Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Objections to the Workshop Method

While the classic "writing workshop" peer-critique method is used widely and successfully, it has its detractors. Objections to this classic workshop model include those listed below:

  • Asking the writer to stay silent and listen during discussion of her work is a form of oppression.
    Maybe that’s true. If you think so, try "reverse workshop" variations: Have the writer speak for 10 minutes about the work in question while everyone else listens. Or have everyone write out one question for the writer, hand the questions to the writer, and let her read aloud and answer the questions.

  • A workshop is really a kind of peer pressure for everyone to “dumb down” their writing and make it bland and politically correct.
    Caving in to “peer pressure” is a choice. Those who will do it merely to get praise and acceptance are either overdependent on praise or are in the wrong workshop.

  • The group-workshop process homogenizes people’s writing styles, and/or destroys their originality.
    You were born unique, and have unique things to say, but originality, like wisdom, develops over time, and once developed it cannot be destroyed. Associations among artists do not automatically lead to compromise. Take for example writer Gertrude Stein and her salon, or the works of painters such as Picasso, Kandinsky, or Klee, whose works became more original and radical as they matured. If in your workshop you aren’t being encouraged and challenged to do yourself one better, you are in the wrong group.

  • Writing workshops aren’t for everybody.
    That’s true, especially for young writers, under age 18. They should avoid workshops unless they are held in a school and moderated by a helpful and sympathetic teacher. Young people’s creative experiments should be shielded from the remarks and reactions of careless peers, or adults who hold standards that are anti-creative or punishingly high.

  • A workshop is basically a bunch of bad writers sitting around reading each other’s bad writing. Therefore it can be of no help to anyone.
    Let’s pretend that’s true. If so, the only thing a writer could ever get out of a workshop is seeing what other writers do badly. And that by itself is an absolutely priceless lesson for any writer. This “basically a bunch of bad writers” remark came from a celebrated writer famously incapable of editing his own writing. He sent editors manuscripts thousands of words longer than the editors had asked for or could possibly publish. The editors were forced to craft and finalize his manuscripts by cutting excesses and repetitions. Such extensive editing annoyed the writer, but he had never learned to see his work as a reader might see it, and therefore had to cede to editors the power he should have wielded over his own writing. The ability to assess and craft one’s own work is precisely the power that develops most rapidly in a workshop setting.

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