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Critiquing

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One thing I noticed over the weekend is that although I'm a lot better at critiquing than I was at Clarion, I still have plenty of room for improvement.

I've been doing workshops of various sorts since mid-college, so I certainly know the basics: critique the work, not the person; don't be nasty, but do be honest; etc. My first week at Clarion, I think I was one of the few who'd had any critiquing experience, and it took most of that week for the rest of the class to get past bland content-free critiques that tried so hard not to hurt anyone's feelings that they didn't provide useful feedback. (At least, that's my memory of it, eleven years later.) I spent most of week 1 saying "Sorry, this didn't work for me," while everyone else was nodding and smiling and saying "Not bad." But by week 2, everyone else was up to speed, and I started liking things more. (That matches my experience with workshops in general, interestingly; as time goes on, I tend to like what's submitted for critique more. I can't tell if I'm influenced by getting to know the authors better, or if the authors are actually getting better; probably some of both. Possibly the authors are also adapting their work to the workshop's tastes, which is always a bit problematic, but I don't think I've ever seen that happen in a really big way.)

But it's only been in the last couple of years (I think mostly due to Mary Anne's influence) that I've started working on improving my critiques in other ways. For years I would scribble notes in the margins of a printout, and then when it was my turn to critique, I would page through the story, skimming my notes as I went and saying anything that caught my eye. I did learn to fold down page corners for particularly important items and focus on those, but even so, I tended to make long point-by-point critiques in fairly random order.

Recently I've learned three key techniques:

  • Type up substantive comments, all in one place, not in the margins of the story. Keep it to under a page if possible. This approach often means that you don't have to refer to the printout during critique at all, which saves time and makes sure you don't forget things.
  • In that writeup, start with big important overall stuff, then proceed to any less-important stuff that you think is worth taking up the whole group's time to mention. Completely omit things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, word-choice/diction, and anything else that's trivial to fix—that stuff should all be marked on the printout of the story, and doesn't need to be mentioned at all during critique. (Exception being if there's a problem throughout the story. If the writer frequently uses a particular word that you find really jarring, or a particular grammatical construction that's especially confusing, it's worth mentioning briefly in passing; even so, don't dwell on it.)
  • When giving the critique during workshop, don't over-elaborate. Make a point briefly and move on. Especially important if the thing you're commenting on can be fixed by making a trivial change.

I think the hardest part for me at this point is focusing on big issues rather than nitpicks. It's hard to remember to do the most important things first when I'm disgruntled about a dangling modifier.

The other hardest part for me at this point is critiquing in authorial terms rather than editorial. My reaction these days to a story that doesn't appeal to me is to mark it as To Be Rejected and move on. Which is totally useless in workshop. So I try to remember to say what in particular didn't work for me, and why, and to proffer suggestions on possible ways to change it. (Which is sometimes hard to do while also being careful not to rewrite the story. "I would like this space opera short story better if it were an epic fantasy novel" is not a helpful critique.)

The other other hardest part for me is to remember to say nice things about the stuff I liked. In any workshop story I'm likely to see at this point, there's likely to be stuff I like; but my tendency is to focus on the flaws, which can make it sound like I hate the story. I think to some extent I'm inclined to think of mentioning what I like as merely a way to keep the author from feeling too wounded by my critique; I need to keep reminding myself that it also helps the author a lot to know what worked for a given reader, and thus what not to change if they want to please that reader.

One thing I do think I often get right is taking a story on its own terms. I've heard many critiques that say (exaggerated for effect) things like: "I don't like funny stories; I think you should take all the humor out of this." Or: "This story is too light. Add some Deep Serious Themes to it." (The latter is perfectly valid in some cases, of course; I'm just saying that I think it's easy to forget that sometimes a story is meant to be light and fluffy, and doesn't aspire to anything else, and plenty of light fluffy stories get published. They're generally not to my taste, and often it's possible to achieve humor (for instance) while still providing some substance, but if the author wants to write a light fluffy piece, it's worth considering whether the story succeeds as a bit of light fluff.) My personal pet peeve about this sort of thing is that most people I know like novels more than short stories, and many critiques start out "This would be better if you turned it into a novel." Turning a story into a novel may be an option in many cases, but if it works perfectly well as a story, I see no real impetus to do so.

(Well, okay, except for the fact that if you want to make a living as a writer, you pretty much have to write novels. So if your goal is to write novels, then "This could be turned into a novel" is a good critique. So I'm displaying my own biases here when I say "No, it's the right length for the story it's telling, don't mess with the length.")

Okay, that's enough of that.

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