideration, most teachers required positive critiques before more potentially-hurtful observations were allowed.[2]  These obligatory positive comments often were insincere and tangential and brought the writer to a false acceptance of worth of the writing, destructive because the required positive comments collectively dulled the author's perception of needed improvement.

Using student critiquing as a workshop norm required low requirements for teachers since ideas came from student amateurs.  Little preparation was necessary by teachers and few skills and little knowledge easily qualify a teacher for workshops even in MFA settings.  Reality confirmed this. 

The quality of teaching skills and knowledge in fiction workshops was not high.   Teachers might have MFA degrees, but many were not educators but writers adding to their incomes and seeking recognition for their work.  Many teachers, even with MFAs, had published work completed in school for degree requirements, but had written little or no fiction since graduation.  With only rare exceptions, teachers in workshops had never been educated as teachers and had no background in the teaching techniques of story and craft, or the evaluation of student progress, which is required in most effective academic disciplines.

Teachers without knowledge or training depended on an atmosphere of student critiquing, not teaching and learning assessment.  Less than five percent of teachers had skills necessary to direct and control what students said or wrote in their critiques.  The atmosphere of these classes tended to be that of book groups as social occasions.  Rare vetting for student knowledge and experience in critiques was so common that often a student might be critiquing as a rock-bottom beginner.

Workshops will only be valuable for writers when teachers teach how to form a story, how to learn craft to support your own unique style, how to support what each individual writer wants to achieve, and how to guide writer's thinking about the writing process and how it can provide enjoyment and meaning for the literary reader.

In general, developing serious writers should take writing workshops with caution.   A writer may leave with destroyed visions for improvement, and unclear understanding of individual potential.  Workshops with lectures and literature study included as well as craft-enhancement skills taught are better than student-critique dependent workshops.  And when a workshop is attended, it is essential to clarify reasonable and attainable personal expectations and goals for the workshop, and keep the focus on how to improve rather than seek confirmation of perceived excellence

 


[1] Stories created for the reader's pleasure by writing well crafted literary stories that reach levels of reader engagement, enlightenment, and entertainment.
[2] Hurt usually came from opinioned, incorrect, and often unfounded judgments intensified by a lack of skill in wording, syntax and tone in delivery; and an unclear, competitive purpose for presenting criticism.

 

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