When Are Workshops Helpful?

“And what about those [writers’ workshop] critiques, by the way? How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter’s story,someone may say. It had something… a sense of I don’t know… there’s a loving kind of you know… I can’t exactly describe it….
It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can’t describe, you might just be, I don’t know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

For people who aren’t doing it already, take classes – they’re worthwhile. Workshops or classes – a workshop is where you do actually get feedback on your work, not just something where you go and sit for a day.

Octavia E. Butler

Well Octavia and Stephen do not agree on the merits of workshops, and I can’t even seem to decide either.

I have taken workshops that have expanded my mind, introduced me to life-long friends, and even bore work I’m proud of. I’ve also taken workshops that have convinced me I am a talentless hack with nothing to offer and I should just stop writing forever and spare the world my drivel.

At this stage, I have a manuscript that’s in heavy revisions and one that’s a very rough draft. I’ve taken about a half dozen workshops over the last few years. Here’s my experience:

A workshop can be great when you get along with your leader and fellow classmates. Having an opportunity to get constructive criticism from people you like and trust is huge. However, when the opposite is true, a workshop can be terrible. I’ve been in classes where the instructor clearly wasn’t a fan of my genre and made little effort to mask disinterest. Classmates followed suit. Workshop leaders, if you think what you’re doing is a waste of time, it will be, and everyone else will believe it too. That was one of the classes I left feeling absolutely worthless.

A workshop can be great when you’re starting the creative process. When you’re in the stages of discovery. That’s when you need things like encouragement, direction, and habit, a workshop with its feedback and deadlines is precisely the shot in the arm that many need. A workshop can be terrible, however, when you’re late in the writing process. Classmates and instructors who only get 8 or 9 pages of your work at a time miss out on a lot of things: context, rising action, exposition in some cases. A scene is rarely indicative of the work in its entirety, yet a lot of feedback comes along the lines of needing to know more. As a writer, I ran into this balance of wanting to provide my readers with what they asked but simply running into the confines of the submission guidelines. If they read more, they’d know. As it stands, though, the feedback I get makes me feel as if I need to crowbar in explanations that are our of place and drag the story down.

Having said that, a workshop can be great if you know how to filter feedback. I’ve heard a rough guideline that writers can benefit from considering 30% of feedback, taking 30% to practice, and discarding the rest. Of course, depending on the audience, those numbers can and should skew. But the type of feedback is important, too, and certain feedback can make a workshop terrible. I’ve struggled with really prescriptive feedback. “I won’t enjoy your story unless this changes” type of feedback from peers. It’s one thing if that comes from a professional editor or publisher, but I think it’s okay to disagree on some creative choices. For every piece of invaluable feedback I’ve received, I’ve gotten a piece of feedback that made me feel powerless as a writer. Back to that great feedback- I know I need a lot of help when it comes to structure and I am always grateful for non-prescriptive feedback that offers insights into characters that I’m too close to see. When that stuff comes in, it’s invaluable.

Most of the time, workshops provide me with a lot of anxiety, not only about my writing but about myself as a person. My frustration breeds uncertainty in myself as a person. Am I the type of person who can’t handle feedback? I feel as if I must come across that way when I disagree with or reject criticism, although a decade in a newsroom and regular critiques of my professional writing have given me a thick skin.

So will I power through with my workshops? I’m still undecided. There are so many wonderful benefits, but I have no way of knowing if it’s worth the confusion I face weekly about whether I should just shred my copy and start over or keep going with a project that I know in my heart has merit and is a joy to work on.

The writing process is seriously hard enough.

Maybe I’ll discontinue my advanced classes and step back to a more middling one, and use the focus to produce and workshop new writing that still needs direction. That I don’t already know the answer to. That way I can spend some time with my hot mess of a manuscript and lovingly raise it myself.

Have you taken a writing workshop? What was your experience? Tell me in the comments!

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