where the writers are
Workshop Dos and Don'ts

Sorry I have been so MIA, but school is starting in a couple days and I had to get myself organized etcetera. (Oh how I long for the days when all I had to do to get ready was put together my outfit!)

I thought it might be helpful for me to post some advice for people who are starting their MFA programs. So here are some Dos and Don'ts.

A mainstay of the MFA program is the workshop. Sometimes called the "Iowa Method", the workshop is basically a group critique led by the professor. One person submits her work and the class reads it in advance and then spends an hour or so critiquing it. During the process the person whose work is being discussed must remain silent.

Okay, on with the show.


  • Be funky. Funkiness can take many forms. Don't sit there with your mouth poked out and your arms crossed defensively. When I teach workshops to beginning students, I gently chide them, but I do not like to see silent tantrums from graduate students. As a teacher it turns me off, but it also harshes the vibe in the class.
  • Turn in something you think is perfect. The workshop is not a beauty pageant. This is not the time for you to show your classmates how brilliant you are. This is the time to get help and to improve. (Also, you are way likely to be funky is you turn something in believing it to be a work a genius and discover that someone else has a different opinion.)
  • Turn in something sloppy. No one wants to spend an hour telling you things you already know. For example if the pacing is all off, and you know it, why didn't you fix it before class? You won't get anything out of the critique and the class (and your prof!) will be annoyed.
  • Turn in something that has been workshopped to death. Be brave enough to turn in something new.
  • Be evil. I say that the goal of the workshop is to make the student eager to revise. If, as a result of class, the person throws the story in the trash, we have, as a class, failed. When you critique you want to be both helpful, honest, and encouraging. Never forget that your workshop is a community. The person sitting beside you is your neighbor.


  • Submit a piece of work that you feel confident about. Choose something that is a good as you can make it, but now you want some help. The wanting help is key.
  • Proofread. This is sort of obvious, but many people don't. Often it it's not because the person is trifling but because she feels weird reading her own work; it can be listening to a tape recording of your own voice. But you MUST do it.
  • Take notes during the critique. Although your classmates will submit written responses, things will come up in the discussion that they will not have written, so you will need to jot them down. And, taking notes will give you something to do while folks are talking about you like you aren't even there.
  • Be gracious. Everyone in the room read your story and, although it required, is something of a gift. Even if your feelings are hurt, thank everyone for their time. And, if you suspect someone in the class is being deliberately mean, don't encourage them by being all funky.
  • Listen. If there is something that, say, 40% of the class has a problem with, you probably need to address it.
  • Schedule a conference with your professor one week after the workshop. There will be things you will want to discuss, and she will likely want to give your specific guidance. Further, this is how you build relationships. So, swing by her office. You don't have to bring her an apple, but chocolate is always appreciated.

    (to explain the graphic. I put "writing workshop" into flickr and this photo popped up. I laughed aloud, so I decided to post it.)