Whether you’re in a workshop or not, giving feedback on other people’s stories helps you as a writer. A key question involves the formality of the response you give, and here my views are decidedly aligned with writers and others who focus on craft, and decidedly against critics and others who focus on meaning or worth.
For example, here’s a blog comment I wrote on a site a few months ago, on the subject of ‘critiquing’:
I don’t disagree with anything you say here. It’s a good introduction, and particularly so because you guard against giving the reviewer authority. Every writer will define themselves by their ability to listen to and sift responses. And of course that’s one of the benefits of a workshop: you can have confidence that issues that affected the majority are substantive simply because of the number of people agreeing on a point.
The one thing I might add here is that over my writing life I’ve de-emphasized the formality of the critiquing process to the point that I no longer even use that word. Why? Because the word is both formal and critical, and I find that both of those aspects of the reviewing process tend to goad the reviewer into responding as a critical authority.
When I respond to something, or offer to respond, I simply promise feedback. It’s a useful descriptor that imposes no weight of responsibility or attitude on the process. Too, because almost all feedback is useful, it allows for anyone to contribute — and there is always a shortage of readers. (To say nothing of trusted readers.)
If you’re a beginning writer and you have the opportunity to respond to someone else’s work, take it. Don’t worry about formal responses, don’t try to explain the author’s story to them and don’t try to write it for them. Just read the story, note your own reactions to what’s happening, and report those reactions.
Why is this important? Because what a writer is trying to do is create specific effects in your mind. Only by reliably reporting your experience with a story will the writer know if those effects were achieved. The job of the writer is to figure out why the intended effect may have failed in your particular case. Your job as a reader is to tell the truth of your reading experience.
This is one area where workshops tend to complicate the feedback process because of the social dynamics involved. Nobody wants to come off like an idiot in a roomful of their peers, and more than a few people will be determined to come off like geniuses. Not only does having the floor lead to words like ‘verisimilitude’ and ‘anthropomorphism’ being used more in a twenty-minute span than you will ever hear them used during the rest of your life, it prompts readers to pontificate about everything from the comma to the meaning of life, none of which ever really helps fix the story.
As a reader, if you genuinely believe you know why you had trouble with a work, go ahead and give your reasoning. But remember: the most important thing you have to give to any writer is your honest reaction. If a writer doesn’t have the craft knowledge to judge and act on what you’re saying, the complexity and detail of your analysis probably won’t matter.