First of all, distinguish between one-offs and regular workshops. One reason this is on my mind is that I am being a workshop pro at Potlatch. I generally volunteer to be a workshop pro at cons, simply in order to pay forward. That's a one-off, where I have no prior experience of critiquing the writer and no real expectation of continued experience of critiquing the writer.
Regular workshops, on the other hand, meet regularly. I've mentioned before I see there being three kinds of regular workshops -- tall pole, peer driven, and tennis ladder. More or less by definition, con workshops are tall-pole workshops.
- Tall pole -- One or two sponsoring pros at a career or experience level significantly ahead of the balance of the attendees, who are largely peers
- Peer driven -- Everyone in the workshop is at roughly the same career or experience level, often seen at the very earliest stages of writing, and also among well-established pros
- Tennis ladder -- The rarest but most useful form of workshop, where there are writers at all levels of career and experience, so virtually everyone experiences mentoring both upward and downward
There's also the issue of whether a workshop is good for you the writer. This can change over time, depending on your readiness for critique and the structured experience of the workshop. It can also be personality dependent -- a strong workshop member with firm opinions can be troublesome for quieter members, for example. There's also a regrettable tendency among writers (and human beings in general) to assume that whatever they think, feel and act on is the right way to do things, and everyone else is an idiot.
All that being said, without a workshop, where are you going to get direct, cogent feedback on your writing craft and the art thereof?
Eric Witchey explained something to me some years ago which has stuck strongly in my head. In fact, I've found it to be the touchstone of the different models I've used for working with my writing -- workshop, first/second readers, one-on-one critique exchanges, parallel play, etc. He pointed out that the way most people learn a facet of craft is by intellectualizing it first, for example, through structured critique. Then there is a time period of months for that intellectualization to sink in. Then, eventually, the subject of study becomes part of the writer's unconscious competence.
So for me, I listen to what people tell me, I listen to my own intuition about my writing (which, for the record, I still find highly unreliable, six and half years into my publishing career), and I pay a lot of attention to what other people tell each other. Because for me, the real purpose of a workshop was never the critiques I got or didn't get -- I was too invested in those to listen as well as I should. The real purpose of a workshop was the critiques between others, where I could listen with both objectivity and focus.
What's your take on workshops? Do they work for you? Am I full of it?