The past three weeks have been filled with workshopping of students' writing (some people call it critiquing - I think workshopping applies more to groups perhaps). Many of the students are in their first year of study in our writing course, so giving and receiving comments can be a very confronting experience. You may have been working on your novel for several months or years, and this might be the first time you have had a group of critical readers provide you with feedback. It can make you doubt everything you thought you were trying to do.
Or the story you have offered up might be the first "real" story you have ever written. Before now, everything you wrote was just for fun, or for your journal that no one else reads. How do you cope with people saying things like "I don't think you need the first paragraph" or "You've used a lot of repetition and it didn't work for me" or "You are not deeply enough inside the character's head so I didn't really get into the story". You might think your prose resembles Proust on a good day, or you might secretly feel that everything you write just plain sucks. Either way, the feedback is going to come right at you.
Giving feedback is a skill. It's hard to be critical without being harsh. It's hard to make comments on someone else's work when you think you don't know anything. Who am I to say what works and what doesn't? you ponder. Well, you're a reader, for a start. You read published books. I'm betting you've read quite a few that have made you think How the heck did this get published? This guy can't even write a coherent sentence. You stand in the bookshop or the library, read the first couple of pages of a novel and put it back. Something didn't appeal - the voice, the character, the plot that was beginning to unfold - and you move onto the next one.
In a workshop, you have to read everyone else's work. You can't just put it back. You have to put aside your aversion to fantasy or romance or what you think is literary pretentiousness, and focus on craft. Did the opening grab me? Why not? Did the voice work? Why not? Do I feel like I want to read more about this character? Am I already starting to care about what happens to her? Why not? The first part of workshopping is to see what works and what doesn't in this piece of writing. The second, and more important, part is to try and make helpful suggestions.
Why is this more important? Because it works two ways - it stops the writer from feeling like they're in a black hole (everyone thinks my beginning sucks, but I have no idea how to fix it!), and it adds greatly to the skills of the workshopper. It's a two-way street. Learning how to read your own work critically and then rewrite it effectively is one of the most difficult skills for a writer to learn. The best place to start learning it is in a workshop. It's not just what they all say about your writing, it's what you see in other's stories and the constructive suggestions you come up with that will feed back into your own craft.
Group workshopping that is a bloody free-for-all is not worth one cent of your time and effort. Good feedback is a lesson in tact and diplomacy. As the writer, you have to remember it's not about you, it's about the words on the page. You want readers? You want to get published? The workshop will help you down that path. Although having a critical reader or mentor can be a wonderful experience, I've also seen some people whose mentors have influenced their work and not helped to make it better. The group provides a variety of readers and comments - even though not all may be useful, you learn to take what is and make your writing better.