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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Grading Contract Journey Part II: Fiction Writing

A different kind of journey toward de-grading.

January 9, 2017


My desire to change how I used grades in my introductory fiction writing class came from the same place as my desire for change in first-year writing; what I was doing didn’t seem to be working as well as I wished.


The journey was a bit different, however.

Early on, I did what had been done to me, relying on creative writing “lore” as my guide. For the first 5-6 weeks we worked through Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft learning the different elements of fiction while reading and attempting to analyze highly accomplished published works from writers like Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Cheever.[1]

The remainder of the semester was given over to “workshop,” where, in turn, students would write their own stories, which we’d read, critique, and then discuss as a collective group. Each student would write two original stories, and then “revise” one of them for the final.

After relying on this lore for a couple semesters I began to chafe. I wasn’t pleased with how little fiction students were writing in a fiction writing class, two stories plus one revision in 16 weeks. The average student would produce 6000-7000 words, and that only if the revision was robust. (Often not, because there wasn’t enough time to honor a full revision process.)

Meanwhile, they were writing over 15,000 words of critique.[2] Ten weeks of class was set aside for the “workshop,” in which our discussions of the individual stories took on a certain sameness long before each student had their two trips to the plate.

It felt rote, boring.

While I’m a believer in the value of critique of others as a way for writers to reflect on their own work, I was already a skeptic as to the true value to the original author of having 20 people bat their story around for 40 minutes in a workshop setting. As a creative writing student myself I learned some stuff in workshop, but I never actually revised a story after workshopping it. The process inevitably left whatever I was working on lifeless, my own interest drained out of the project.

The workshop model of instruction felt to me like a concession to making creative writing seem more “academic.” It didn’t seem to be doing that much for my students.

I wanted to remedy the imbalance between the amount of writing fiction and the amount of critiquing fiction students were doing, so I began assigning what I called “warm-up” stories, full-length stories written from prompts, sometimes over a period as short as a weekend.

These stories were ungraded, either completed or not, according to a minimum word count. They would exchange them with one peer, but because of the demands of time, would get very little feedback from me.

All by itself this doubled the amount of fiction students were writing during the semester, and I figured those “warm-up” stories were helping prepare them for the “real thing” of the workshop.

On the workshop stories, while they received copious written feedback and individual conferences, I also stopped telling the students the grade I’d assigned to the story until the end of the semester when I finally had to add everything together.

This worked better: students were writing more, grades were deemphasized, and discussion was focused not on how “good” something was, but on the elements of fiction we were putting into practice.

But I still had some lingering concerns:

1. Students often expressed severe – as in throwing up before class – anxiety over the workshop process. They perceived the stakes as being extremely high. Some trepidation over sharing your creative work with others is natural and expected. This struck me as extreme and something I should seek to mitigate.

2. Workshop stories often seemed “safe,” written to a kind of internalized formula. This was especially true the 2nd time through, as students were clearly writing to the predilections of their classmates.[3]

3. Withholding the letter grade from the students even as I had one in the grade book just felt, for lack of a better word, shitty. How could I insist that “grades don’t matter” and “you can’t grade art” while putting a grade on their work?

4. The writing that showed the most spark, the most energy, and ultimately, the most promise, was being done in those low-stakes “warm-up” stories.

Can you see the light bulb appearing above my head?

Without fully realizing it, I’d evolved the course curriculum into something ideally suited for a grading contract.

When it comes to learning to write, if more is better, I merely needed to incentivize more work.

As I wrote previously, the shift to a contract that privileges the amount of labor worked better than I could’ve hoped.

It was me, not the students, who needed to change. I’d held on to the power and discretion of grading their work for what I now believe to be a sop to my own ego, and a desire to control student learning.

I think I wanted to make myself indispensable to their experience, to be the source of transformation. I now believe that if students are going to transform, they must do it for themselves, and my role is to create an atmosphere maximally conducive to that transformation.

With the de-graded contract, students are writing more, and more importantly feel free to take risks in their writing.

Some of the students who will go on and do interesting and exciting writing took some mighty swings this semester, but when looking at the story as it existed at the end, it’s clear they struck out.

But if you’re going to write, you’re going to fail, and the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is the willingness (or stubbornness)to keep going up to the plate again and again and again.

If the only outcome of the course is that students want to keep writing, to me, that’s success.




[1] I revere the work of all of these writers. It’s just interesting to me how quickly and thoroughly certain texts get enshrined in the lore.

[2] 20 students, 2 stories/student = 38 critiques x 400 word/critique min = 15,000 words

[3] Sometimes this even included in-jokes that would only be understandable if you’d been in this very specific class. The idea that students were writing for those 19 other people, rather than a broader audience, bothered me.

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