Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Why Requesting the Writer’s Feedback Preferences is the Key to Unlocking the Magic of Workshop
My eighty-eight-year-old grandmother is an extremely picky eater. She hates most green vegetables. She won’t eat anything charred, nothing slightly burned. She despises fish, except for salmon, but god forbid it’s raw or too spicy. When it comes to rice, she only eats plain white—none of that healthy brown or quinoa stuff, she’s more than once muttered, in Thai.
After she moved from Bangkok to Los Angeles five years ago, my mother has become her primary caretaker, which in addition to driving her to the hospital for her biweekly check-ups and blood transfusions also involves preparing all her meals. Despite years of their co-living and my mother cooking a varied repertoire of dishes, my mother would complain to me that she could never please my grandmother’s selective palette. I used to sympathize with my mother but I have recently diagnosed the cause, and it seems she shares in the culpability.
Last summer, when I was back home visiting, I confronted my grandmother.
“Why don’t you simply just tell Mom what you want to eat?” I asked.
Even today, I can still feel the sting in her response: “Your mother has never bothered to ask me.”
My grandmother is like the old version of me in creative writing workshops. I never told my peers or my instructors what I wanted feedback on, or how, because no one asked me. This was how my workshops were set up, following the "silent-writer" approach adopted by the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop and other creative writing programs.
Under the Iowa-style model, each student submits their piece typically without giving their peers any contextual notes, and during the workshop session, the writer whose piece is being workshopped remains quiet, akin to a fly on the wall, allowed to speak and ask questions only at the very end, after all others have commented. A frequently offered rationale for this model is that this mimics what happens with published work: it is released without the writer having the opportunity to speak to all its readers. As a former writing professor of mine once put it: “Practically speaking, you can't go around stalking everyone who buys your book and whisper in their ear.”
I get the point, in theory. “Good writing” should not require more than what’s on the page; the work is supposed to speak for itself. And yet, in practice, this translates to the writer having little say in the feedback process for their own work while it’s still a work-in-progress, while it’s still a fledgling—not yet ready to fly off and leave the nest. (To state the obvious, the rationale for retaining the traditional model falls apart when we consider that the piece being workshopped is not the final published version.) It also means that valuable workshop time—precious minutes that instead could go into providing meaningful comments—is often directed toward addressing confusions that could quickly be remedied by turning to ask the author. (Case in point: a former MFA student recounts a horrific workshop experience involving her peers arguing over what dim sum is.)
Another case in point: The first time I got workshopped, I submitted a short story loosely based on the facts of a U.S. Supreme Court case. Because the story did not reference the case by name, I wanted to provide background on the facts and the eventual ruling, and how it inspired my story. At the start of my workshop session, I asked the instructor if I could offer a few words to contextualize the piece. He seemed jolted, which suggested to me this must have been the first time a student had made such a request. To his credit, he acquiesced, but I could sense his disapproval in his curt reply. “Fine,” he said, “if you must.”
But what if we were to imagine a different format for our workshops? What if, instead of peers dictating their comments to the muted writer, we actually ask the writer what they’d like feedback on and how they’d like it? And what if, instead of silencing the writer as the default mode during workshop, we empower them to speak, ask and answer questions, and help steer the feedback conversation?
Just as a doctor or therapist would not medicate a patient without an initial check-up assessment, workshop participants should consider asking each writer for their feedback preferences before offering the feedback.
In peer review literature, the concept of asking the writer for their feedback preferences is not new. In fact, there’s been decades of scholarship that have included proposals of a more writer-centric model to writing groups. In the late 1980s, Professors Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff published a book setting out alternative peer review models that could be tailored, among other factors, to the writer’s “preferences or temperament, the kind of piece being worked on, and the stage it’s at.” The underlying idea behind Elbow and Belanoff’s proposals is that it is the writer, not their peers or the instructor, who should have the most say.
But the choice of feedback type is only one element of the overall workshop process. Perhaps just as important is how feedback is given—its forms and methods of delivery. Here, too, writer preferences vary. For example, does the writer want their peers to give them written feedback via a response letter, and if so, when: before or after workshop? Does the writer want in-line, textual comments or ones that are more broad strokes? Would the writer prefer comments to come in the form of questions or “what if…” statements (as at least one creative writing professor has proposed), as opposed to the declarative sentence structure we typically associate with feedback, "You should consider doing X"?
And what about the workshop session itself? If we truly intend to give back to the writer control over their feedback process then it seems only fitting that we also extend that to decisions as to workshop flow and structure. Here, again, the agenda should not be dictated to but rather by the writer; they should have input and also be permitted to interject if they feel the session is headed in a direction that is not either serving them or their work. (An added benefit of setting a clear agenda: predictability and structure can help calm the writer's nerves!)
These days, my mother knows to check in with my grandmother before she starts to cook, and my grandmother does not hesitate to tell my mom what she wants for dinner. In a similar vein, imagine—just imagine—a world in which the writer is asked for their preferred method of feedback: what they want and how they want it.
Would that not leave all of us nourished and satisfied?
Feedback preferences, like thirst levels, vary!