September 22nd, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

The Workshop and Measurability

I want to start from the premise that a student can learn innumerable things from taking a creative writing course. Accepting this premise seems to me the only way to get anything done when we talk about pedagogy—otherwise we aren’t discussing pedagogy, but philosophy. I’m most interested in how we can decide what’s teachable out of the huge amount of learning material available in creative writing, and how we can hold ourselves accountable for having taught it afterward.

Taking the most common structure of the creative writing course as a guide, it seems that most teachers have decided on a few central skills that are “worth learning” about creative writing: reading, discussion of reading, writing, and discussion of writing. And the learning we intend our students to get out of practicing these skills is as clear-cut as in the study of any academic field: Reading is important for gaining information and expanding awareness about the field. Discussing reading is important for coming to a more critical and independent understanding of the field. Writing is important for communicating with others in the field. Discussing writing is important for learning to analyze and evaluate writing, with the goal of communicating more effectively in the field. There are of course many other potential purposes for teaching these things, and it’s hard to argue against the learning value of any of them—but I would argue that as teachers, we need to be much more attentive to these purposes, and much more vigilant about providing the rationales that tie them to the study of creative writing as a whole. There’s no inherent rationale, for instance, that reading has to be a part of learning writing—not until you decide what happens during reading that enhances the skill of writing, and how you can structure a class to provide the practice in and measure the acquisition of that skill.

The difference between the learning that comes with reading and writing in any academic course and that which comes with creative writing, though, is that creative writing emphasizes a much different kind of performance. I don’t think any kind of presentation or project in a regular class—short of, perhaps, a thesis or a professional demonstration—correlates with the process of “turning in” for workshop or critique, where you not only write a thing, but offer it to a group of people as a thing constructed, a composed object, with some degree of import and intent. It seems to me that the teachable part of workshop is the part where we task students with delivering a crafted product that they’ll put their name to and give up to others as a reflection of the work they would like to do.

The question is how we as teachers can make this learning demonstrable. Workshop is, in my experience, presented as a very direct process, in which your privately produced work is submitted for the consideration of an audience, who, in this case, get to talk back to you and tell you what they want and don’t want and can’t understand so you can begin to internalize it. I think I was supposed to learn from workshops how an audience makes sense and meaning out of a story, as well as how to recognize my writing strengths and weaknesses. I definitely thought about these things after and during workshops. Instructors regularly made efforts to lend me their insights about these things. And over time, I learned important things about being a better communicator, collaborator, and editor from workshop that, eventually, made me a better writer.

But actually developing these skills requires more than direct instruction. It requires personal practice. You can’t learn how to write vicariously. The learning I got from workshop came afterward, when I had to make decisions about how to incorporate the feedback. This is a private process—untestable by teachers. Teachers have no access to or influence over what happens for students during this process. We can assign written reflections or revisions, but we can’t very reliably test the outcome from these assignments, can’t very consistently evaluate the quality of the decisions that were made. And I’d argue that this diminishes the wealth of learning available in our field.

Those of us lucky enough to teach are given the charge not to create creative writers—how would we measure that—but to create classes where students learn what is teachable in our field. I am all for making better writers—as well as better talkers, better listeners, better thinkers, better people. These are good and valuable outcomes. But they are not measurable, and neither is one’s progress toward writerhood. Workshop, as a cornerstone of the creative writing curriculum, needs to be a practice space for what we believe is valuable to learn about our discipline, and not an arena for proving one’s maturity, seriousness, or suitability for a writing career. And that means teachers, and through them, students, will have to be more rigorous, more invested, and more accountable for their performance.

The most rigorous and invested display of learning I ever saw as a teacher happened when I asked intermediate creative writing students to create cover letters and rubrics identifying the categories by which they would evaluate their writing in the future. They were responsible for authoring criteria that could be reliably measured and applied across the wide scope of their writing. They were able to create dozens of honest, measurable outcomes for themselves. How to set outcomes and decide when you’ve met them is one of those seemingly abstract skills that creative writing cultivates over time. But it’s also a skill that’s possible to teach. Much of what the workshop is designed to develop in writers can more reliably and methodically be taught, tested, and exercised. We just have to be willing to author the criteria.


Tracy Rae Bowling is co-editor of Uncanny Valley and has served as an editor for Puerto del Sol and Noemi Press. Her work has been published at PANK, Storyglossia, and Bluestem. She lives in Iowa City.


  1. John Minichillo

      While I recognize the often commonly stated goal of the workshop as a process of learning to internalize an audience, so this particular goal is mostly seen as beneficial afterwards, such that writers acquire a better awareness of reader expectation, I’ve come to see this approach as abstract and of limited value. It sounds good, but it doesn’t represent what really happens. I’ve become a better reader and writer not so much because of the critique of others, but because I’ve actually become a more experienced writer and reader.

      I’ve come to see the value of the workshop as a dynamic group response. Real readers articulating their real expectations and their real reading experience. This makes the workshop something unique and not easily imagined or carried around in one’s head. The imagined response a writer might take away years later, as a result of having been through workshops will be more simple and abstract. What I find, after many years, is that the experience of the workshop ALWAYS changes what I think about a piece as a direct result of this dynamic group interaction with the piece. Readers are smart in unpredictable ways and they are people, situated in time and space.

      Because of the number of writers involved and the close reading of the pieces it may not be practical to continue on in the workshop beyond the degree or for longer works like novels, so it’s mostly a short-term but also direct experience.

  2. MFBNewAndImproved

      Here’s a question–if the workshop has these benefits you mention, why do writers stop taking workshops? Why do almost writers I know eventually grow to hate taking workshops as students? How many writers continue to take workshops when they no longer need to take workshops to fulfill a formal requirement? What does this suggest about a model that pretends to mimic the way writers read and respond to writing from others? 

  3. MFBNewAndImproved

      That comment was directed at John. 

  4. Tracy Rae Bowling

      So are the benefits you’re describing less individual (reader response driven) and more participatory–cooperative understandings of work that emerge as a result of putting so many writers together in a room, rather than from their individual responses and advice? I like that. I’d say that’s more accurate to my best experiences with workshop. 

      I still wonder if that’s assessable; I don’t see a very good way to assess “ability to come to a collective understanding that is greater than the one any writer would have come to alone.” There’s definitely something to be said for workshop as a worthwhile experience, one that impacts you or at least gives you a story you can tell later, but if workshop is going to be at the forefront of our classes I think it needs to also have specific and demonstrable learning value. Maybe there’s a way to structure workshops within a course so that they continually practice and add to the deductive and analytical skills that lead to useful and inspiring discussion. The teacher would have to find and name those skills first. But I’d like that–theoretically it would lead to a workshop more dependent on the creative thinking of those involved and less dependent on the individual compositions they’re working with. Actually, I think a lot of the problems people experience with workshop can be traced back to this. Workshops that go well or poorly based on the quality of the work submitted are vastly inferior to those that demand a certain level and quality of participation from the students, in my experience.

  5. Tim Horvath

      Apologies if this has been discussed already elsewhere, but do you see a giant inherent difference between workshops and writing groups? I know a fair number of writers who belong to the latter.

  6. Roxane

      This question strikes me as somewhat bizarre. Writers stop taking workshops because they graduate or move on to thesis work if they are still in school. Some people have bad workshop experiences but that’s not necessarily because of the workshop but rather, how a workshop is run and who they are in workshop with. I’m not going to get into a long discussion about workshops because I’m clear on your stance and I just don’t care that much but really, your question is… strange.

  7. MFBNewAndImproved

      I know a lot of published writers, and none of them sit in a circle with other published writers they sort-of know and offer and receive feedback on drafts. 

      I do know writers who meet with other writers they trust to offer and receive feedback on drafts, but this isn’t similar to an academic workshop, especially since the writers in the former group get to choose who gets to read their stuff ahead of time; also, the writers chosen to give feedback are usually experienced and successful and know what they’re talking about, and so it’s not a case of “the blind leading the blind.”

      So yes, I think there’s an inherent difference between the two. 

  8. Tim Horvath

      Definitely not sort-of know. But plenty of them do sit around that circle, sometimes for years. My workshop experience in grad school was fortunate. By my final year, I was with a bunch of people I did know and liked, and we sat around a prof’s living room and discussed the pieces, novel drafts in this case. There’s some talking about life, too. It gets looser as the conversation gets more efficient, the participants more able to cut to the chase. And I’ve been in writing groups that were in no significant way different from this. So my experience has been a lot blurrier than yours as far as this distinction goes.

  9. MFBNewAndImproved

      Are you sure you’re clear on my stance?

      It’s really not “bizarre” or “strange” at all and whether or not some writers make the best of what they’re given is completely irrelevant when discussing the model itself. 

      It’s often assumed in academia that the workshop has an intrinsic value that is transferable to the writer’s practice and that writers do in fact “workshop” each other after they graduate (see Tim Horvath’s well-meaning question, which essentially contains such an implication), and yet, most writers have no desire to ever take a workshop again.

      Can we say the same for literature courses?

      While most people no longer take literature courses after they graduate, most people would probably not cringe over the idea of auditing a literature course for general “enrichment” purposes, even if they were already well-read and advanced readers of literature.  

  10. MFBNewAndImproved

      That’s not a writing workshop, though.  That’s a writing group.  I don’t think many writing workshops take place in the living rooms of professors.

  11. MFBNewAndImproved

      What I’m saying is that there is an undeniable formality to the academic workshop that is often dismissed. I don’t see the academic workshop existing on some sort of larger workshop spectrum.  For me, at least, the academic workshop is clearly a specific way of teaching writing separable from other methods outside the academy. 

  12. John Minichillo

      I’m not sure which comment was directed at me. At the end of my original post I thought I addressed this, at least how I see it, but maybe there’s more to it, re: workshops vs. writing groups. If I’m understanding the question, that a writers’ group still has that active living dynamic.

      Firstly, I don’t think we outgrow workshops so much as they are kind of inefficient and for longer work, and for people who haven’t dropped off the planet to become graduate students, kind of impractical.

      I think a lot of it has to do with the impied prestige of publication. If I’m pretty well published I may not be as open to critique because I’m more sure of my project, which has also been publicly validated. At the same time, a workshop run by writer Z will draw writers from across the country and while part of the value is blessings of writer Z, it is also the group that has been brought together out of admiration of writer Z, people who didn’t already know each other, and who wouldn’t have connected without the desire to be with writer Z. Likewise, the workshop members with publications can have a pet status, can tangle with writer Z, can be by turns kind or insulting. And so there also tends to be more of a sense competition when writer Z is in the room. I don’t mean to say that a writing group can’t be rigorous (of course it can) or that writer Z consciously encourages competition (she might), but if we play soccer and don’t keep score and everybody wins and we all go eat ice cream afterwards, it’s really different than if we play for points and writer Z is pacing on the sideline.

      The participants are also paying writer Z (not quite what she’s worth but the university supplements because they also want to get close to the prestige of publication). When you pay for something you tend to value it more. And the writers in workshop are paying, not just with dollars, but with the sacrifices they make because they attend school beyond early adulthood.

      Writers can continue to take workshops if they pay to attend writers conferences with writer Z, but it’s expensive, time consuming, and the actual amount of work critiqued is quite small.

      So I think workshops are often justified as having this value above and beyond the experience itself. Yes, editing techniques and the many conventions of writing are practical learned skills that can be picked up in workshops and you can take them with you. But there are arguments made for skills that are harder to pin down, that go unquestioned, such as an awareness of audience and that critical voice in the head that I don’t deny, but that I really wonder about. That was the direction of my original post, and I’m unsure about it, though I do see real value in the experience of workshop. Is it above and beyond that of a reading group? Maybe / probably. Is it something writers should continue to participate in? I kind of doubt it.

  13. John Minichillo

      I think we agree except that I’m not at all concerned with assessment. Despite the fact that workshops are most often housed in the academy, what I see as best about them are the ways they are unlike what generally goes on in classrooms.

      Sometimes, on a gorgeous spring day, someone in the workshop will suggest we should take the workshop out on the quad. “Let’s have class outside,” they’ll say. No fucking way. We need to be able to do what we do in the way we choose without putting it on display or of having to explain it to anyone.

  14. html pipsqueak

      These “teaching creative writing” posts are dreadfully dull.  Is this what’s happening in MFA programs these days?  I’d like to hear more posts from outside of the MFA doldrums.

  15. Roxane

      Why don’t you write one that embodies the characteristics you seek? These posts may not be of interest to you but they are of interest to others, very well written, and they certainly aren’t dreadfully dull. As with all the content here, read what interests you, ignore that which doesn’t. 

  16. MFBNewandImproved

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, John.

      While I understand your points about “prestige of publication,” I was thinking more along the lines of, “I know my own voice and vision pretty well, and have confidence in both, that I no longer require feedback from random people.” And yet, the workshop model does present itself as something more longterm. Rarely, if ever, will you hear a workshop instructor be blunt about the model’s uselessness to most advanced writers. 

      Workshops didn’t teach me “how to read,” either. I learned how to read and take apart fiction from reading books, not from reading the rough drafts of writers as inexperienced as myself.  That said, and maybe I’ll contradict my previous sentence here, the critiques I wrote for others did teach me how to discuss areas of craft in my own work. That was helpful.  But most of what I needed was gleaned in 1-2 workshops.  At some point, the benefits plateau and you become bored and there’s nothing worse for the imagination than boredom and feeling unchallenged by a staid model. 

      Back to my first paragraph–and I swear, this all connects to workshops–I’m constantly perplexed by this assumption that a writer is somehow wrong, close-minded, or arrogant for believing in his vision to the point where he can confidently tell a “critic” or editor, “you’re wrong,” and/or this belief that any constructive criticism is inherently “good” or redeeming. Workshops have conditioned us to believe that writers should be polite, nice, and know their places 24/7, but it’s a passive-aggressive, insincere, dishonest kind of niceness, sort of like the first part of a workshop when the entire group is forced so say what they “like” before they get around to what supposedly “doesn’t work.” 

      Anyway, I deal with editors routinely, since I’m always sending out work (like many others here) and love it when an editor writes a comment about how a story I sent doesn’t “work” in a certain area.  Man, fuck you, I want to say. God forbid you say, “you know, I just didn’t like it,” because that’s usually what it comes down to in the end.  But editors and critics often assume positions of authority and use those positions to conflate what they “like” with “what doesn’t work,” because it’s always easier to reduce everything to “what doesn’t work” and retreat to craft instead of acknowledging that you didn’t like a certain work. You might also expose yourself as not getting the story, having it fly over your head, or lacking the literary-historical frame of reference necessary to respond to a range of aesthetics and experiences, something that’s precluded in most workshops and comes from years of reading and studying literature that wasn’t just written within the last five years. You might also realize that it’s actually possible for the writer submitting to you to be just as smart, or smarter, than you are, despite the placard on your desk and authoritarian title. 

      I’ve begun responding to such editorial notes, mainly because I only send work out that I honest-to-God believe in.  One editor at a major magazine recently said there was “a lot to like” about one of my stories, and then oddly wished me luck “revising and polishing it.” I wrote back, “thanks for the personal rejection, but the story is just fine the way it is and will eventually be published in a national journal.” And it will be, without any changes whatsoever, or only minimal changes. 

      The implication in the editor’s comment, one that is often perpetuated in workshop, is that stories can always be “fixed” or need to be “fixed” just because a single reader doesn’t like it.  This sort of thinking is pervasive in the writing world–one undoubtedly impacted by the rise of MFA programs–and places “critics” and editors in unfair positions of power and disregards the writer’s own vision and belief in his own work/voice. “Fixing” takes precedent over all else, including the cultivation of vision–the single most important tool, if you will, in a writer’s trade, and his only chance of writing work many might consider timeless. 

      So, my point isn’t that a writer reaches a point when the “prestige” of his or her publications render him too good for workshop; rather, it’s that the published writer is usually someone who also happens to be doggedly persistent, confident, risk-taking, in-sync with his or her own vision, and able to tell people who don’t like his work to go to hell–yes, “go to hell”–and that the formal constraints of the traditional workshop in their numerous manifestations in and outside the workshop become utterly useless to him by this point: a waste of time, and potentially damaging. 

  17. John Minichillo

      There’s a lot here I agree with but then also a lot I don’t agree with, and because of the length of the post, I doubt I can respond in any kind of coherent way.

      I think that even if workshopping were available and free and more efficient, that writers would still no longer submit to it. I think a lot of it, as you say, has to do with confidence. But the flip side of confidence is the refusal to admit questioning of the work, because the work has been sanctioned by a record of publication. Eperienced writers are much better at what they do, but they may also not want to hear what people think. Fear, self-doubt, etc. You can learn to ignore it or smother it with ego, but the value of the art is and will always be in question.

      I don’t believe that the workshop enourages the notion that every individual critique needs to be addressed, but again, what I see as worthwhile and valuable is the dynamic group response, which is unlike the response of an editor or individual reader, or even imagined audience.

      I understand that many have been damaged by workshops, and I can understand how many of the elements of the workshop can even seem to encourage a hostile environment, but I don’t believe that honest discussion of a piece of writing is all that damaging or necessarily hostile. Nor a waste of time.

      I often have to tell people I don’t like what they’ve written and I do my best to respectfully explain my response. Others often disagree with me and maybe my position shifts a little, but whether it does or not, I can generally see my way to some possible rewrites. These are not prescriptions or fixes. It’s just an interplay with the work at hand. What I wanted and didn’t get. What I thought you led me to believe I might expect from the piece. And maybe even, how I thought you hadn’t put in the time and thought requirred to make the writing much better than what you asked me to read. Do I fault you for that? Do I take it personally? If I paid money for it at a bookstore, maybe. But in a workshop, not really, because it comes with the territory, it’s what we’ve agreed to do for each other, and of course I’ve been there too, I’ve handed out bad fiction and asked people to reply.

      Sometimes people like to make themselves feel better by beating up on the work of others. Sometimes we just don’t like something that others find great artistic value in. It sounds to me like the editors were respectful in their response to you. You didn’t have to take their advice but you also didn’t have to try to put them in their place. They aren’t being paid to read your work and it’s OK if they don’t like it. It’s especially OK if they don’t want to publish it. It’s their magazine and they aren’t obligated to recognize your greatness.

  18. MFBNewandImproved

      I can’t respond in full at the moment–and will try to do so later–but my frustrations stem from the apparent satisfaction with the traditional workshop model, and how people seem to never want to improve it and/or look for alternative ways to teach writing in the academy–esp. people who with clout/power.  It’s bizarre how conservative creative writers are when it comes to teaching creative writing.  I thought writers weren’t supposed to be easily satisfied? And yet, most of the defenses I hear are of the, “it’s all we have, deal with it” variety.  

      And even a small percentage of bad experiences is enough to interrogate the model and consider alternatives.