Thursday, May 25, 2006

Learning to critique

This spring I'm teaching a critiquing class. The group meets once a week and we read and discuss work brought in by participants. I bring a timer to keep us on track and to ensure that discussion time is divided fairly. I also offer a writing prompt, week-to-week in case they need ideas to keep them writing. It's been a great class and has made me think a lot about the writing and workshopping process.

Learning to critique the creative work of others is a really valuable life lesson, especially if you are pursuing a creative life yourself. We learn a great deal from having our work critiqued and also from critiquing the work of others.

Here are some of the basic "rules" I have my students follow:

For the reader:

· Do not explain your work. Do not give us “background information” before you read it to us. Let the work speak for itself. The words on the page must do the work--once it is in print, you will not have the opportunity to “set it up” for your readers. After comments you can explain if you feel compelled to do so.

· Understand that a critique of your work is not a critique of you. Because we look at your work and find suggestions for improvement does not mean that you are a bad writer. Most work needs tweaking. Above all, remember that a critique is not personal. You are not being judged. You are not passing or failing. You are workshopping.

· Remember that this is your work. Ultimately it will have only your name on it. As such, it should say what you want it to say. DO NOT take every suggestion offered. This will result in a mish-mash of ideas and styles. I tell my students to think of a critique session as a buffet. Sample everything, yes, but only take seconds of whatever food appeals to you.

For the critiquer:

· Be positive. It is not easy to put creative work before a group. Find something that you like and comment on that before finding fault.

· Offer suggestions for improvement. Phrases such as “have you considered…” and “what if you tried…” go a long way toward making the critiquee receptive to your ideas.

· Do not be afraid to speak up if you disagree with what another critiquer says. You can do this politely, but it is important for the person who is being critiqued to know that what that person says is not agreed to across the board. There is no problem with having a different opinion. We are all writing different things in different styles. There is bound to be some disagreement. It is up to the writer to sort it out, and up to you to speak up if you disagree.

· Honor the author's intent. The best critiquer takes time to analyze what the author is trying to accomplish and frames his or her suggestions accordingly. Be careful not to impose your own personal writing tastes on the critiquee, especially if they run contrary to the writer's vision for his or her piece. [Even experienced workshop leaders have trouble remembering to do this.]


The most useful--and difficult--thing I've learned in more than twenty years of workshopping (ten-plus years in the fine arts and ten years in writing) is how to sort through comments. If a particular reader doesn't get anything of what I'm trying to say and would change virtually everything about my writing, that reader is NOT a good reader for my work. I then take to heart very little of what that particular reader says--he or she simply is not the reader I'm aiming for.

Conversely, if a reader likes every single thing about my piece and wants no changes whatsoever, that person may be a good reader for my ego, but not so good for helping me make the work the best it can be. I appreciate the strokes, but also, get very little that is constructive from the critique.

If, however, a reader responds positively to some things (particularly the things that I, too, like) and has suggestions for changes/adjustments that ring true as I read them, then that person IS a good reader for me and I listen to almost everything that person has to say.

The worst thing we can do to our writing voice is take to heart everything that everyone says and try to make everyone happy.

7 comments:

katrina said...

Excellent advice, Mary!

Stephanie said...

It's definitely good advice.

I've been an editor for ten years (OMG!) now and I'm astounded at the number of writers who are gawdawful critiquers.

Critiquing is really helping the writer make her piece better. It's not rewriting it so it sounds more like the critiquer wrote it, or following the critiquers rules of writing, or changing the subject to something that interests the critiquer more, but that's often how people critique.

More than anyone wants to know, I know. It's just something I've been thinking about in reference to my hesitancy to workshop.

Clifford Garstang said...

Excellent advice, Mary. I think you know I agree with all that. I also like what Stephanie said--critquers, mostly novices, sometimes try to to imprint themselves on a story instead of the other way around, and that just isn't helpful for the author.

Mary Akers said...

Ah, yes, of course, Stephanie! How did I forget that one? Honor the author's intent. (That is one of my total pet peeves--can't believe I forgot it. Will add it now.) Thank you!

Stephanie said...

Okay, I just got the worst critique (and this is in a professional paid setting):

"I've struggled with what to say about this because so much of it is not so good."

Why won't everyone read your blog, Mary?

Everything Reviews said...

It's funny... I'm leading workshops in a writing groups right now, and I used pretty much everything in this blog entry without knowing the entry existed...so, yeah. Rock out.

Jim said...

This is all such good advice, Mary. I've been having a parallel discussion over on my MySpace blog. It is just so hard to say things in a way they'll be heard, because there is often so much emotion and self invested in the writing. How do you navigate that and end up being helpful? Sometimes it's nearly impossible.