Critiquing a story is an important skill for creative writing students, and the success or failure of a workshop depends on how well they have mastered this skill. The success of a workshop also depends upon the active/positive participation of all members. Students sometimes complain of bad workshop experiences because their classmates have either not learned how to give a good critique, did not participate in the workshop, or did not put honest effort into their critiques.
The format of the workshop itself can be the source of bad experiences.The Iowa model replicated throughout the country divides the session into two parts: discussion opens with things the readers liked, and then closes with things the readers did not like. The writer is silent throughout the session, except for the very beginning when he or she reads their work aloud to the class. This model sucks.
The trouble I always had as a writer being workshopped, was that I purposefully turned in bad work--the stories I knew I needed help with. Why else should you solicit feedback on something unless you know it has problems? So reading my work to the class seemed like a needless embarrassment.
Second, I never gave a damn whether my classmates liked it or didn't like my story, and similarly, I hated being asked what I liked about someone's story. Sometimes, I hated everything about a story--its premise, characters, genre, structure, and so forth. Which is fine. I'm not the audience for that story. I will never like sci-fi vampire erotica, but lots of people do. And so when that happens to me or someone else, the best we can do is say something trite: "The descriptions were good." It's a waste of the writer's time.
More importantly, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what’s working or not working in a story without first talking about what we think the story is trying to do—what the goal of the story is. Who is the main character and what is the journey that they are on? What emotion is the story trying to evoke? What is the story trying to say? What works is what contributes to the goal of the story; what doesn’t work is what takes away from the goal.
Jumping into "what I liked," skips the crucial step where the critiquer explains their underlying assumptions about the story. If you interpret a story to be about the religious radicalization of the main character, you are going to have very different opinions about what's working than your classmate who thought the story was about the comfort religion provides in times of grief.
The writer also needs to know what the different interpretations of his or her story are, because he or she had intentions for the piece. Did she succeed? Did she fail? Is there a disconnect between her intent and its affect? If so, why? Did it land perfectly, and everyone interpreted it in exactly the same way. If so, maybe it's too obvious, too simple.
When I run a workshop, I do two things that correct the problems outlined above: I keep it anonymous and purely descriptive.
To ensure anonymity, I ask that students bring copies of their story to me, without their name on them, and later I distribute them to the class. After workshop, critiques are passed to me, and I give them to the writer in private. If the writer chooses, they may break their anonymity at the end of workshop and ask the class questions.
The benefits of anonymity:
1) students are willing to turn in a "bad" story that they are stuck on and need help
with, rather than submitting only their best work to avoid embarrassment
2) participants are more forthright and open during discussion
3) participants do not heap praise onto their friends or pick on the people they dislike
4) it respects the student who may be sharing their writing for the first time, which is
an intimidating experience, and allows them to gradually become comfortable with it
Descriptive In-Class Workshop
Running a descriptive workshop requires more engagement from the moderator than a traditional workshop. You can't just let the class have at it. Their inclination, always, will be to start talking about the things they liked or didn't like, because that's easy. That's the way we talk about a movie after it ends. So in one sense during a descriptive workshop you have to act like a literature professor provoking discussion about an assigned reading.
I always ask opened ended questions, starting with "Who is the main character and what is the journey that they are on?" After one student answers, I say, "Does anyone want to build on that? Disagree with that? Other interpretations?" There will always be different interpretations. Always. You will be surprised how diverse the interpretations can become. Students will drift toward comments about what they liked and didn't like, but I always pulled them back, and that can be tough.
What is key--and I can't stress this enough--is to never state your own opinion, ever, because the professor's opinion is always "right" and student's will coalesce around your ideas and abandon their own. Do not let this happen. You may be the most experienced writer, but you are only one reader. You will only buy one copy of the person's novel. The writer needs to understand that as well, and take their classmate's comments seriously, not listen to the professor's feedback to the exclusion of all others.
After the class has thoroughly explored their many interpretations, I "open it up" and ask the class if there is anything in the story they didn't understand, or had questions about. These comments are best when they are phrased as open-ended questions such as, "Why is the main character's teacher also her brother-in-law?" The pace of questioning should be slow. The class should consider answers to these questions and discuss different possibilities.