I've recently been reading two different (but similar) books about the writing workshop - whether it's an archaic structure or setup that has run its course and does more harm than good, or whether the workshop is still a beneficial thing for writers but perhaps needs to be considered differently these days. I'm going to discuss the books themselves in a week or so, when I've finished reading them, but it did seem a bit strange that both of them have been published in the last year. (They are Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? ed Dianne Donnelly and Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies by Anis Shivani.)
Where I teach, the writing workshop is a staple in our classrooms. Not because we are slavishly following some ideal that was set up in Iowa 60 years ago, but because we think that it has a lot of benefits. And some downsides. The benefits are: students gain a first audience for their work, one that wants to learn as much from commenting on other's work as they do from the feedback they receive; they start to see common weaknesses and through discussion begin to learn how to address these; they build a sense of a writing community; they realise that you can't please all of the people all of the time!
The downsides might include: the writer who becomes defensive and angry and argues with the group; the person who criticizes everyone's work relentlessly and never says anything positive; those who only say what they like or don't like but don't offer anything else; the person who accepts everyone's comments on their own writing but doesn't reciprocate. There are probably more than this! But the downsides for us tend to be limited to individual's problems with the process, and because we're in a classroom it can be easier to work these through. The other thing to be wary of, of course, is creating a situation where you "homogenise" everyone's work, or where writers go for the safe options, especially where a grade at the end is involved. I think we try to avoid that, as much as possible.
I do know of workshop groups where no one ever critiques - they just read out to each, pat each other on the back and then go home. I've also heard of others where one person has managed to destroy the whole group! Outside of a classroom, the writing group has to manage itself and be reasonably democratic. This is harder to achieve than you might think. A willingness to contribute honestly and fairly, to encourage and support as well as critique, and to bring writing for critique regularly, are basic requirements for success.
Some of the issues mentioned so far in the books I'm reading include workshops that discourage experimentation, don't critique critically enough to be useful, and those that operate only as critique groups with no reference to or study of literary texts as a basis for learning. I'm sure there's going to be a lot more! I'll get back to you when I'm done reading and thinking. In the meantime, if you have any comments on workshopping experiences, please do share!