The Writing Workshop: Does It Work?

In this blog, I’d like to continue the conversation about how we give and receive feedback on our writing by discussing one of the most common methods out there: the workshop. Here’s how it often goes:

Each week one or two members of a writing group hand out copies of a story or poem to be workshopped (we even have a new verb) at the next meeting. During the week, members of the group read the writing, make comments and prepare to give suggestions for revision. At the following meeting, the writer remains silent, listening and jotting down notes on the group’s reactions. Usually the leader/teacher of the workshop (if the group is a class) adds comments, guides the discussion and tries to pull together the threads of the reactions so the writer has some clear direction for revision. Then the writer supposedly hurries home to revise the piece. At this point, the familiar scene breaks down because a successful revision, or even the desire to work on a revision, doesn’t always follow the workshop process. At least for me.

The workshop method is appealing because, according to its proponents, it allows for multiple responses to a piece. Yet workshop members often give their attention primarily to the comments of the teacher, who is usually the most experienced, or extensively published, writer among them. Or sometimes one member of the group takes the lead and dominates the conversation, while the others follow and add their comments to that one voice. Sometimes there is a disagreement over what should be done to make the piece better.

The little comedy sketch I posted by Mitchell and Webb condenses the workshop method into a two-person scene.  (See “Write This: Mitchell and Webb.” Posted on 10/30/12.) Webb, the critiquer, expresses multiple takes on a single piece of writing while the writer, Mitchell, sits silently (or almost, he tries to make a few comments but is over-whelmed by the power of Webb, the person behind the desk.)

So while her piece is being discussed, the writer is supposed to be silent, not say a word. Again proponents of the method say this is the way it is in the real world when the writer is not available to the reader to explain or respond.  Yet the readers of a piece in a workshop are not the same as the readers of a published piece. After a few cursory comments about the strengths of a writing, these workshop readers are usually given the task of finding what is wrong with the piece and are rarely as accepting as those who read a published story or poem. One time I took a short essay that had already been published to a workshop, by the time I left I wondered how it was ever published—there were too many things to be fixed! Also the whole method creates an adversarial framework, so that if the writer is allowed to speak she could become defensive trying to explain why she wrote the story the way she did.

We also tell ourselves that if we’re able to see the flaws in another piece of writing, we can better spot our own. But does it work this way? Am I becoming a better writer or simply better at critiquing someone else’s writing? Most of us (even those who lead the workshops) are not taught how to give helpful feedback to others. While we may have good intentions and spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the workshop, our comments are not always helpful to the writer.

In “Toward a More Democratic Workshop” (Poets and Writers, March/April 1998), Lex Williford tells how his story was shredded by a famous young writer leading a workshop. The young writer had opened the discussion by saying to the group: “This story’s awfully derivative, don’t you think?”  By the end of the workshop, Williford says, “My face burning, I looked down at my story, a thing I’d struggled on and off with for over a year, and turned it over on the seminar table. The famous young writer spent the rest of the workshop doing what he’d come there to do: to talk about himself and his stories and to sign copies of his book.”  In Williford’s copy, he wrote: “In honor of the beating we give and take. Thrive.”

In her essay,  “Mild Sadism in Writing Workshops,” Carol Bly tells of a time when one class member started the discussion of a fellow writer’s work by saying, “I may as well get this over with,” in a tone of pronounced disdain. Bly says, “The rest of the participants took this same tone when they spoke. No doubt they were experiencing what psychologists call moral drift, or the bystander effect: That is, you have various, slightly conflicting opinions on a subject, but when you hear others speaking in a single tone or with a single judgment, you let your thoughts slide over to that judgment the way iron filings nudge loose and then nearly fly to a magnet.”

Bly’s emphasis on judgment is a crucial one. I believe one of the main flaws of the workshop method is the rush to judge (this is good, this is bad) before a piece has fully evolved. We can’t seem to talk about art anymore without immediately judging it. We walk out of a movie and ask, “Well, what did you think? Did you like it?” The same comments are often asked of fellow readers before we read a book. Maybe we don’t want to waste our time on something that is not good.

There is danger in this rush to judge: it automatically stops conversation. People move into a defensive mode, an argumentative position. I remember Natalie Goldberg saying about a piece of writing, “Good. Good that you wrote that. Now continue. Write more.”  Certainly revision is necessary, but a specific judgment from someone else doesn’t necessarily lead us to a sound revision.

Okay. I’m going to pause here and continue my thoughts on the workshop method in my next blog. In the meantime, send us your thoughts, experiences, ideas. Onward!


2 thoughts on “The Writing Workshop: Does It Work?

  1. We have critique groups in Winston-Salem Writers, groups of 6-8 members who circulate their work for critique before each meeting. Members of my group have published a novel, a collection of short stories, an essay, and 2 short stories (one with an award) this year, all partially as a result of the suggestions made by others in the group. 1 member is the go-to person for rules of punctuation and grammar. I’m the “avoid gerunds and participles wherever possible” person. We argue a lot – for example, whether the use of a particular word is incorrect, or whether it’s a matter of style and should stay. I often leave a session in distress because a section has been, in my mind, ripped to shreds. But my distress is about “how in heck do I fix that?”, not because of the criticism itself. Why our group works so well, I think, is because we all trust that everyone else in the group wants us to succeed.

  2. Your last sentence is key, Carol. Your group has the right spirit. The two examples from my post were from groups that hadn’t established that level of trust and good will. It sounds like your group is enthusiastic and helpful, and their responses make you want to stay engaged with a piece of writing. That means it’s working! Also I like your idea of trying to look at what needs to be fixed and not focusing on the criticism itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *