The Wonders of Workshops

Don’t be the guy who can’t handle some constructive criticism; use the guidance of your peers to make your pieces stronger together.

By Maria Alvarado, Savannah College of Arts and Design


Most people don’t have trouble understanding the point of workshops: Giving feedback that provides a guide for classmates or colleagues to better their work.

Workshops allow people to communicate their opinions, but also gives them a chance to discover their flaws and strengths. Workshops have played a huge role in the positive development of my writing. I’m lucky to say that I have had various opportunities to share my work with people who care deeply about helping others become stronger writers.

Yet, once in a while, I’d run across that one person. In drawing, design, English, writing and just about every other class that embraces working in groups. Somehow I always encounter that one individual who doesn’t understand the concept of giving feedback at all. It’s easy to see why someone who is not familiar with sharing their own work would be scared, nervous, anxious and defensive the first time. When someone puts a lot of effort into a piece and is very passionate about what they do, it’s hard to not be sensitive to others’ opinion.

Still, there is a line that can easily be crossed when one is new to the world of workshopping.

The first time I attended a fiction writing class in college, the professor made sure to warn us that personal matters needed to be left outside of the classroom. He had a very strong reason to give this forewarning, mainly based on the disturbing experience he had had with another class.

“This boy last quarter, he didn’t like what his classmate said about his story. To be honest, it was kind of plain. The character was one of those creepy guys who criticize society but do nothing to make it better.”

That’s okay. No one is required to agree with someone else’s point of view. The good thing about feedback is that people can choose what they think will be better for them and ignore what they find irrelevant to their work. So far, the professor’s story wasn’t that bad. Soon enough, though, it turned into a nightmare. He continued it with the tone of voice one uses to tell a horror story.

“I’m only telling you this because I don’t want to see it happen ever again. This guy didn’t like the feedback his classmate gave him. So, instead of revising his piece, he wrote a new one. In this new story, he followed around his classmate as he walked back home. He followed and watched him as he did his chores around his house, silently planning how to torture and kill him.”

If you felt the chill go down your spine, it’s for a reason.

When the guy from this story first heard what his peers thought about his work, he felt personally attacked. Because of this feeling, he grew resentful and ended up making a bad decision that could have easily landed him in the Dean’s office.

Though it might be hard to believe, there are people out there who don’t take criticism in a good way at all. This doesn’t mean that these folks think they are perfect. In short, it means they haven’t been part of enough discussions to grow used to strangers pointing out the imperfections in their work.

Again, some people are as attached to their work as a mother is to her children. Is this okay? Not really. Constantly having to defend and explain why an audience is failing to understand a story, essay or art piece shows that it could use some fixing. If a child hits and bites other children, swears at teachers and yells at puppies, his parents might need to ask themselves if there’s anything they can do to help the child be less troubled.

It works just the same with group discussions and feedback.

Now, please note that the chance to provide comments doesn’t mean that one has been handed the key to be as mean as possible. Feedback doesn’t need to be destructive. Feedback needs to be given with an argument that helps people understand why “it doesn’t make sense,” or “I don’t like it.”

There was a girl in my nonfiction class during sophomore year who was always taking notes in silence, writing and scribbling on her notebook. When the teacher called on her to participate during the first workshop, she limited herself to just a couple of words.

“This isn’t good writing, I feel that this is bad writing,” she said with a sigh, and everyone in the classroom frowned.

Sure, the piece being reviewed wasn’t a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it surely didn’t deserve to be called “bad.” The teacher asked her to explain herself, but instead she shrugged.

“I don’t know. It’s just my opinion. I just don’t like it.”

Since workshops are based on receiving and giving constructive reviews, the teacher asked her to explain herself once more. For some reason, this made her really mad.

“Look, I’m just giving my opinion. I don’t like it, so why are you interrogating me? You asked us to speak so why won’t you just leave me alone? I already did what you asked me to do.”

Wrong. She had merely given a vague claim. She could have talked about how the piece made her feel, the language, voice, tone, motifs, imagery, etc. She couldn’t understand that an “I don’t like it” is usually followed by a “because….” In a way, she was at the other end of the extreme. In this case, she wasn’t overprotecting. She was giving bad feedback.

Bad feedback can be simply defined as comments made with little care, with no careful observation of the work or regard for the intention of the author or artist. These are the kind of responses that leave people wondering, “What do they mean?” Even though no one is required to write a page long essay about why they like or dislike their peers’ work, it’s always nice to receive a clear review.

Make Writing Great Again: Learning How to Give and Receive Feedback in Workshops

Image via Pacific Wordcrafters

I don’t like it because it’s distracting. I like it because it explains this and that. I think you could expand on this. I think you need to get rid of this whole paragraph.

It’s okay. No need to set the world on fire.

I had a teacher that used to say that one had to push his work in front of the school bus. There’s no point in doing something awesome if it’s going to be kept in secret and prevented from turning into something even more awesome. The truth is that workshops can make anyone see their work and think, “Ah, I can’t believe I didn’t see this before! Silly me!” After going back, revising, proofreading and cleaning up, the result is, truly, more rewarding.

So, is it really that bad to receive feedback? Is it really that hard to spare a couple of comments? Not really. Workshopping is really a win-win from every point of view.

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