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Some guidelines for good critiquing


I took a couple of writing-workshop classes in college, and then I went to Clarion West, and then I participated in various local ongoing workshops; and so by the time I helped Mary Anne run the Strange Horizons workshops in the early 2000s, I had been critiquing fiction for over ten years, and considered myself pretty good at it.

But Mary Anne gave me whole new paradigms for critiquing. Watching her talk about stories, I discovered that a bunch of what I thought I knew about how to critique was just wrong.

In 2006, she wrote up some guidelines and suggestions for how to give good critiques, to be handed out to students or a critique group. I gave her some feedback and suggestions (including notes I had taken during discussions of critiquing at the SH workshops), and we both used various variations on her guidelines at various times over the years.

A couple years ago, it occurred to me that the online critiquing guidelines I've seen elsewhere tended to be just checklists of things to look for in stories. So with Mary Anne's permission and help, I took the handout that she was giving to her writing classes and expanded and reorganized and reworked various aspects of it, and turned it into a web page.

The project proceeded in fits and starts; it's been just over two years since I suggested it, and that was after years of occasionally thinking about it but never getting around to doing it. But I'm pleased to announce that it's finally ready for public consumption.

So without further ado, I present to you:

Mary Anne and Jed's critiquing guidelines

I'm sorry that they're so long—we both get a little wordy when we're talking about this stuff. I've tried to make it scannable by putting main points in boldface. If there are parts that you don't find useful, just ignore those parts.

Feedback welcome; I imagine it'll undergo some revision over time. You can leave comments either on this blog entry (but not in LJ, 'cause I won't see them) or on the page itself.


What did you think you knew that turned out to be wrong, if you don't mind my asking?

I used to do a lot of copy editing and critiquing of fiction in college and I think that I followed a lot of those rules. (Purely by dumb luck!) It may explain why I had a good reputation as an editor. But it is nice to see a set of guidelines written out--giving critique is not a natural act and requires instruction. :-)

I think the one I'd quibble with is the parenthetical bit of "The writer is not the character (except in autobiographical nonfiction)." Even in autobiographical nonfiction, it's useful and appropriate to make a distinction between the writer and the narrator.

(Well, that and "write the whole thing out," but then I also think that's inadvisable for oral presentations. But that's a procedural issue, not a content-based one.)

David: Various things, but the biggest two were the goal of a critique and the structure of a critique.

I used to think that the goal of the critique was to give my honest unvarnished opinions (and that I couldn't be honest without being blunt and, at times, outright unpleasant—I cringe when I think of some of the things I said to friends about their work in those days). These days I feel that the goal is to help the writer make the story do what the writer wants it to do, as well as possible, and that honesty is not incompatible with gentleness. (I'm not sure whether I learned that last bit from M or not.)

And I used to not think about critique structure at all. I would scribble notes on the manuscript, and during my critique I would leaf through the MS page by page, reading my notes to myself and then summarizing them aloud. It took way too long, and it meant I spent most of my critique time talking about entirely unimportant nitpicky stuff and not focusing on big-picture important things.

There was other stuff that I learned from M about critiquing, but the above two were the biggest things that I now think I was seriously wrong about before.

allogenes: Thanks for the comment!

Re instruction: Yeah—I received occasional instruction in how to critique, but it rarely went beyond one or two basic rules (like "be honest").

Shmuel, re autobiographical nonfiction: Fair enough, but at least in that context if the author says something happened to them, you can be forgiven for thinking it actually happened to the author, whereas that's not a valid approach to critiquing fiction.

Re writing the whole thing out: I guess I would say there's a useful middle ground. I'm sometimes a little disconcerted when a workshopper has written out their critique and reads it word-for-word from the page. But I do think there's tremendous value in putting together a critique in written form before the workshop; I've seen way too many cases where critiquers don't write down anything but notes on the MS (see my above comment to David), and those critiques are almost always scattershot and messy and focused on unimportant things. Writing out a critique ahead of time forces the critiquer to think about what they want to say, and in what order.

So these days I write my critiques ahead of time, and then I say them at the workshop in more natural spoken language, which often includes some exact quotes from what I've written but usually doesn't consist entirely of just reading aloud what I've written.

But I realize that's a kind of vague way of describing this; I don't really have a good precise idea of the best way to handle it. Maybe Mary Anne will have a better response.

...well, I should also grant that I don't believe that there's one best way of workshopping or critiquing, though I think these guidelines present a good one. :-)

I have been known to say that there are Simon Cowell writing workshops, where the aim is to put each piece through a trial by fire, mercilessly tearing down everything that doesn't work, and Paula Abdul workshops, where the aim is to build the author up and point out everything that's being done correctly. Neither is actually bad in itself. But there are writers who do better in one or the other, and who will be miserable (and/or will make everybody else miserable) if they end up in the wrong sort. In my case, it's the Paula Abdul variety that I have absolutely no business being in.

But the very best workshops have both. I count myself lucky that in my final semester of grad school, I was in such an ideal workshop, in which I played the Cowell role, a classmate played the Abdul role, and everybody else chimed in in the middle. Trust me when I say this: it was magic all around. I thanked "Paula" most sincerely after the final class; it was precisely because she found grounds for sincerely liking absolutely everything that I was able to be critical to the extent that I was... and I honestly believe that the fact that we were holding down the extremes from the start helped open the space for everybody else to feel comfortable chiming in, leading to an extremely productive and dynamic workshop. I'd also note that "Each person in turn gives their spoken critique" would have been entirely antithetical to the way that workshop went (indeed, dynamic discussions have been a hallmark of every workshop I've really liked). That doesn't mean it's a bad rule, or that the workshop would have been better with it. Just that there's no one best way.

Re: "you can be forgiven for thinking it actually happened to the author" This is true. I guess I was thinking about it from the opposite end than you intended.

Re: written critiques, I will grant that jotting down a concise list of points you want to make is helpful. (Much as the same approach is helpful when you're giving a speech. If your approach to public speaking is to write the whole thing down in advance, then I suppose that would apply here too. I'm normally all about the extemporaneous, myself. But there's no one best way.) :-)

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