HOLMES: Workshop U

Taoisms
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Photo by Taotao Homes.

Ever since I became a semi-self-aware human being, my closest friends have always been my finest editors. They are not English majors, publications pundits or even bloggers, but they are astute observers, smart critics and painfully accurate commentators. For years now, we have been each other’s dedicated workshop partners, realizing that there’s no such thing as a final draft — the term itself is an oxymoron — and that to get any better, drafts demand revision.

Tao Tao HolmesIf you’ve ever taken a writing seminar at Yale, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of a writing workshop. At some point in the semester, you distribute copies of your essay-in-progress to the class, and everyone reads it, makes edits, writes comments and then sits around deconstructing and reconstructing what you’ve created.

The best workshoppers are the ones whose comments reflect the time and attention they’ve given to your draft. On the other hand, smiley faces and vapid, repetitive praise are about as useful as Q-tips to clean the kitchen floor. Good workshop partners point out the nuances you’ve failed to consider, the sentences that are out of place, the conclusion that doesn’t align with the rest of the piece. They ask you to clarify the key themes or locate the main drama. Sometimes you don’t know what either of those are yet, but that’s fine because it’s only a draft.

If we are all, in our own particular ways, drafts — that is, works in progress — I’m told that college is a time we’re meant to undergo significant revision. But our own editorial eyes can only discern so much, especially when afflicted with chronic myopia.

Picking good workshop partners, then — befriending pairs of eyes that possess the perfect balance of proximity and distance, support and critique — seems rather pivotal.

Writing classes offer oodles of workshopping tips, predicated on the fundamental belief that the best writing is rewriting. One tip that many of us tend to ignore while at Yale is the simple mantra: Less is more. Sometimes it takes a workshop buddy to help cross out all those paragraphs we left in our drafts just because they were there in high school. But there’s only room for so much; New Yorker staffer and former Yalie Sarah Stillman ’06 goes by the Rule of Five: Pick the five most critical pieces of material for the piece, because, she says, how much can you realistically pack in?

Slashing paragraphs leads to the need to restructure. Editor of the New Republic Franklin Foer will tell you that much of the time, structure grows out of an experimental methodology. Unfortunately, he says, writers get wedded to certain structures and it becomes very hard for them to detach. That’s when your workshoppers push you to consider alternatives and remind you that maybe you don’t need to go by an existing, fixed structure — to try moving your third paragraph (trip to Antarctica) after the sixth (learning to code) and switching parts two (work) and four (baby). Restructuring might end up making your ending much stronger.

Switching up the order means altering your transitions. Writer Donald Antrim is a transition guru; Antrim might say transitions are a core element of your piece as a whole. But how should they be handled? Is it better to create gradual segues or jump from one section to the next? How do you handle the changes, emotionally? E.B. White would advise you to use sentiment without sentimentality, though you’re not beholden to his advice.

Author and professor Anne Fadiman lauds the benefits of error and failure and of allowing your subjects to teach you. Save all your previous drafts and avoid repeating the same mistakes — misusing “lay” and “lie” or getting bogged down in peripheral minutiae. The people in your draft might be its most important element — more important, even, than structure or details.

Perhaps three of the most valuable questions your workshoppers should be asking, at Yale and far beyond, are those that Professor Fred Strebeigh demands of every draft: Who is the author? Why is the author in the piece? How did the author get into this piece? Isaac Singer might want to note, “I only write what only I can write.”

But these are only a few suggestions from some writers whose eyes have encountered many drafts, all at different stages in the writing and revising process. These writers don’t know you, but there are incredible people at this school who do, or some time will. I myself could not have asked for a better workshop group; I have traveled through Yale with no dearth of comment and critique, surrounded by friends who challenge my thoughts, question my choices and undermine my assumptions, forcing me to constantly revise and redraft. As we head into exams and final papers, let’s not ignore our most important drafts — the ones we never hand in.

TaoTao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.

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