Talking Back

April 18, 2019 § 10 Comments

Many of us have sat in the classic writing workshop: the class reads a piece, a discussion happens, the writer keeps their head down and doesn’t talk. At the end of the conversation, the author might get to ask a couple of questions for clarification, or perhaps say something about their intention in writing the piece.

This can be useful—it’s good for writers to learn to listen to critique without defending against it, or pushing back with “what I meant to say was…” because if it’s not on the page, we didn’t say it. It can also be traumatic, especially if the class misinterprets a point in the story and spends the whole time arguing about a meaning that doesn’t matter.

In playwriting, authors often have help. The “dramaturg” is a writing coach/researcher/helper/challenger who assists the playwright. In post-performance discussions, or after rewrites in rehearsal, the dramaturg often leads the discussion, making sure the author’s concerns are addressed. The dramaturg asks follow-up questions, gets audience members and actors to clarify points, redirects the discussion if “how you should write this” starts bubbling up, and afterward, helps the writer process and apply the feedback that’s most helpful to their work.

Writing teachers do some of the same work leading workshop, but often, their job is focused on keeping the workshop moving as a whole, rather than being an individual writer’s advocate. Sometimes, workshops go off the rails or turn into a pile-on, leaving the writer bruised and defensive, or questioning their writing ability rather than the impact of a specific essay. Without an active mediator, it’s hard to truly receive feedback and weed out what’s helpful from what was a tangent in the discussion.

At Lithub, Beth Nguyen argues for a sea change:

Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.

When she began teaching nonfiction, she discovered a key issue. The space of discussing memoir and essay is even harder, because in critiquing the work, there is always some element of talking about the author. Nguyen points out that with cultural and racial context missing between writers and readers, this can be a terrible experience for the author, particularly for underrepresented students.

I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.

When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.

The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.

When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.

In her classes, Nguyen further incorporated the writers’ agency (and the role of the dramaturg) by encouraging students to set the tone of the discussion they wanted to have. Her writers submitted their work for discussion with an added statement of what they hoped to cover, including areas in their work of particular concern in this draft. And,

On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop.

Nguyen writes about how this method sometimes blends with classic “author-doesn’t-talk” workshop style, and what benefits she’s seen in her students work, and her own, from opening up the discussion to include the author. Many of us seeing frustration in our students—and ourselves—can benefit from talking more in workshop.

Read Beth Nguyen’s whole essay at LitHub.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 10 Responses to Talking Back

  • gmabrown says:

    I love this. I have been in both types of critique groups, this one for six years, facilitated by Laura Davis includes learning how to offer feedback, the writer guides what they believe they want, what type, then are told what works, good lines pointed out, confidence builds. Places of confusion, what was missing, what readers wanted more of, image, internal monologue, detail, questions asked, Nguyen style. I work to defend, but also to share my struggle.In this way, learn the craft, deepen my own understanding.

  • bethfinke says:

    Love the line about demand instead of opening. Might also be a good guideline for political discussions these days — less punishment, and more conversation. _____

  • Thanks for this post, Allison. Good food for thought for my writing critique group; I’ll be sharing your ideas with them.

  • Interesting. The only feedback I get from my writing is through the comments.

  • Amy Holman says:

    Good post, Allison. I agree with this method. The workshop can be the testing ground for a piece of writing and the start of the resolution of its problems in communicating. Everyone learns from this process. Too bad we can’t all have dramaturgs, especially when a book gets reviewed.

  • Insightful. Having only participated in fiction workshops, the idea of workshopping memoir–like, in front of people sitting there–sounds terrifying to me. I do think being able to respond might take some of the terror out of the equation.

  • Beth Peyton says:

    This is wonderful. I’ve been thinking about exactly this when I began paying attention to Hamilton, when I saw places like Joe’s Pub, where plays get workshopped. It takes a village…easier for the facilitator of the author is silent,, perhaps, and some people can’t seem to be quiet to hear comments on their work unless it’s the rule. But! Thanks for bringing this to us, Allison.

  • Josie says:

    I’ve been wanting to introduce this way of ‘discussing’ work to my writers’ group which has been an old school ‘writer shut up’ type. So glad to see some validation for it since I was just making it up from my gut as to my needs as a writer and what aggravated me about the don’t talk version. There are problems with ‘they talk only’ when the writer can’t ask someone to clarify what they mean or how they want you to do that. Trying to remember what each person said is a problem because you can’t write their comments down as fast as they speak or a couple people jump in at the same time when you’re trying to listen and absorb. That process seemed only half the battle to me, I think a mix would be best. Of course, there have to be some guidelines for the writer so they don’t get too protective, busy explaining or unable to take comments/critiques. Great article, thanks.

  • The enlightenments about the differences between a demand and an opening are very interesting. The choice to go with openings rather than demands not only lead to an open and inclusive discussion but it also makes sense. Considering a story is something to discover, what is the point if the reader can guess how the writer will approach the facts?

    Anyway, thank you for this article!

  • vipinamethi says:


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