Mary Anne and Jed's critiquing guidelines

| No Comments

A guide to writing good critiques in a writing workshop, by Mary Anne Mohanraj and Jed Hartman.

Contents

  1. Background, audience, and disclaimers
  2. Workshop ground rules
  3. Outline of the general workshopping process
  4. Specific guidelines for authors and critiquers
    1. Before the workshop: for the author
    2. Before the workshop: for critiquers
    3. At the workshop: for critiquers
    4. At the workshop: for the author
  5. Conclusion

Background, audience, and disclaimers

This guide is intended for intermediate-level fiction-workshop groups. Other groups may have different needs and different approaches.

Even within the kinds of workshops we're addressing here, different workshops do things differently. This guide is not intended to be a comprehensive plan that can be applied to all workshops; these are just guidelines that people can adapt to local situations if they want to.

We're drawing on our experiences in various workshops; we make no claim to being the first or only people who've suggested various guidelines. But we've noticed that a lot of workshoppers haven't put much thought into the goals they're trying to accomplish with their critiques, nor into how best to organize a critique. We hope that thinking about this stuff will result in better critiques.

The main focus of this guide is on recommendations for how to write a good critique before the workshop session itself; however, we also briefly discuss things the critiquer should and shouldn't do during the workshop session, and things the author should do both before and during the session.

Workshop ground rules

This guide is focused on critiquing per se, so we're not discussing issues like whether a workshop should allow both fiction and nonfiction, both genre and literary fiction, both prose and poetry, or both short pieces and book-length works. However, your workshop should make decisions about those issues. For example, some prose-fiction writers may not be comfortable critiquing poetry. And critiquing a novel can be an entirely different experience than critiquing a short story.

This guide tends to assume your workshop is focused on short speculative fiction; you may have to adapt some items (and translate some examples) if your workshop has a different focus.

We aren't going to even mention such issues as how often a workshop should meet, how people become members, whether there's a minimum activity requirement, what the ratio of social time to critiquing time should be at your workshop sessions, or what kinds of snacks a workshop host should provide.

Outline of the general workshopping process

This process is derived from the Clarion approach to workshopping.

  1. To do before the workshop session:
    1. Writers provide their stories to the other workshoppers, usually via email.
    2. Workshoppers read the stories and write their critiques.
  2. To do at the workshop session, for each story:
    1. Each person in turn gives their spoken critique. While one person is talking, nobody else talks (except possibly to toss in a word of agreement or disagreement about a specific comment, though some groups don't allow this).
    2. The author doesn't get to speak at all until everyone else has given their critique. Then the author gets a brief response period.
    3. If desired, after the author's response, there can be a brief period of general discussion when everyone can talk. Sometimes this is the most valuable part of the session for the author.
    4. When discussion is done, the critiquers hand their written notes to the author. (Or email the notes after the workshop, if written on a computer.)
    5. If there are a lot of stories to cover, take occasional breaks between stories as needed.

Specific guidelines for authors and critiquers

Before the workshop: for the author

  1. Give critiquers the story.
    Provide your story in whatever form the workshop expects.
  2. Let the other workshoppers know how polished you consider the story to be.
    Is it a rough first draft that you expect to rewrite from scratch? Is it thoroughly polished and nearly ready to send out? If the other workshoppers know where the story is along that spectrum, they can focus their critiques more usefullly.
    The critiques will probably be most useful to you (and will make the critiquers feel like they spent their time well) if your story is neither completely raw nor totally done. Critiques of very raw stories often waste everyone's time, because the author often decides to throw away all the parts the critiquers have commented on; critiques of very polished stories are often frustrating to everyone, because the author usually doesn't want to make any significant changes at that point.
    One approach is to bring a story that you've spent a significant amount of time and effort developing, but one where you've gotten stuck in some way—you know it's not working perfectly yet, but you don't know why. Your workshop colleagues may be able to help you see where your story has gone astray.
  3. Include questions, if you have any.
    If you have specific questions that you want feedback on (“I'm not sure whether such-and-such scene works; what did you think?”), you can put them at the end of the story, or in a cover letter, depending on the kinds of questions and on how your workshop works.

Before the workshop: for critiquers

This is the most important section of this guide, which is why it's so long. We've broken the guidelines up into categories to improve readability.

Things to keep in mind as you read and critique

  1. This is not your story.
    Remember when critiquing that your job is not to tell the author how you would write this piece, but to help them create the piece the way they envision it. For example, don't tell them to change the ending to a happy one if they want it sad. You can, of course, offer options they might not have considered; but in the end, you're trying to facilitate the work they're trying to do.
    As part of this approach, think about who the target audience might be, and about the genre conventions the story uses. For example, if it's a tech-focused hard science fiction story, then it's probably not helpful to try to get the author to take out all the science descriptions.
  2. The goal of the critique is to help the author make the story as good as it can be.
    Look at what the author is trying to do, and discuss ways that the author can do that more effectively. Occasionally you may not think that what the author's trying to do is worthwhile; nonetheless, in the context of the workshop, your job is to try to help them write what they want to write, as well as possible.
  3. The writer is not the character (except in autobiographical nonfiction).
    Be careful in your critique not to assume they are the same. This is an especially common assumption when dealing with socially difficult material (for example, given a story about a girl who's been sexually abused by her father, workshop participants often assume the piece is a thinly-disguised true story). Unless the piece is clearly marked as nonfiction, it's best to assume the writer just made everything up. Do this even if the protagonist shares the author's name or other identifying details; sometimes authors create characters who are similar to them in many ways but don't actually represent them.
  4. Try to avoid making moral judgments about the work.
    Instead, address its effectiveness as a story.
  5. Consider thinking of the text as intentional.
    Particularly in non-beginner-level workshops, it can be a useful technique to assume that whatever's on the page is something the author meant to be there, and talk about it as such. It might turn out not to be intentional, but the author may nonetheless find it illuminating if you treat it as intentional. For example, you might say “I was annoyed at first by the narrator's gender not being specified, but the story's so focused on gender issues that I'm assuming that was intentional, and by the end of the story I think it basically works.”
    Whereas if you assume that everything going on in the text is accidental, then authors above the beginner level may get frustrated. Respect your colleague's intelligence and skill.
    On the other hand, if there's a good chance that something on the page might be a simple mistake (like a typo), then don't spend a lot of critique time focusing on treating that thing as intentional. The goal of treating something as intentional is to honestly explore the issue, not to indirectly attack something that's most likely a mistake. If you snidely say “I see that in this epic fantasy's climactic action sequence, you described the character as ‘enervated’—a fascinating metacommentary on the ennui all intelligent people feel while reading battle scenes,” that's a lot less helpful than writing “I wonder whether you meant ‘energized’” on the manuscript and leaving it at that.

Reading the story

  1. Start reading and critiquing well before the workshop.
    Critiquing involves a significant amount of work; don't wait until the last minute to get started. If nothing else, make certain well ahead of time that you have all the stories and that you can open/read them in the format provided; it's embarrassing to show up at workshop and say “I didn't receive your story, but I didn't notice that until ten minutes ago when I sat down to read it.”
  2. Read each story carefully, at least once, and take notes.
    Because reading a story for the first time with pen in hand may result in focusing more on line-edit details than on big-picture things, consider reading through once without taking notes, then writing notes immediately after reading, while the story's still fresh in your mind. But if you find that taking notes while reading the first time helps you think about the story, then feel free to do that.

Writing and organizing your critique

  1. Write out your full critique.
    Transform your notes into a written critique before the workshop, so you'll have everything you want to say all in one place; that will let you avoid spending workshop time paging through the manuscript trying to find and decipher your rough notes.
  2. Organize your critique by importance.
    Discuss the most important issues at the beginning of your critique, rather than organizing the critique by (say) story page number. For example, if your biggest concern about the story is the ending, don't wait until the end of your critique to say so; if you do, your important points don't get the emphasis they deserve. (And if there's a time limit, you risk running out of time before you get to your most important comments.)
  3. Try to stay brief and focused.
    After you've discussed the three or four most important issues in your written critique, consider stopping. The author may get more out of the critique if it's focused on a few major issues than if it covers a vast array of different topics. Leave the smaller issues for your notes on the manuscript.
    And if you feel that (for example) the long dialogue section in the middle should be cut entirely, then there's no point in a detailed discussion of the point-of-view issues within that section.
    Even if you do include more than a few issues in your critique, try to focus more of your critique on big-picture issues than on tiny details of (for example) how the stardrive in the story works.
  4. Leave line edits out of your critique.
    If you have detailed line editing suggestions (pointing out typos, punctuation, grammar issues, etc), and if the story is a late enough draft that copyedits would be useful to the author, then mark them on the manuscript or in your notes, but don't make a fuss over them in the part of the critique that you'll be giving aloud.
    If the story is a very early draft and large parts of it are likely to be thrown away, it may not be worth your time to copyedit it yet.
  5. Don't use a red pen.
    If you're hand-writing on a paper copy of the manuscript, consider using blue, green, or purple ink rather than red. Pedagogical research has suggested that students get more anxious over red-pen markings on papers. (And black ink may be hard for the author to notice if the text is printed in black.) Alternatively, you can skip writing on the manuscript entirely and type your notes if that's easier for you.

What your critique should cover

  1. Focus on solutions.
    Where possible, focus on suggesting ways to fix problems rather than just identifying the problems. But identify the problems, too; the author may come up with alternative ways to resolve them.
  2. Look at various aspects, including theme.
    There are a lot of different areas that a critique can focus on: plot, setting, characters, dialogue, narrative voice, structure and pacing, prose style, sensory descriptions, plausibility, conflict, and so on. But one area that tends to get short shrift in critiques is theme. So in addition to other things you're discussing, spend a little bit of time thinking about what this story is trying to say, and whether it succeeds, and how it could say it better.
  3. Use “I” statements.
    Instead of “This character sucks,” or even “This character's motivations didn't make any sense,” try “I had trouble understanding why this character decided to walk off the cliff at that point in the story.” “I” statements can help defuse author defensiveness, and can make it easier for the author to decide whose advice to pay attention to, because you're not stating your opinion as absolute truth; also, they can remind you that your reading isn't necessarily the only valid one.
  4. If you are not the target audience for the story, say so.
    That doesn't absolve you from responsibility for writing a good critique, but it does give the author some perspective on your comments. For example, if the work is an epic fantasy, and you hate all fiction featuring royalty because you were once bitten by a lost prince, then you should make clear that you're starting out with a bias against the piece.
  5. Say positive things about the story as well as criticisms.
    Writers often don't know what they're doing right—it's important to tell them what worked for you in the piece. Otherwise they may cut it from the story, never realizing how good it was. Starting your critique with something positive is generally a nice thing to do.
    But never give a cheap faux-positive comment like “I liked your typeface”; find something genuinely good about the story. Nearly every story has something good in it if you look for it.
    One way to think about this is is that there are a huge variety of virtues that fiction can have. Some things you might think about if you're having trouble seeing something good about the story: Character arc. Turns of phrase. Dialogue. Sense of place. Sensory details. Emotional resonance. Theme. Tone. Intent (“I like what you're trying to do here”). Compelling and/or sympathetic characters. Backstory. Worldbuilding. Beginnings. Endings. Plot. Action scenes. Food descriptions. Drug descriptions. Handling of POV. Managing of revelations. Politics. Nuance. Subtlety. Technology. Sense of wonder. Exposition. Clarity. Vividness/immediacy. Chronology. Pacing. Structure. Foreshadowing. And so on.

What your critique should avoid

  1. Don't spend critique time nitpicking.
    Focusing on solutions can also help remind you not to make a big fuss over an issue that can be corrected extremely easily. If you've found a flaw that the author can fix in thirty seconds, then mark it on the manuscript rather than discussing it at length in your critique. Critiquers often spend several sentences explaining aloud a problem that (for example) can be fixed by changing a single word; that's a waste of everyone's time.
    If there are important technical or factual details to be addressed, and they'll require significant amounts of time for the author to fix, then mention briefly in your spoken critique that those issues exist, and provide the details in written notes to the author.
  2. Don't show off.
    It can be tempting to use critiques as an opportunity to show how clever you are and how wittily you can mock the problems in the piece, making yourself look good at another writer's expense. Don't do this.
  3. Resist the urge to mention other stories that this story reminds you of, unless you have a good reason.
    Doing so can be fun, but think first about whether it would be useful to the author. A couple of situations where it might be useful:
    • If the story is such a close match that readers might think there are plagiarism or copyright issues, then briefly mention—but don't dwell on—the issue.
    • If there's a major work in the area that the author probably hasn't read, and if you think reading it might help the author develop their own work further, then say so. Art is in conversation with previous art; awareness of what else has been done in the field can enrich the writer's work.

At the workshop: for critiquers

  1. Keep spoken critiques short and to the point.
    Some workshops have a time limit of 2-3 minutes for a critique; even if your group doesn't have a strict time limit, try to say your most important points in two or three minutes. You'll be giving the written critique to the author afterward, so you don't need to say everything you've written.
  2. Resist the urge to repeat yourself or to elaborate at length on a given point.
    Say what you want to say clearly and briefly; if the author needs elaboration, they can ask you for it during general discussion.
  3. Pay attention to what others are saying in their critiques.
    And take notes on the things that you agree with or disagree with. Mention those, as appropriate, during or after your own critique. If your turn has already passed, then mention any important agreements or disagreements during the general discussion period at the end.

At the workshop: for the author

  1. Don't take any one critiquer's comments too seriously.
    Sometimes readers just have an odd individual response to a piece. But if you hear something, say, three times from three different people, that's something you should probably look at again.
  2. That doesn't mean you have to do what they tell you to.
    Often readers can tell something's not working, but their suggestions of how to fix it may be wildly offbase. Note the problem, listen to their suggestions, but find the solution that works for you.
  3. Take notes during the critiques about anything you'll want to discuss afterward.
    But don't worry about taking detailed notes on everything that's said; the other workshoppers will be providing you with their written critiques afterward.

Conclusion

A good critique group can provide immensely valuable feedback to the participants, and can result in big improvements in their writing. You can even learn from critiquing other people's work; sometimes it's easier to see a problem when it's not your own baby under the microscope, and a close reading of another writer's work can give you insights that you take back to your own writing.

But poor critiques can be frustrating for everyone. So we hope that these guidelines will help writers to have better and more productive workshop experiences.

Post a comment