The Writing Workshop and Its Variations

The draft workshop is the fundamental, flexible tool for teaching writing. It can also be one of the most fun. On the surface, it is simply a facilitated conversation among students about a draft produced by one of their classmates with the aim of producing a revision strategy. But it is also a construction site for a classroom community embodying an ethos of honest, generous feedback, and a training field for students to become stronger critical readers and writers. As instructors, the draft workshop is where we most try to render ourselves obsolete, over time slowly handing over responsibility for substantive feedback to the class as the students develop the intellectual muscles to handle it. The draft workshop does not necessarily require an eye on the long game: it can be dropped into a class nearly anytime, for any reason, to good effect, so long as you have writing in need of revision and students ready to talk about it. Here is the full forty-minute classic edition of the draft workshop, followed by fifteen of its infinite variations.

The Draft Workshop

Prep Work: Select a student draft for the workshop and distribute it to your class with reasonable lead time. There are many approaches to determining which draft will be workshopped in a given class: ask for a volunteer, designate a student in advance of the deadline, or quickly skim the submitted papers ahead of class to select a draft that has usefully representative strengths and weaknesses. Ask students (save the writer) to read the draft closely and compose a response letter addressed to the author with four components:

  1. A quick summary of what they see as the draft’s motive and thesis.
  2. A specific reflection, with evidence from the text, on one important strength of the draft (often with reference to a high-order Lexicon element, e.g., thesis, motive, analysis, structure).
  3. A specific reflection, with evidence from the text, on one important weakness of the draft.
  4. Specific ideas for how to address the weakness identified in #3 through revision.

The letter should be about a page long and students should bring two hard copies to class on the day of the workshop, along with the draft itself. At the end of class, one copy of the letter goes to the author and the other to you. Be sure to closely read the draft yourself to develop your own sense of its strengths and weaknesses.

Step One: (2 minutes) Open the workshop by asking the writer to briefly—emphasis on briefly—share what he or she is attempting to argue in the draft and then identify one or two hopes for revision and for the discussion to follow.

Step Two: (10 minutes) Open the floor by asking students to identify strengths of the draft and to record their findings on the board. Contributions must be specific; encourage students to “show us in the text.” They should also identify the precise way(s) the identified strength improves the essay (making the thesis more persuasive, introducing complicated evidence in a clear way, deftly addressing a counterargument, and so on). Try to spend at least a quarter of the time you allot to the workshop here, and resist student attempts to pivot to weaknesses.

Step Three: (25 minutes) Once a critical mass of strengths is on the table, move on to areas in need of revision, or what Richard Martin so aptly calls “strengths-in-the-making.” Students should again show evidence from the text itself and explain why, in their view, the specific weakness they identify problematically affects the entire essay. As you record these findings, encourage students to suggest revision strategies to address the concerns, ideally fielding multiple possible approaches for each issue (these will often be mutually exclusive, and that’s fine). The majority of your workshop time will be spent here.

Step Four: (3 minutes) Before the workshop wraps up, pause to consider what has been said and what your copious notes on the board may suggest for next steps. Take a few minutes to talk through what the most important priorities for revision should be. The writer will not be able to address everything, and there will often be competing strategies for revision. Highlight the three or four most important things for the writer to focus on. Do not skip this step; be sure to leave yourself enough time. Close by thanking the writer for sharing their work, and the rest of the class for their considered feedback.

Some Advice for Running the Draft Workshop

As simple as the steps above may be, the draft workshop is actually quite challenging to teach well, particularly early in the semester when students are still getting acclimated to the class and to each other. In time, as a product of early investment on your part, the draft workshop eventually runs itself. But you have to get it there. Below, we revisit each of the four steps to provide some advice we hope proves useful, whether you plan to use the workshop model just once or to make it a recurring feature of your course.

At Step One: Early in the semester, or in your class’s first workshop, the position of being on the “hot seat” can be uncomfortable. Even students who appear relaxed or non-defensive can get unnerved the moment they realize their work is about to go under the microscope. This discomfort typically manifests as a desire to simply keep talking when you hand them the floor at the beginning of the workshop, either by preemptively defending themselves from every attack they can think of, or by proclaiming their draft worthless and apologizing for wasting everyone’s time. In either case, kindly but firmly cut off the monologue and trust that Step Two will help mitigate the fear.

We don’t recommend making any general rules that limit the author’s ability to speak. You will occasionally need to manage an over-talker, but the risks of telling authors to stay silent while their work is discussed are substantially greater. They miss out on the opportunity to clarify their thinking in dialogue with their readers, and even the thickest-skinned among them may end the workshop feeling exposed and disempowered. A draft workshop should be a rigorous and challenging discussion with the author as full participant, not a passive—or aghast—spectator. Another important way to respectfully involve the author is to have students address all their comments and questions about the draft explicitly to the writer. For example, “I thought the paragraph at the bottom of page two was awesome because you really show me there the problem your essay is trying to solve.” Or: “I was wondering if you could say more about the point you bring up on page five? It seems like x evidence from the book might contradict that?”

Students will be tempted to start referring to the writer in the third person and addressing their comments to you, the instructor, since you’re the one standing at the board and facilitating the conversation. Redirecting students to engage directly with the author, and reframing their contributions only if necessary, is a crucial part of your job.

At Step Two: Some students are inclined to view this step as an inefficient “buttering up” of the author before the real work of devastating criticism begins. That’s the case only if it’s done badly. The opening step of appreciation should be just as rigorous, efficient, and real as the work of rigorous, efficient, and compassionate criticism that follows. It’s important for the author to see genuine accomplishments in a draft, not only to encourage confidence for the revision ahead, but also to hedge against reverse revision. If we don’t explicitly identify the strengths and show the author in the text where and how their draft is working well, it’s liable to disappear in the course of revision when addressing the weaknesses to be discussed in Step Three. Moreover, it is often news to the author that the strengths are in fact strong. Novice writers, or even experienced writers lost in the weeds, sometimes need an outsider to point out what is particularly successful.

Even seasoned workshoppers may get impatient with this step. For instance, to force a segue to the paper’s weaknesses their contribution may begin with the construction, “I really like x, but…” A more welcome version of this move is, “I really like x, and you could make it even better by…” (which you should feel free to pursue in detail). While you don’t need to identify every last thing a draft does well, or hold the conversation here longer than is productive, be sure to resist moves that prematurely highlight weaknesses, making that transition only when you’re ready.

You may sometimes find it nerve-wracking to hear students offer praise for an aspect of the draft that actually still needs a lot of work—perhaps especially, “I think you have a really good thesis.” Resist the temptation to leap in immediately and contradict. Instead, that’s precisely the moment to ask the student who is commenting to point to where they see the thesis coming through most clearly in the text of the draft. Keep taking notes on the board. And be patient. In most cases the early praise for the thesis will be balanced out and usefully complicated as soon as Step Three comes around (or even sooner). In the rare cases where students don’t circle around to bring up questions or critiques of the thesis on their own, it’s important to prompt them before the workshop ends. If Rule #1 is Don’t freak out/Let them figure it out, then Rule #2 is Don’t leave them in the dark at the end.

At Step Three: The key to this step is linking the identification of a weakness to a revision strategy. This rule forces students to think constructively and take responsibility for considering how they themselves might respond to problems they uncover. It’s the difference between an exercise in evaluation versus an exercise in collaboration. It’s also a built-in trap for classroom alpha dogs: they’re welcome to propose sophisticated criticism, but then they also need to accept the work of helping their classmate find an escape hatch.

The structure of the conversation nudges the substance of contributions toward generosity, but by itself does nothing to guarantee a professional tone. Tone can be difficult for students to calibrate early, either because they don’t know how or because they don’t want to. An ethos of compassionate, honest criticism is not a mode that all students will naturally inhabit, and you will need to do the work of modeling it for them. One useful approach is to encourage students to frame concerns as a function of their experience as a reader, which keeps the focus on the text and not the writer. The difference between “I become confused at the top of page three when the draft moves to_____” and “You’re confusing at the top of page three when you_____” may seem minor, but the shift from “you” to “I” or “the draft” can make a world of difference in how willingly writers can hear and respond to feedback.

Be prepared to intercept frustrated, mocking, or otherwise insensitive criticism immediately and reframe it the way you want it to be heard. Normally, the simple act of publicly translating a student’s contribution is enough to make the tonal point clear. But be ready to intervene more directly if necessary, especially if the criticism is about the author rather than the draft. While uncomfortable for everyone, doing so protects the writer, preserves the values of the course and the workshop, and demonstrates to the rest of the class that they can trust you to protect them when it’s their turn to share their work. While you might find yourself performing acts of “translation” quite frequently, especially early in a semester, the need for more direct intervention is usually rare. Just as the quality of student feedback improves over time, so does the tenor of their contributions and their willingness to police each other’s tone.

At the other end of the spectrum, some students are so worried about hurting their peers’ feelings or appearing confrontational that they simply refuse to provide honest criticism at all. These students will clam up during Step Three and, if forced to make contributions, will offer vague generalities that dodge the real issues. It can help to ask students to share what they wrote in their response letter. Usually, when they discover they haven’t made an enemy of the author, this concern goes away.

You’ll want to use a lighter hand jumping into the substance of critical suggestions, but you should still do so when you find a contribution to be completely off base. Most of the time, you can invite further dialogue about the point and other students will build the case against it for you. Other times, it’s wise to make a polite show of skepticism while leaving it up to the author to decide what to do.

At Step Four: By now the author has received a barrage of feedback, and whether or not they’ve taken careful notes, whatever revision plan may exist in their head will be forgotten by their next class unless you take a moment to highlight the most important priorities the class has identified for revision. This step allows the author to register the major takeaways, and even if they aren’t yet sure how they will address these priorities, at least they will have a clear sense of where they should focus. It’s usually the case that a rough consensus emerges on what the revision priorities should be, even if there’s some disagreement about which priority is the most important. You should feel free to tilt the scales toward what you see as the best use of the writer’s time.

Variations on Draft a Workshop

Thought-lines: Prior to the workshop, divide students into twos and assign each pair a paragraph in the draft to summarize in a single sentence. Put these sentences on the board and then lead a discussion regarding the paper’s line of argument, or “thought-line.”

Thesis spot-checks: Invite students to rewrite from memory the thesis of the paper being workshopped. Before discussing, ask each student to read their version of the thesis to the class. Break the class into groups of three or four and have each group refine or complicate the paper’s thesis. Regroup and compare definitions, testing them against what the writer thought their thesis was.

Evidence/analysis check: Have students use one color of highlighter to identify evidence in the draft and another color to identify analysis. Then ask them to compare the overall proportion of each color in the paper (to ensure that evidence does not outweigh analysis) as well as where the colors appear (to check for integration of analysis with evidence).

Workshop smaller elements: Workshop titles, abstracts, openers, figures, and tables for all papers in the class. Circulate the papers themselves prior to the workshop or prepare dedicated handouts for the smaller items—all the titles in one document, all the abstracts in another. Then workshop your way through the “little” or “last-minute” pieces that are often overlooked in a draft but still carry great weight.

Writer-run workshop: Have students run their own draft workshops, following these two rules: 1) the writer begins by asking what the class finds promising or exciting about the draft (to ensure that the conversation begins with a focus on what’s working); and 2) the writer asks only questions unless they are responding to a question posed by one of their readers (to ensure that the author maintains a guiding voice in the discussion without overtaking it.

Student moderator: For the later workshops when the class has become skilled at workshopping, choose a student moderator to lead the workshop. Resist the urge to jump in. Let them know they’re in charge.

Small-scale peer response guides: Assign students to groups of two or three and, for homework, have each group circulate and read all drafts from their group and write response letters ahead of time. In class, convene the groups and provide them with a “response guide” handout of questions to discuss about each draft, encouraging them to draw on their response letters during their conversation. (Tip: focus the handout on issues common to all papers.) 

Advisory councils: As the workshop begins, break students into three advisory councils, each charged with a different Lexicon element. For example, the first might focus on thesis, the second on source use, and the third on structure. Allow time for these councils briefly to convene, both to review the Lexicon element(s) and to read the paper under discussion (if they haven’t read it before class). Reconvene the councils when they are ready to offer the draft writer advice.

Highlight general applicability: Have all students in class bring copies of their drafts to the day’s workshop. At appropriate moments during the class as a student’s draft is being workshopped, pause and ask the other students to consider how their own papers might be developed or revised in terms of whatever issue is being discussed. If there’s time after, invite volunteers to share what they learned from the workshop that gave them an idea for improving their draft.

Choose drafts thematically: When choosing two drafts to workshop together in a given class session or week, pair your selections thematically, or in other suggestive ways, to create parallels and synergy between student workshops.

Turn the tables: Workshop the draft of a student whose early draft is strong but who tends to perceive their own writing as weak. This does double duty by building the student’s confidence while providing a strong model for other students in the class. (The method can also be reversed: workshop the problematic draft of an over-confident student to help them acknowledge and address its weaknesses.)

Return to sources: Ask students to bring to class all readings or sources that pertain to the writing assignment. In the midst of or near the end of the workshop, have the class locate passages in these sources that might help enrich—or complicate—the writer’s argument.

Forensic sketch artist: For research paper drafts, invite students to swap only their Works Cited pages with a partner. Ask them each to imagine what kind of an argument the other might be constructing on the basis of the sources alone. Then have them compare the sketch of the “suspect” to the author’s actual intention for the paper, identifying other source types that might usefully help fill in the picture. 

Parallel workshops: Run two parallel workshops in separate rooms, shuttling between them. While the whole class will have read beforehand two students’ drafts, each group will discuss only the one they’ve been assigned to workshop. After thirty minutes or so, have the class reconvene in full to debrief about the generalizable lessons they have identified through the experience.

Dress rehearsal: Before the first real draft workshop of the semester, have the class practice the workshopping steps using a sample student paper. Following this dress rehearsal, invite students to collaborate on generating a list of criteria for what kind of feedback is most useful to receive on a draft. You can refer back to and refine this list throughout the semester.

From The Pocket Instructor: Writing, edited by Amanda Irwin Wilkins and Keith Shaw (Forthcoming, Princeton Univ. Press)