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Thinking Like a Poetry Editor:  How to Be Your Own Best Critic
 

(“The Ossmann Method” Poetry Workshop)

I am dedicated to teaching creative writers how to be better self-editors. My work as an editor and publisher has taught me to be more objective about editing my poetry, and it’s so enlightening and empowering that I am excited to share it. With that goal in mind, I developed a new teaching method for creative writing workshops which essentially reverses the traditional model, and so far, it has been very successful. The essay below provides a description of how I developed the method and how I teach it. If you are a teacher or workshop leader, I hope you will feel free to use this method in your own poetry (or prose) workshops.

"Turning the Writing Workshop Model on Its Head: 'The Ossmann Method'”

For the last six years, I have been teaching employing a new workshop model that creates such a positive learning experience I’d like to share it. I know from talking with colleagues that I’m not alone in my desire for a new creative writing workshop model. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, I was dissatisfied with the traditional creative writing workshop model without knowing exactly why. It wasn’t until I’d been a professional editor for a few years that I identified what bothered me and developed a method to address it. I first taught it in 2005, for a Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance weekend workshop seminar, and called it “Thinking Like a Poetry Editor: How to Be Your Own Best Critic.” Since then it has been suggested to me several times that I call it the “Ossmann Method,” which suggests to me that I have something worth sharing.

The traditional model, wherein the writer being critiqued sits silently during the process, is a sometimes more and sometimes less positive model, depending on the teacher’s emphasis (what isn’t working in the writing vs. what is, the level of tact, etc.). The dynamic, in my experience as both writer and teacher, is always a dependent, disempowering one for the writer who sits silently, being instructed as to how to improve. It was in joining my desire to teach writers how to be more objective in revising their own work (by learning to think more like professional editors) and my desire to create a workshop model engendering self-discovery, self-confidence, self-trust and true collegiality, that I first imagined a workshop format that effectively reverses both the traditional model and its controlling dynamic.

I have been teaching using this model for three years now at The Writer’s Center in White River Jct., Vermont, and also demonstrated the method at the Stonecoast MFA January 2009 residency. Its effect has been dramatic for participants (several of whom have asked for permission to use the model in their own workshop teaching):

Thank you for your words about my poems.  I must tell you that Saturday had such an impact on me, that I'm ‘seeing’ them and ‘working’ on them as per the critiquing discussion—word choices, deletions, etc.  This hasn't happened to me before as the result of any workshop...I've always thought of this as incubation, but this after-effect is purposeful and focused.  It is excellent discipline before hitting the keyboard— or putting pen to paper.  Thank you again!  —Peggy Sapphire

Here’s how the method works:

I begin workshops by asking each participant to describe—instead of giving their bio—one of their writerly obsessions: a stylistic technique or poetic or prose device, a favorite word or image, theme or subject. Participants enjoy this and it is a good first step in learning to observe themselves as writers.

I turn the traditional workshop model on its head by asking the author being critiqued to speak first and critique her/his own work, noting correlations between the criticisms s/he has for other participants’ works (written down in advance of the workshop) and her/his own before group discussion of the work begins. This offers a taste of what it means to be both writer and editor, a position in which it becomes easier to objectively self-assess—and harder to ignore the need; to spot dull vs. energetic syntax or dialogue, generic vs. original imagery and other strengths and weaknesses previously overlooked. It also empowers the writer in the process, and engenders an unusually positive and congenial workshop environment.

Advance preparation by the participants is required for the success of this model, and so far, students have found the preparation valuable and instructive. It is in performing this work that the student first begins to learn editorial objectivity about their writing:

PARTICIPANT ADVANCE PREPARATION

Please read, critique and annotate other participants’ work before attempting to critique your own, and use the notes to inform your critique of yours.

Please prepare tactful, written comments to offer verbally to other participants, listing a minimum of two strengths and weaknesses for each work. It is as important to learn your strengths as it is to learn your weaknesses, otherwise you risk succeeding only by accident. After you have finished this, please do the same for your work.

Please bring your annotated copies of participant work to give to the authors.

Some suggested strengths/weaknesses to look for in preparing for workshop (the following list includes both poetic and prose techniques, and many apply to both genres):

OSSMANN METHOD WORKSHOP FORMAT

Author Self-critique

Group (and teacher) response

A final word about “the Ossmann Method”: because the writer critiques her/himself first, the sting is taken out of the other’s critiques, and the writers, instead of feeling vulnerable and defensive, authors feel intelligent and competent, learning to see their own work with a new perspective, and to trust that inner voice so often repressed or ignored. I hope that others will feel free to try this workshop model…and watch the magic happen!I am glad to provide demonstrations of this workshop method; and also (if you email me at: aprilossmann@hotmail.com) to provide my advance preparations for the Ossmann Method workshop imn PDF format for easy use.


April Ossmann was the executive director of Alice James Books from 2000 - 2008. She is the author of Anxious Music (Four Way Books) and has published poetry in numerous journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, Harvard Review and Colorado Review, and in anthologies including From the Fishouse (Persea Books, 2009), and is the recipient of several awards for her poetry, including a 2013 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and a Prairie Schooner Readers' Choice Award.

She has also published essays including Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript (Poets & Writers, March/April 2011), and a biography/critical study of poet Lynda Hull in American Writers Supplement XXI (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2011).
She is the poetry editor-in-residence for the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Sierra Nevada College at Lake Tahoe. and teaches guest poetry workshops regionally, using a non-traditional workshop method she developed intended to teach poets to revise their work more objectively (as an editor would).