Tradeoffs Part 1 supplement —Using tradeoffs to enrich workshop discussions

James Baldwin.  Image via .

James Baldwin.  Image via


In my brief career as a teacher of creative writing, I’ve already learned that no group of students will ever agree on whether they like a particular piece of writing, even if that writing is by someone as exemplary as James Baldwin.

Thus, when a workshop conversation takes up a piece of writing by one of the students, I find that talking about a piece’s merits, a matter of opinion, draws our attention away from the work, which is why I invite students to report their experience of reading.

The other thing I ask them to do is to talk in terms of tradeoffs, so that we develop a way of talking about a piece on which all can agree. 

“I like present tense here.  It’s exciting.” 

A statement such as this, which is really all about the reader and not the work, presents an opportunity to push for a richer understanding of the tradeoffs made by the artist.  Conversations that push the students’ understanding will result in more thoughtful responses . . .

“Why did I like the present tense here?  Well, present tense lends the writing immediacy because you get the sense things are happening now.  On the other hand, it sacrifices perspective because the events are not recalled after the narrator has had time to consider her surroundings.  Still, because this scene was relatively short and I had received some perspective on what led up to this point of the story, I enjoyed the change of tempo provided by the rush of the present tense.”

This second response explores tradeoffs made by the writer and the reading experience that followed.  It takes the students to a deeper understanding of what they do as writers and readers.

Thank you for reading.