Skip to main content

Avoiding The Workshop Story

In my advanced fiction class last semester, my professor warned us of a new phenomenon that has resulted from the explosion of MFA programs across the country: the “Workshop Story.” This is a piece that is solidly built, carefully constructed, and follows all of the guidelines of a quality story: fully realized characters, an abundance of scene, strong sense of place, conflict where something of importance is at stake, description and imagery, and yet, for all that, something is missing. Quoting Gertrude Stein, my professor said the Workshop Story is a story where “there’s no there there.”

To me, a Workshop Story is the worst possible kind of story a writer can write. Personally, I’d rather write a flat-out bad story, because at least when I re-read it, I can’t trick myself into thinking it’s a good. But a workshop story is more insidious: on the surface it appears authentic, profound, meaningful. But really, it isn’t about anything. It’s the difference between a Lady Gaga song—which is purposely fluffy meta-pop, reveling in its plasticity, and one of those awful adult-rock ballads you hear on radio stations like 101.9, The Mix!, which actually tries to sound earnest, but which is really just a hollow, soulless, overproduced pile of drivel.

I’ve been thinking about Workshop Stories lately because in my class this semester, all we are doing is judging the work of our fellow students (most of whom I don’t know personally since Columbia’s fiction writing department has 700 students when you combine undergrad and grad classes, as is our practice). The task is to cull the very best work for our literary anthology from a massive stack of 2,000+ manuscripts that have already been prescreened by our professors. As you may imagine, there is some remarkably beautiful work in there, some not-so-strong stuff, and yes, some Workshop Stories. Once I read one, I immediately thought of Randy’s words last semester: the story was good….and yet, there was no there there. On a first read through, you might think it passes muster. But as soon as you put it down, you’ve already forgotten what it’s about.

This of course leads into a question that every MFA student has been asked at one point or another: can writing actually be taught? The answer, I believe, is yes. But what my professor is getting at, I think, is that while craft can be learned, soul—the “there”-- can’t. The problem is, of course, that it’s so difficult to judge our own writing. I can read others’ work and detect the Workshop Stories I come across. I can differentiate them from the really good stuff. But what about my own writing? Is there a way to tell then?

Tailer vs. Tailor vs. Taylor (Grammar Rules)

Tailer vs. Tailor vs. Taylor (Grammar Rules)

Let's look at the differences between tailer, tailor, and Taylor with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Advice on Writing Characters From a Psychologist

Advice on Writing Characters From a Psychologist

Go deeper into the minds of your characters where motivation lives with this advice on writing characters from psychologist and author Rebecca Alexander.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Truth Denial

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Truth Denial

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character (or characters) deny the objective truth.

4 Questions To Ask When Writing Romantic Scenes

4 Questions To Ask When Writing Romantic Scenes

Whether you’re writing a romance novel or simply a romantic moment in your story, M.M. Crane poses 4 questions to ask yourself when writing romantic scenes.

Ben Acker: On Writing Scary Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

Ben Acker: On Writing Scary Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

Ben Acker discusses the joy of reading scary stories growing up that led him to write his new middle-grade horror collection, Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires.

How Freelance Writers Are Using TikTok to Find Success

How Freelance Writers Are Using TikTok to Find Success

TikTok is one of the hotter social media platforms, but it's more than just BookTok. Author C. Hope Clark shares how freelance writers are using TikTok to find success.

Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman: On Trusting Each Other in the Co-Writing Process

Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman: On Trusting Each Other in the Co-Writing Process

Authors Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman discuss the experience of going from friends to writing partner with their new nonfiction book, Courageous Discomfort.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 628

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a reflection poem.

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: The Weight of Blood

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: The Weight of Blood

The editors of Writer’s Digest are proud to announce the next book club selection, The Weight of Blood, by New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson.