For years, I did not show anyone anything I wrote--ever! But in the last six months, I have come out of the writing closet and participated in three different workshops in which I not only let people see something I wrote, I listened to them discuss it! GAH!!!! Talk about nerve-wracking! Thankfully, my workshops were, for the most part, positive experiences. And although I have learned to be a bit wary, both of what I hear and for how I offer feedback to others, I do think there is value in workshopping.
A workshop is a type of critique group that allows a writer to get constructive feedback on a piece of writing. Usually the piece is distributed before the workshop to give participants time to read and annotate everyone else's work (which will then be given to the writer later), and then the group meets to discuss the story, poem, essay, etc. The workshop discussion usually includes a writing professional (teacher, editor, author) and peers working at a similar level to you (classmates, other writers).
Although workshopping a piece is meant to provide constructive feedback for the writer to make the piece better, that's not always what ends up happening. In her book about creative writing, Method and Madness, Alice LaPlante writes "The results of a workshop can be magical, or brutal, or extraordinarily helpful, or ludicrously unhelpful, or all of the above. It depends on who is in the class, who is leading the workshop, and the particular story being discussed."
The person in charge of the workshop will make a huge difference in the tone and productivity of the group. If the leader is emphatic about using positive feedback and gently worded questions to the writer, then the workshop can be an affirmation of what the writer is doing well. This is also dependent on the participants' willingness to strive for positivity, and on the group leader being able to reign in anyone that is being too enthusiastic/too negative in sharing their point of view.
An emphasis on positive comments can backfire, though, if participants are just trying to find something about which to comment. When directed to find things you like about a story, it is possible to go overboard and wax a little too enthusiastically about a plot point or character just because you feel the need to say something. Reading to find things you like can actually help you find more good points than if you are not looking, and it's okay to mention them in workshop, time allowing.
LaPlante mentions another pitfall that workshoppers can fall into when they don't know what else to say: asking to see more of something. "I'd love to see more dialogue" or "It would be great to have more background on the mother" are examples of this kind of feedback. Again, these kinds of comments can be helpful, but are another example of something to suggest if it's your authentic observation/interest, and not because you are looking for something to say. Do you really want to know more about why the dog barks so much, or are you just not sure what else to say?
However, some workshops aren't focused on asking for more of anything or showering you with happy thoughts, and some participants don't want that. Madison Smartt Bell in his book Narrative Design, writes, "The fiction workshop is designed to be a fault-finding mechanism; it’s purpose is to diagnose and prescribe." Often, a member of the group can feel pressure (self-imposed or outwardly-imposed) to look knowledgeable and participatory by finding as many "flaws" as possible and pointing them out. And if the class is determined to find everything they possibly can that is "wrong" with the piece, the writer had better have some thick skin.
Which way is better--unbridled positivity, or full-frontal flaw finding? Either way, it's important to take ANY feedback, positive or negative, with a grain of salt. It's possible to get so much advice--and often contradictory advice--about what you should or could do to "improve" piece that it can be hard to know where to start. Bell notes that some of his students tried to incorporate all the advice they received...and ended up with "second drafts that very likely had less obvious flaws than the first, but also a whole lot less interest. These revisions tended to live up to commonly heard, contemptuous descriptions of workshop work being well-tooled, inoffensive, unexceptional, and rather dull."
Now that I've participated in a few workshops and know some of the pitfalls, I find that I'm less adamant about expressing my opinion and trying to appear like I know what I'm talking about, or caring as much about what others are telling me. So will I continue to workshop? Yes! Workshopping can be an extremely helpful way to learn what is confusing, distracting, or seems out of place with the rest of a piece. And I do appreciate positive feedback--we all love to hear the good stuff!!
And there have been unexpected benefits to workshopping: Participating in workshops has pushed me to be a better reader. I'm normally a critical reader, but by reading original stories looking for things to like, I'm finding that there's so much more depth and interest and enjoyment than I realized. Another benefit is seeing writing come to life, a la Reader Response Theory. This is the idea that writing is a living thing that only comes alive when we read it and interpret it through our own unique worldviews and experiences. To hear how someone else interprets a story and discuss it in a group has been fascinating and affirming of the writing process as a whole.
When deciding to workshop, you don't get a choice about the format and the kind of feedback, so if it matters to you, you might want to know beforehand by doing some research. If you are in an entry level workshop, you are probably going to get the more positive type of feedback. Below, in case it's of interest, I have listed out details of the three workshops I've attended:
Agent/Editor Day held by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (October 2018)
Workshop with Elizabeth Peavey through the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (January 2019)
Creative Writing Class Workshop for Short Stories (February/March 2019)