Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Writing Workshop Feedback - Positive, Negative, and Progressive

My classmates and I have some interesting debates about how to run a creative writing workshop, particularly when it comes to giving feedback.  To a large degree, I differ from many of my MFA classmates not only in the way I view workshop feedback, but also in the role of the workshop in the writer's (i.e. the student's) writing career...
The Four Major Types of Feedback
Most writing workshops tend to use varying ratios of four types of feedback. The first three focus on the content of your current work - progressive feedback, on the other hand, is directed toward the future progress of that work.:
Corrective (Negative/Critical)
Feedback designed to "fix" your "mistakes" as a writer.

Reassuring (Positive)
Helpful, kind words which encourage you to keep up the good work.

Combination
A combination of positive and negative feedback which is still centered on the work you've already produced.

Progressive (Recommended)
A combination where you're shown what you're doing well, and then suggestions are given for how you can make it better.
    Why Helpful Feedback Is Essential
    It's a challenge knowing not only which workshops are good, but which workshops are good for you.  As writers and as people, we each respond differently to the various types of feedback.  While some of us learn tremendous amounts of detailed information from corrective/critical (a.k.a. "don't do this!) feedback, such feedback can shut down the creative process for others.  Likewise, reassuring (a.k.a. " feedback can help some of us explore new ideas that we wouldn't be comfortable sharing otherwise - some writers, however, would find the same feedback to be either boring or patronizing.

    As a writer, you want to determine which feedback works best for you, and then find a workshop to match.  This said, it's nearly impossible to know how a workshop will run until you're actually in the course. In my experience, many workshop instructors (including very talented and well-published authors) don't actually understand how their own workshops work. They may talk about the goals of the workshop, or specific writing techniques they teach you, but they don't quite meet their own goals. It isn't that they don't want to help - with very, very few exceptions, every workshop instructor I've ever met has felt a genuine desire to help his or her students.

    The problem is a failure in pedagogy. Many writers, despite their successes in writing, have never been taught how to teach. For some writers, creative writing comes so easily that they don't really remember having had to learn how to do it. And this can generate a great deal of frustration for students and teachers alike. Both end up feeling as though they've failed - the teachers don't feel they've provided enough help, and the students don't feel they've tried hard enough to learn.

    Knowing this, however, will not make you feel better after you've shelled out hundreds of dollars for a writing course which proves unhelpful. And it won't cheer up your students if you realize this after collecting their precious cash. To a large degree, the observations below are meant to help you make your own workshop experience as productive as possible regardless of the situation.

    Most importantly, a writing workshop should encourage you to keep writing. If a writing workshop kills your desire to write, or if the workshop leader tries to dissuade any student from continuing to write, then you need to make sure that the poor classroom atmosphere does not poison your own progress as a writer.

    In this article, we'll take a look at the role of feedback in the workshop experience:

    Unique Goals of Each Workshop

    Every workshop instructor carries somewhat different goals and expectations for a writing workshop.  Every workshop, in one way or another, aims to help the students become better writers.  However, there are three fundamentally different approaches to this:

    1. "Correction" Approach: Stop the students from being "bad writers"
    The assumption here is that students are taking the workshop because they are not yet fully developed writers (which is true), but that improvement in writing happens by cutting out the bad sections of the submitted work. ("Listen, you can't use a period after an indefinite article to end a sentence fragment.") Typically, feedback is negative, though it may be couched in very polite terms. ("You know, this period here on page three, the one that follows the indefinite article, it bothers me. This really looks a lot like a sentence fragment, and you need to avoid those in your work.")

    The danger to this approach is that students are never told what they're doing right in their work, and so they may end up deleting the best parts of their manuscripts in the effort to meet the instructor's expectations.  Also, workshops like this tend to get hung-up on little details (like that typo, where the writer put in an extra period after the letter "a"...) .  This can crush a beginning writer, or possibly make an intermediate writer very jaded.

    The advantage to this approach is that every student learns the shortcomings of his or her writing very quickly.  And this can be good for advanced writers or writers who are much too sure of themselves.  However, some of the most "confident" writers only seem that way on the outside - even great writers can have their confidence crushed to the point of never wanting to write again.

    2. Reassure the students that they are already good writers
    The assumption here is that no one would be taking a writing workshop unless he or she was already a good writer (which is true), and so students will write great work as long as they are told which aspects of their work is already good.  ("I really like what you've done here with your syntax.  It's interesting and bold.")  Usually, all the feedback is positive.  And the words are nice and pleasant even when the instructor's face registers distaste.

    The primary danger of this kind of workshop is that the students become inured to positive feedback - after a while, they stop believing the positive words, and they look instead to the instructor's body language for feedback.  ("This sentence here is good."  Cough, cough.  Look away.  "I really like the animal imagery you've developed here."  Sniffle.)  As you can see, an instructor with the flu can inflict a great deal of unwitting negative feedback simply by not smiling.

    Also, because all the feedback is positive, students never truly learn which aspects of their work need improvement.  As a result, grammar and punctuation are often never mentioned - instructors don't notice syntax when it's good, and the only-positive instructors can't mention it when it's not.

    However, these weaknesses of the all-positive model are often offset by the great benefits for beginning writers.  In a freewriting course using the Amherst Method, for example, students are encouraged to share rough drafts of very personal stories - any negative feedback in this situation would cause the students to clam up and censor their writing, which is counterproductive.  For teachers of younger writers, remember that most children are not naturally born as writers.  Before they face the discouragement of negative (yet also honest) feedback, they need a great deal of positive reinforcement.  It makes no sense to tell a child to improve as a writer before we've instilled an unshakable love for the art of writing.

    3. Combination of positive reassurance and negative feedback
    Note that this is not called the "balanced" approach.  In a balanced approach, you'd have equal parts positive and negative feedback - for the combination approach, the relative quantities of positive and negative will vary depending on the workshop leader and the story being workshopped.

    Done right, the combination approach can give a powerful mixture of positive and negative feedback.  However, the workshop instructor must be careful to give good, clear feedback of both types.  For example, "I found a typo on page three - looks like you ended the sentence abruptly.  But overall, I think the animal imagery does a good job expressing the protagonist's desire to return to nature."  Compare that with weak feedback in both categories: "This period on page three really doesn't work.  But this animal imagery is very good."

    In some ways, a poorly-given combination of positive and negative feedback can be worse than all-negative feedback or all-positive feedback.  The negative feedback can send the message that the writer has a lot of mistakes in the work, and then the weak positive feedback sends a destructive corollary: "I don't want you to feel bad, so I'll say something nice about your work, even though I don't really think your work is that great.  Actually, I don't think there's much we can do to help you, so you may as well feel okay about yourself before leaving for home."

    Generally, most workshops use the combination approach.  Many (including the workshops I lead) use the rule of giving positive feedback first, which is then followed by negative feedback.  This ensures that the writer is encouraged in his or her work.  Also, psychologically speaking, people tend to remember the first things they are told, and then they forget the last things they are told.  So if a writer is first told "I like your work," then it's less likely that negative feedback will hurt the desire to write.  Strangely, this can also allow you to give greater quantities of negative feedback - when you start with the things you liked, the writer will unconsciously feel that all the negative feedback is being given as a way to help.

    4. The Progressive Approach (Positive feedback with "how to improve")
    This is my preferred method for workshopping.  In this approach, the first step is to ascertain what the piece is trying to accomplish, and then to give positive feedback regarding what the piece does accomplish.  ("This piece uses good animal imagery to reveal a suffering protagonist.")  From there, additional feedback is given in terms of how to bolster what the story.  ("Watch your periods and sentence fragments - using a more regular syntax will allow the reader to focus more on the animal imagery.")

    One critical aspect of an effective progressive approach is the need to teach.  This means teaching outside the workshop component of the class - students need to to be told (as a group) the difference between "regular syntax" and "bad sentence fragments."  Sometimes this teaching occurs during the workshop itself - often, the instructor elicits information from the students as a group.  ("I'd like everyone to turn to page three.  Note this period after the sentence fragment.  Who can tell me why this kind of syntax is nonstandard?  And what would be a better approach?")

    The second critical aspect is something I learned from improv called "the rule of yes."  In "the rule of yes," you must say "yes, and..." to anything your partner says.  In a progressive workshop, the way this works is we reinforce the goals of each story even if the story itself is not strong.  For example: "Yes, your animal imagery here is a good way to reveal the protagonists dark and brooding inner self.  And to make this stronger, you'll want to pick an animal that seems darker and more malevolent than a yellow canary."  Note the "Yes" and note the "And."  The negative feedback here has been turned into positive feedback - instead of "You can't reveal dark brooding with a yellow canary," we have "I like what you're trying to do here.  And this will work when you find the right animal."  And note that it's "when," not "if" - with progressive feedback, we want to students to come away from the workshop knowing that they will improve as writers (which is true - pretty much everyone improves with workshop participation).

    Clearly, I like the progressive approach.  I talk about it as if I generated it myself, but it's actually an approach that many workshop instructors use, though I don't know if it's called the progressive approach by anyone else.  Because the progressive approach is centered on helping the writer accomplish whatever it is he or she would like to write, all the negative feedback tends to take on a bit of a positive slant, something along the lines of "Your story will be great.  And you'll make it great by changing this part."  So it's more future-oriented than the other approaches - we aren't just interested in what the work is doing, but also in what it will do.  And this, I think, is an important aspect for any writing workshop.  Students should come away with the feeling that they've accomplished something, or the feeling that they are certain to accomplish something.

    This said, we must be careful not to couch progressive feedback in terms of publication.  (i.e. "Once you make these changes, you'll be ready to send this out to literary magazines.")  In reality, publication depends so much on luck and taste and timing that it's almost cruel to link a writer's writing goals to his or her publication goals.  And yes, I believe every writer should be working to get published - I should be working harder in that direction myself.  But if we tell a writer "this story is ready for publication," then the cumulative effect of our feedback will really depend on which magazine the writer submits to.  "See - I knew your book was ready for the publishers.  Wait, you mean you spent six-grand getting it self-published?  Oh...I didn't know you were turned down by thirty agents first.  Actually, can I take a look at the query letter you were using?"  (Note to self: the best written novel won't be published without a strong query letter...)

    With these perspectives in mind, take a good look at the feedback you are giving and receiving in workshop, and use this to get a better idea of your development as a writer, a teacher, and as student.

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