The Difference Between an F and an A in My Class

I’m delighted to say that I’ll be back to teaching some creative writing this spring, and I hope to share what I teach, as well as what I learn, with Writerly Life. I enjoy teaching essay-writing and literature, but it is an entirely different bag — it’s my real passion and pleasure to share what I know about fiction, not about writing organized essays.

This past semester gave me a clearer sense of what the difference between succeeding and failing in my class really entails. In an essay class, that includes listening to instructions, citing your sources, and learning your grammar. But the difference between success and failure in a creative writing class is far blurrier, at least from a student’s perspective. So I’d like to lay out what I look for in successful student writing, as well as what we all should be doing when we participate in a writing workshop. First I’ll look at the participating part of things, and then I’ll look at the actual writing.


A college-level writing workshop is all about learning, and if you want a good grade, it’s about showing your teacher your eagerness to learn. That includes avoiding all those teacher pet peeves, like coming in late, handing in work late, or sending poorly spelled, rudely worded emails in the middle of the night before the assignment is due, asking questions that were answered in class. But for a creative writing workshop, there’s more that’s expected. You’ve got to participate; that means not only listening to what your peers have to say about your own work, but reading their work and commenting thoughtfully on it. It means having something to say about every single student piece that’s up for discussion — and finding something nice to say about every piece, too. If I call on you in class, I’ll expect you to have feedback that’s both critical and kind.


Of course, the workshop is supposed to be mostly about student writing. But again, the grade here is more about listening than immediate mastery. If you hand in a first work that’s pretty shaky (and get a pretty shaky grade), then I expect the student to be able to listen carefully to feedback in class and understand what peers are getting hung up on. Often the suggestions will be wrong, but the fact that they are stumbling over a particular point is legitimate. That point probably needs work. And when you come back with a revision or with your next work, I expect to see that you’ve listened and worked at your weaknesses.

Another thing that can be the difference between a strong and a weak submission is the level of risk-taking a student is willing to take. If I see story after story about what you did on your summer vacation, I’ll be bored to tears — and ready to grade you harshly. As I explain on the first day of class, I expect you to write something that you would be embarrassed to show your parents. That doesn’t mean it has to include sensitive or personal material; it means it has to show something that is deeply felt, vulnerable, and bold. Safe, innocuous writing isn’t going to fly.

So if you’re in my creative writing class, or any creative writing class, and you want to do well, I’d advise you to pay attention, do the reading, talk in class, ask questions, think hard, be bold, revise, fail, revise, and fail again. That’s really the only path to success — at least in the small corner of the universe where I make the rules.

One comment

  1. BLH, I enjoyed reading this post. When I was in college and at the university, I found that the best way to keep my attention on the class was to sit in the front row and participate a lot. It kept my attention from wandering.

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