F & FW: The Workshop Advantage

Here’s a quote from my initial post on the subject of workshops:

The reason a fiction workshop works, and generally works better than any other method of settling the question of authorial intent and accuracy, is the same reason that any broad-based sampling works. By providing more responses to the author, outliers are marginalized and there is at least the possibility that an informative consensus may emerge.

(Note: when I used the word ‘consensus’ here I meant a consensus about points large and small, not simply an overall judgment.)

Everything I’ve said about feedback so far applies to any feedback you get. You might be more comfortable getting or giving feedback in a one-on-one setting, then again you might not. Sitting down with someone who tells you what you wrote is death is not fun. In a workshop, even if others generally agree you came up short, there will also be people who point out some bright spots, or at least keep you from reaching for a bottle of pills.

For writers new to the craft of storytelling, however, a fiction workshop provides benefits that cannot be acquired in any other way. In fact, when it comes to learning how to give and receive feedback about stories, a workshop advances the cause by orders of magnitude over and above any other approach.

Consider the benefits:

  • In a workshop setting the weight of consensus can help break the subjective-opinion deadlock between writer and reader. As I also noted in the earlier post linked to above: “If ten people (out a workshop-normal fifteen or sixteen) agree on a particular concern, it’s probably something you should take a look at.”
  • This appeal to consensus cuts both ways. If you blew it, you can be convinced by sheer weight of numbers to look at your work rather than argue your cause. If you were successful, however, it’s a pretty heady thing to have a group of people say, “This is good,” and it’s hard to walk away thinking the group reacted positively for any other reason than the work itself.
  • As noted in an earlier post, you’ll learn as much or more (probably a lot more) by giving feedback than by getting feedback on your own work. There are two reasons for this in a workshop, neither of which can be replicated in one-on-one feedback sessions. First, you get to see how your take compares with the feedback of others. Did you miss something? Did you see a character one way, maybe as a result of your life experience or bias, while others had a different response? Second, you get to see how other members of the workshop and the writer interact. Believe me, all you need to do is watch a few people go through the workshop process and you’ll have a much better idea how to approach the process yourself.

When it comes to learning the craft of storytelling, nothing speeds the process like giving and receiving feedback. When it comes to learning how to give and receive feedback, nothing speeds the process like being in a workshop. Nothing.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.

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