To Workshop or Not To Workshop

Ah, the writing workshop. A staple of your diet if you intend to pursue any kind of serious writing. Some writers are successfully helped by them and go on to publication. Some writers bounce from workshop to workshop as a hobby. Some writers stay far away and insist that if writers of the past never had workshops, they’re not necessary. Here are some of the pros and cons of the workshop: 

Pro: Critical feedback from peers

By far the most significant benefit of a writing workshop is getting feedback from your peers on a story you’ve written. Writing is a solitary act done in a vacuum, and to have an audience of experienced readers who know what they’re talking about pick out your blind spots is valuable.

Con: Feedback is through subjective eyes

Having a dozen readers of your work giving you feedback is fantastic, but each one of those readers has different preferences of what they like to read: some may enjoy sparse style, some may enjoy verbose imagery, some may prefer something in-between, which means someone in the group isn’t going to like your stuff. Different literary preferences are fine, but it won’t give you a supportive reading of your story.

Pro: Exposes a stuck story to readers

If there’s a story you’ve been working on for a while that you know is just off, bring it to workshop. Having your friends say “It’s the best story ever!” when you have 80 million rejections of it doesn’t lead to any solutions; get some experienced eyes to look at it and help you nail down what you need to change to make it publishable.

Con: Ultimately it’s up to the writer to judge appropriate feedback

Not everything everyone says is going to be useful, so you have to choose which feedback you’ll keep and which you’ll toss. Ultimately, if you feel the readers were way off on their assessment, and you choose not to take their advice, it leads to wasted time for all parties.

Pro: Creates a personal, intimate atmosphere of writers

Reading one another’s work gets you real intimate, real fast! The expression goes, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit down and open a vein”; you’re essentially showing your bloody pages to strangers, and that creates a bond. Workshoppers have to provide a safe environment for one another while gaining trust quickly, which can make for a fun, deep class. Plus, you can get into some really good discussions about authors, books, and the writing life.

Con: Workshops are ultimately fake

While that intimacy and bonding might be valuable for your work, after the MFA or after the workshop class you will be back to writing on your own. Will you sustain it? The workshop environment is a contrived safety net. Enjoy what you get from the workshop because it will disappear quickly.

Pro: Helps grow the writer

A writer chooses to engage themselves in a workshop because they desire to grow as an artist. Revealing your private work for others to read and critique is a huge step in trust, but one that can lead the writer – if they’re willing – to growth. There’s an inspiring article in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers of a writer growing from a fumbling first year MFA student into a published author.

Con: Doesn’t guarantee publication or growth

Unfortunately workshopping a story will never guarantee publication. It won’t even guarantee revision, and the person’s work you just spent an hour workshopping could go home and toss it in the drawer and never look at it again. On a macro level, a whole MFA program could be spent workshopping stories that the writers never revise or send out.

What are some pros and cons you would add to this list? Comment below!