Fiction writing workshops come in many shapes and forms. Workshops may be informal gatherings for those interested in ongoing meetings. They may be leaderless, have a light-handed facilitator or organizer, or a more experienced leader.

Workshops may last a single day, weekend, or week. They may go on for a summer embedded in the woods as if at a retreat. They can be found online, with many exchanges of e-mail scurrying back and forth amongst the participants. Or they may be more structured in the form of an MFA or MA program at a college or university offering a creative writing program, with at least one workshop course offered every semester.

University based formal education in a creative writing program is hardly a prerequisite for becoming a good or great writer. The evidence is overwhelming. One has only to ask if the sampling of the following writers ever set foot in a degree granting creative writing program: Cervantes, Fielding, Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austin, Emily, Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Melville, Conrad, Henry James, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, or Haruki Murakami. It is true that many revered contemporary writers have done so, but many have not.

“Writing” and “critiquing” are the two most essential activities carried out in fiction workshops. They are bidirectional in that while everyone’s writing gets a chance to be critiqued, every writer also has an opportunity to critique the work of other workshop participants.

Even though this occurs of necessity, there is a potential pitfall built into this approach. Some may withhold their most forthright critical remarks for fear that if they offer their true opinion, then they will be handled harshly when they are critiqued. This, of course, is self-defeating, since it negates the purpose of the workshop, which is to give and receive honest feedback in order to improve the author’s future work.

Others may be less inclined to speak openly about their criticisms of a particular writer’s material to avoid hurting his feelings. The key to avoiding this problem is to have an open understanding amongst the participants about why they are there and how their objective can best be reached. It involves a set of attitudes and methods.

A central question that each member of the workshop must ask herself is, “How can I best serve this participant when critiquing his work?” The reciprocal to this question is, “How can I best be served through the critiques offered by the other members of the group?” The simple answer to these questions is — by speaking and hearing the truth.

When being critiqued by others, it is important to bear in mind that there will always be a strong component of subjectivity and personal preference. This can be readily demonstrated by recognizing that often the same piece being subject to a critique will receive comments that run the gamut from “wonderful” to “terrible.” Actually, I would advise against the actual use of either of these words. It is important to use words that are specific and concrete.

Use words that will illuminate the author’s understanding of the shortcomings of his work and provide suggestions upon how they may be improved. In offering criticisms, be sure to enter into the framework of the writer’s plot, characters, and style, while assiduously assuring that you are not simply trying to rewrite his work in your own image. Not adhering to this rule is a common error and it is not at all helpful to the person receiving the criticism.

Critiquing another writer’s work is an art in itself. It must be cultivated and developed over time. One must eschew sarcasm and negativity for its own sake. Instead, every comment made about another’s material should have a constructive intent. It should be direct and honest, yet delivered tactfully and gracefully. A critique is not an attack.

In fact, it is vital to include comments about the author’s strengths so that he can not only be aware of them, but also refine and build upon them. The opportunity to comment upon another’s work brings with it a responsibility to be constructive. Proceed with integrity to achieve the maximum effect.

You will sometimes have strong emotional reactions when being critiqued. Do not be defensive or try to argue the correctness of what you’ve done. Listen with respect. Listen to learn. You can develop discernment to dig out the nuggets of commentary that resonate with you and will fit into your authorial plan if adopted. Do not be swayed from following your own path if you have strong conviction about the direction you are moving, but do be prepared to consider that you may have swerved too far one way and perhaps need to recalibrate the course you are following.

Some of what you hear when being critiqued will reach the heights of wisdom and some will reflect specious reasoning, personal preference, and just plain ignorance. You will need to exercise your own emotion, intuition, and judgment to reach conclusions about which advice to follow and which to discard. Above all, do not personalize the feedback you receive. You are not your writing, no matter how essential a role authoring plays in your life. You are not a flat, one-dimensional character, but a full-rounded, multi-dimensional one with many facets to your life and an identity that transcends even becoming an author, no matter how essential that may be to your core values.

Ultimately, a group of aspiring and or experienced writers participating in a workshop form a “community of authors,” who are working toward one another’s best interests. If you do not feel that sense of community, then find another. Join one that can support you with honesty, integrity, and generosity. You will do well to belong to one that can help you cultivate your skills and nurture faith in your potential to succeed.