Partial Drafts in Workshop: Teaching Revision 18



This is a continuation of my posts on teaching revision/revising teaching, specifically of the latest post on process. If you’d like to contribute a guest post or response, please contact me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].

Recently I saw a question posed on Facebook about what people do to discourage students from submitting incomplete drafts to workshop. I started to write a long response, but then realized the uselessness of doing so. But I move the response here because I want to make a further point about process.

To come back to the question of why workshops tend so often to focus much more on product than process, one obvious answer might be: It’s easier for the instructor.

I’ve never considered this on its own as a good reason to do anything in the classroom.

It’s true that it’s easier to get a sense of what a story is about and what its structure is like and other things by reading a draft that goes from beginning to end rather than a draft that cuts off somewhere in the middle . . . if you take for granted two things.

  1. you silence the writer
  2. you assume a draft that goes from beginning to end is any closer to a finished product than a draft that cuts off somewhere in the middle

I too once believed that it was worthless to submit to workshop a piece where you understood its problems—because you hadn’t taken it as far as you could on your own. I still believe that taking it as far as you can on your own can make for a very useful workshop, maybe a more useful workshop.

But I don’t believe any longer that a workshop of a partial draft is not helpful to the writer and other students in workshop. Both are helpful in different ways . . . if you treat them differently.

Maybe the main problem here is treating each workshop the same.

Maybe the main problem here is workshopping the product instead of the process.

One of the commenters on this Facebook post wrote something like, “You wouldn’t turn in a partial draft of a research paper.” This is an argument I’d be sympathetic to if what was being turned in was for a final grade, not a workshop. The truth is, workshops in composition classes often do look at partial drafts—sometimes even only one line, often the dreaded “thesis statement.” Because workshop is not about product, but process. Because workshop can (and should!) help more with process than with product.

I’ve always been a big fan of Cathy Day’s blog on creative writing craft, citizenship, pedagogy, and so on, The Big Thing. The title of the blog comes from a workshop in which her instructor asked the workshop not to talk about the draft she had submitted as a story but to mine it for novel potential. This is something I probably do once a semester now: identify in the partial the potential for a much larger whole, and help the author talk out the process of making something bigger.

In the latest workshop I ran, a student turned in four pages of the beginning of a novel. I had told the students they could turn in as much as 70 pages, because we have such a small group, and because some of them are more interested in novels than in stories.

I’ve always thought stories are much easier to workshop than novels—I still believe this. Though, again, easier is not a reason that guides us in class. I have seen a LOT of novel workshops fail. And the main reason is that the workshop treats the novel workshop like a story workshop, as if they can work with a product that they don’t see the beginning, middle, and end of—usually, that is, because it is too much for students to read (or often even submit) an entire draft of a novel to workshop.

I like the model the instructor followed in Day’s workshop because it treats the submission as much more in progress, and instead of talking about the pages on hand, talks about what the pages on hand can mean to the longer process of further writing.

In the workshop with my student, I began (after preliminary stuff) by asking the student to say what she would do next. This confused her at first, but I explained that I wanted to know what she would literally do next to continue working on what she had—those four pages. Of course she wasn’t going to go back and edit those four pages over and over again. If she had said she would just go on writing the next scene, then we would have taken it from there and done something else, but she said she wanted to do more planning. She told us what she had so far, what problems she saw, what she had been having trouble with over the four years she’d been thinking about the novel idea, what she loved about the idea and what we could help with. We talked about where what she had on the page and what she told us might go, and what some possible shapes of a novel with some of those elements might look like. She talked about which models she liked and what seemed useful. Then we talked about what we had questions about that we liked not knowing and what we had questions about that could be answered in a way that actually created more useful mystery. At the end I asked again what the student would do next, and it was clear she had a much more concrete idea of where to go.

I have my students do self-reflections on their workshops, as a way to process it and as a way for me to get some feedback they might be less willing otherwise to share. I ask them to write about what went well and what was less helpful, what suggestions were useful, what questions they still have, etc. Then we meet and discuss the workshop and the work. The student (yes, it was glowing) said she had gone into workshop basically full of dread, expecting for the prose to be ripped apart, because that was what she had been taught to expect in workshop. Instead we talked very little about the sentences on the page (because this was a draft so far from what a complete draft, a finished product, would actually look like) except as fodder for further story. She said she felt inspired to write for the first time following a workshop. I’ve told the class multiple times that this is our goal in workshop, to give the writer the feeling that she wants to revisit the work. I don’t understand the point of a workshop that makes a writer want to quit on the piece she submitted.

Ultimately, what is the point of not letting a writer submit “unfinished” drafts—it’s to force an arbitrary deadline on a writer. Sometimes this can lead to good work and productivity. Sometimes it means sloppier work with less thought, or no work at all. Just because a work has a beginning, middle, and end doesn’t mean it results in a better workshop. It results in a product we can more easily and maybe even better evaluate as a product. But I doubt encouraging a slow writer to submit work that isn’t representative of what her process would look like otherwise will actually be as useful to her writing process, which is the thing she will carry with her far beyond the point when the product sinks or sails.

More later, perhaps.

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