Monday, September 23, 2019

Kay Keegan: 11 Commandments of Workshop

Improv comedy is all about listening and collaborating with fellow players on stage, which seems eerily similar to the standard workshop model many of us are familiar with. Del Close, founder of the ImprovOlympic based in Chicago, outlined the core principles of improvisational acting in a list aptly titled, “The 11 Commandments of Improv.” As someone who has taught first-year composition and rhetoric, and undergraduate creative writing workshops, I think of Close’s philosophy on improv as a valuable touchstone for shaping student needs and desires in receiving helpful feedback on their own writing.

I began using Close’s “11 Commandments” as an MFA student a few years ago, TA-ing for introductory writing coursework. My cohort and I were given the freedom to create course themes that suited our personal interests which we could then use to enhance a set curriculum. As a humor writer, I developed “Rhetoric of Comedy” as my course theme, fantasizing that every student who walked into my class would have a stellar sense of humor (they did not) and that every last one of them would be excited to talk about comedy on a regular basis (they were not). Their resistance to rising out of their seats and playing improv games instead of those lame and hopelessly awkward “icebreakers” should have been my first clue that I’d be teaching a more reserved class, but damn it, I wanted to teach a fun class.

I developed a lesson plan that introduced my students to Del Close’s improv philosophy. We first read his original set of commandments and discussed how improv comedy could intersect with writing and revision processes. Depending on the class, we either revised Close’s commandments into “11 Commandments of Peer Review” for my first-year comp writers, or “11 Commandments of Workshop” for my creative writing students. After fleshing out 11 possible commandments, if there were any clear redundancies by the end of the exercise or if certain commandments didn’t feel valuable, we would vote as a class on which commandments got booted off the island. While 11 commandments for workshop is totally manageable and comprehensive, I’ve had students whittle down the list to as few as 6 commandments in the past and we still had fruitful discussions about writing. These newly established commandments served as pillars for the practice of writing and class conduct during conversations about a student’s work.

I’m enamored with this lesson plan--almost stupid enough to believe it’s foolproof--because of its flexibility more than anything else. This exercise and accompanying discussion are easily transferrable beyond composition or creative nonfiction. It can be tailored to the needs of a fiction or poetry workshop. So, you’re probably waiting with bated breath for Del Close’s “11 Commandments of Improv.” I’ll offer them now with companion commandments to facilitate a productive workshop.

11 Commandments of Improv/Workshop

1. You are all supporting actors.

You are all supportive writers.

2. Always check your impulses.

Follow your impulses and revise them later.

3. Never enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
As a writer, you can vocalize your concerns if the discussion of your work is moving in a tangential direction that is not useful to you.

As a peer, you do not need to belabor a specific critique if someone else has already addressed it. You can simply make a marginal note in the writer’s draft if it hasn’t been formally addressed in the comment letter you’ve written. You can also respectfully disagree with other people’s opinions.

4. Save your fellow actor, don`t worry about the piece.

Encourage your fellow writer. Respect the writer and offer a fair critique of their work.

5. Your prime responsibility is to support.

Your prime responsibility is to help improve upon the writer’s draft.

6. Work at the top of your brains at all times.

Yes, workshops that last 3 hours are way too long even with the most charismatic and generous group of writers, but until we come up with a universal solution to shorten the length of workshop while still supplying vital feedback, please do your best to maintain energy. Everyone has had to go last in workshop at some point, and it always feels like you’re getting the shaft if your peers look and act visibly drained. Beg your workshop leader for designated break times if they aren’t locked down on the first day. Bring snacks.

That said, sometimes the best course of action is dismissing workshop early. If you feel like you’ve sufficiently covered everything, there’s no reason to kill time with a bogus writing exercise when it’s clear everyone wants to go home.

7. Never underestimate or condescend to your audience.

As writers, make bold choices. Workshop is supposed to be the designated space for testing new material. Trust that your readers will stick it out to the very end.

8. No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke).

As writers, trying to land jokes on the page is like putting a dog colony on Mars. Lucky for us, we can keep writing jokes with little to no financial risk. Jokes work best with fewer words. Jokes are different from anecdotes. Anecdotes are different from essays. For the love of god, read your stuff aloud! What kind of humor are you using, and what is its actual rhetorical purpose? We most often use humor to reveal or conceal human error in our daily lives. How and why do you use humor in your own writing?

As peers, even if shit gets awkward, you’ll be doing the writer a favor when you point out that their writing is not funny, especially if the humor they use is malicious in its intent or more simply careless.

9. Trust. Trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.

Trust. Trust your fellow writers to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself. Also, trust that no one will take it personally when your comment letters aren’t a full single-spaced page in length. That’s an arbitrary requirement for showing investment in a person’s work.

10. Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.

Avoid giving prescriptive feedback on an essay unless that feedback is specifically requested by the writer. Rather than offering a revision suggestion by saying “I want…” reframe that suggestion as a “What if…” Thinking about what themes drive a piece, its present strengths, and finally how specific craft elements are working to achieve a top-notch essay are always excellent jumping off points for a discussion.


LISTEN and accept with a grain of salt. Sometimes your peers, or even your workshop leader, will miss the point of your draft, they might ask stupid questions when the answers seem so plain, they might let the discussion spiral out of orbit. All of this is evidence of being human and not bad writing. You’re in this workshop for a reason. Not just to become a better writer, but to become a better advocate for your own writing and the writing of others. You should feel free to SPEAK UP.


Kay Keegan graduated from Oregon State University with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She has since learned that time spent playing music, watching baseball, sitting in hot tubs, and cat-sitting are all integral to her writing process. Kay has a limited publication history, because she is currently pursuing a PhD in English at Ohio University.

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