How is work evaluated in an MFA Creative Writing workshop?*
The first thing to note is that the classroom is called a workshop. The idea being that instruction comes via creative collaboration. The intent is not to have an expert telling novices how to do something (we aren’t learning thoracic surgery or small engine repair). The goal is to get hands-on with the medium and discover what can happen.
Three or four of the ten or twelve students submit a piece via email a week before the session. Participants prepare by reading the submitted work and notating it (by hand or electronically) where it is not functioning to potential – voice, character, pace, organization, etc. – or where it is working well. The goal is to assist the author in making the piece what they want it to be. So comments like, “if this happened, that would be really cool” are not considered helpful.
At meeting time (my current one meets every Wednesday night from 6-8:30PM) everyone brings their marked copies and the pieces are discussed openly – each getting about twenty minutes. The professor (a published novelist and professional teacher) chimes in regularly with expert commentary and instruction from which everyone benefits. The author of the piece being reviewed is not permitted to speak. The idea is that the work must stand on its own. The author simply listens and takes notes – lots of them.
When the discussion is over, the author is permitted a few minutes to comment or ask questions (it is poor form for the author to defend the piece). Then everyone (including the professor) hands the author their marked copies and he/she takes these home to review and consider for their next draft.
This event of having your story “workshopped” is as good as it gets. Having a group of 8-12 people, who are equally serious about writing, converse about what makes good writing is a sort of oxygen. As in any craft, knowing where and why you are missing (or hitting!) the mark is essential to developing expertise.
*At least in the ones I have been in. I believe that our experience is fairly typical. Although there is some chatter about variations on this theme – should the author speak, should everyone submit every week, etc.