When a Workshop Goes Bad (Part 1)

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Photograph of people sitting at a table with computers and coffee, one person is taking notes on a notepad

I have been a part of many writer’s workshops. College, post-college, online, extension school, gathering of friends. You name it. I’ve done it. For the most part, I believe workshops made my writing better. After all, there’s only so much that you can perceive regarding your own words. Unless you’re Emily Dickinson, you need other objective opinions in order to know what is and is not working with your writing.

The best workshops I have been a part of were honest, harsh, and professional. Writers have to be brutal when it comes to criticizing each other’s work, though they also should be fair and constructive at all times. However, some of the workshops I’ve participated in degenerated into petty tiffs over who is the best writer in the room. I’ve been a part of a few unconstructive workshops, which left me wondering why I allowed myself to spend time among people I didn’t like, each of whom seemed to believe he was the next Salman Rushdie, though none had ever been published. In fact, some workshops were detrimental to my writing, I found, because lazy or destructive comments from other writers either cut at my self-confidence or sent me in a direction that I probably should not have gone.

When I was in a workshop that didn’t seem to be going well, it was hard to tell whether my writing was the problem, or the workshop was the problem. Sometimes, I believe, the workshop is the problem, and you should consider leaving if it doesn’t improve quickly. In writing, as in life, you are often better off alone than with the wrong people.

Based on my personal experiences with workshops, I believe that there are some clear early warning signs that a workshop is going awry. The worst problems I’ve seen in workshops are the following:

  1. Tit-for-tat commenting: I’ve seen this happen numerous times in workshops. To give an example, one writer (whom we shall call Writer #1) made some pretty critical comments about another writer’s story (dubbed Writer #2). Writer #2 got visibly peeved. When Writer #1’s story was up for workshopping, Writer #2 ripped into every little part of Writer #1’s story in a way that was not constructive. Clearly, this was purely for revenge and, frankly, reflected poorly on Writer #2. Of course, once Writer #2 had another story up for workshopping, Writer #1 went on the offensive again. The kind of comments made between these two writers were petty and cheap, i.e. “I don’t find this interesting” or “This story doesn’t tell us enough” or “I find this sterile and bland….” Blah. Blah. Blah. Being petty is very easy. We can all find cheap, negative things to say about any story if we are so inclined, even the greatest works of literature. None of the writers in the workshop were benefitting from this kind of behavior because the tit-for-tat comments were not constructive. On the contrary, I and the other writers in the workshop tuned them both out. Rather than proving any point, those two writers were losing the respect of the other members.
  1. Generic commenting: I was once in a workshop where the majority of comments were along the lines of: “This is good. I like your use of language. The descriptions are solid. Nice dialogue. Etc.” It was pretty obvious as the workshop went on that not many of the workshoppers were reading very closely, and yet each expected to get insightful comments from the others. This workshop quickly fell apart. People stopped showing up, because the workshop wasn’t helping anyone in particular.
  1. Focusing on political issues: I believe a critique of a story should never go into any issues other than those raised by the story itself. It’s not fair or constructive to expect another writer to share your world view, or write a story that explores themes that writer has no interest in. This is particularly a pet peeve of mine because I write stories about Korean Americans and am often asked why I do not put more of a political bent in my writing. Usually, I find that such comments come from people who don’t know a whole lot about Korean Americans, and would find the political leanings of a very evangelical Christian, largely affluent and vehemently anti-Leftist community to not be what they thought it should be. I remember one commenter suggested that I try to establish more links between Korean Americans and other communities with my writing, when in fact the whole point of my story was to explore characters who lead very segregated lives, as many Korean Americans do. Writers can choose to be political if they want, but I don’t believe it’s constructive in a workshop to expect other writers to share your point of view.
  1. Consensus-seeking: Generally speaking, I believe a workshop should not try to reach a consensus about a story. It should be a place where ideas and critiques are shared, but workshoppers should not squash minority opinions until there is a “dominant” view. For example, in a workshop I was in, the group disagreed about whether a character in one of my stories should be cut out or not. Most thought he should be cut, but two disagreed, and the majority seemed intent on proving the two dissenters wrong. The argument went on and on with no one agreeing, and, in the end, I didn’t see the point of a protacted disagreement about a matter of opinion. It was up to me to sift through the various comments/opinions and decide which to apply to my story. If the workshoppers disagree with each other on an aspect of a story, I believe it’s best for each to state his or her case and then agree to disagree, rather than try to resolve that disagreement. I didn’t find it useful when workshoppers tried to squash minority opinions until there was a “dominant” view.
  1. My-story-has-to-be-the-best-attitude: A workshop is not a competition. I REPEAT: A workshop is NOT a competition. Some writers get annoyed by praise being heaped on another writer. I remember insecure writers from past workshops who used to cut at other writers they felt threatened by, and then got offended when anyone dared make negative comments about their writing. Many years ago, admittedly, I was one of them. I needed to remind myself that a workshop is a learning process that is supposed to improve my writing, not a venue for praise. Anyone who comes in the room expecting to be recognized as the best writer is not there for the right reasons, and is usually in for a rude awakening (as I was). Probably every writer in every workshop I’ve been a part of believed that he or she was the best writer in the room. I believe a workshop only works if that attitude is kept internalized.

If the above symptoms are frequently present in your workshop, it may have gone in the wrong direction, though it may not be too late to save it. In my next post, I’ll discuss ways that I’ve tried to improve workshops that were plagued with these symptoms before all the workshoppers gave up hope.