In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
How valuable are [critiques in writing workshops]? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. Non-specific critiques won’t help when you sit down to your second draft, and may hurt.
It’s sad but true: I would argue that many workshop critiques are not helpful to writers in the long run.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying most workshop critiques. But yes, many workshop critiques are frustratingly vague, as King says, and do you more harm than good if you read them too closely and actually integrate a lot of the advice into the next draft of your story or novel.
I’ve been a part of a lot of creative writing workshops. I took my first one in the spring of 2012 and my last one in the spring of 2017. In five years of graduate school, I took part in ten semester-long workshops. Ten!
Some of these experiences were great. Others… weren’t so great.
The best workshop settings I took part in had less than ten students. My Spring 2016 semester I took a night workshop with just six other fiction writers, and all six of them were so smart and generous with their time that their advice for the three short stories I submitted to the class that semester were spot-on and super helpful.
However, I also took a workshop in the fall of 2012 that didn’t go so well.
The class was comprised of 22 students, all of them in different stages of writing skills, and I would say maybe 5 of the 21 responses I received on my stories were helpful. Many of them though were super vague to the point where I wondered if some of the students even read my story.
I was never mad about this, exactly. I mean, it makes sense. Each of us that semester had to turn in two short stories, so that meant we had to read and respond to 42 stories during the course of four months. It was a lot.
When you have six other students, when you have an extremely tiny group, there’s actual time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each writer and what they can do to improve.
22 students is more a crowd than a class, particularly when it comes to the workshop setting. Any workshop larger than about 15 students just becomes too chaotic, and after a certain point you have to be a little vague here and there with your comments to survive the semester.
The worst thing you can do for your next draft is try to incorporate the advice of every single critique!
Whether your workshop is comprised of seven students or 22 students, you can’t possibly integrate all that feedback. It’ll drive you mad to do so, to start, and it will make your story or novel so much worse.
Here’s what you should do instead. First, take an afternoon and read through all the comments, checking or underlining or highlighting any feedback you agree with. Second, once you’ve read through all the responses, now look over what you marked up and make a new Word document and type up all the feedback you want to integrate into the next draft.
Always start with the most valuable feedback of all (usually notes that many, many of the workshop students included in their critiques) and then work your way down.
As long as you don’t try to integrate everything, you’re on the path to a better draft. Use the feedback that makes sense, that you agree with, and toss the feedback that’s too vague or makes no sense or that you strongly disagree with.
Creative writing workshops can be helpful, but you should also be cautious when it comes to the critiques.
Just be smart at the end of the day, and do what you need to do to make your latest work of fiction its absolute best!