Fiction Writing

Critiques and Workshopping

As you prepare for in-class workshop sessions, here a few things to help make this the best possible experience for everyone.

Feel free to make copyedit, formatting, and other such markups on the manuscripts (printed or e-doc format), as this helps the authors improve their micro-writing and professional appearance - two things vital to publication success. But don't forget to make substantive recommendations on how to best improve the story, and in the larger sense how the writer can improve her next story.

Most important, though, is your written critique of the stories. Here are some thoughts.

Each day when we workshop stories, we have open discussion where we talk about the larger issues and awesomenesses of each piece. To prepare for this, pretend as you read these stories that you are an acquisitions editor. These pages are all you know about this story. What works? What doesn't? Would you buy it or recommend that the Big Editor buy it? Why or why not? Does it work for you as a reader? Do you believe in the characters and their situation? Is this a solid, believable story? Does the language and the pacing pull you through? Are you in the presence of genius?

The written critique need only be a page or two long for each story. What should it contain? Try to frame in your mind the "Platonic ideal" version of the story at hand. What is the author trying to say? If it's not apparent in the story itself, that suggests something the author might need to address. If it's a bunch of things that aren't really focused, that's something else. What gets in the way of the story's perfection? What does it need to attain its optimal state? Identify all of these:

  • Strengths.
  • Issues or problems you see.
  • Questions that arise for you as a reader.

Writing it down has two purposes: It forces you, the reader, to really solidify your thinking about a work before discussing it, and it allows you, the writer, to have a set of documents about your story, including things we maybe didn't get to talking about. Having a print copy also means you have a piece of paper on which to draw dragons and robots during the conversation.

So go ahead and mark typos, spelling or syntax comments, and whatever else comes up. Please don't use the discussion time for copyedit-level comments except on the larger scale ("I noticed that your sentences use commas in a random fashion"), because you'll have those markups on the manuscript itself or comment about them in your critique, and I'll likely discuss general micro-writing or other professionalization rules along with my specific story comments, so leave that to me.

    Use this critique guidelines sheet to formulate your responses to the story at hand. Also use the "Critique Guidelines" section, below, as your guide.

During our critique and discussion sessions, we'll go round-robin clockwise starting with the person next to the author, each of us speaking in turn without interrupting one another - and the author remains silent until we've all had our say. Sometimes that's tough to do when everyone seems to be missing the point... this is a time to practice your Zen mastery and try to learn from the experience: Why has everyone read the story differently than you intended? How can you make it work in the way you meant? Why didn't your genius shine through to these pedestrian minds? When everyone's had their say, the author has a chance to talk if she or he wishes, or to ask questions. But hold your tongue until then! Same for the rest of y'all - respect the current critiquer who has the floor. Whether you post your work on a critique forum, or you ask someone privately, the etiquette is the same:

Say thank you as soon as possible. Sure, you can say you might want to ask questions later, but that's not the point. Someone has just spent hours - or days - reading your work and analyzing their reaction to it. Be polite.

Do not argue. Do not explain. Does this mean you have to agree with the feedback? Of course not. But arguing is pointless. Your story has to stand on its own.

Does that mean you can't ask questions? Well, that depends. Some critiquers don't want to answer questions. Or they don't have time. Or they've come across someone who confuses "conversation" with "OMG, here's how you were wrong to hate my story." Most critiquers are happy to clarify what they meant. If they are, they will tell you. If they don't say, ask. Then abide by their answer.

What if I hate my feedback? Fair enough. However, you should at least give it careful consideration. Think about why they didn't like the plotting, or this character, or whatever else didn't work for them. Do that not because you need to placate them, but because it helps your writing.

How can you be the best critiquer possible? A few things. First, in case you haven't read it yet, check out James Gunn's short and excellent "How to Be a Good Critiquer and Still Remain Friends" essay. Go ahead and read it now. I'll wait.

Okay, now that you've mastered the theory, I recommend starting your critique with what you liked about the story and why. This might help improve this story if the author can enhance that element, but the primary value of starting like this is that it helps us recognize the things that work and encourages us do those things again in future writing. It's easy to miss our successes.

Then move on to address Goethe's recommendations for critics by framing these questions:

  1. What did the author intend to do?
  2. How well did she do it?
  3. (Last and least important) Was it a good, worthwhile, or interesting thing to do?

Let this guide your recommendations. Don't think about what you would do with this story; think about what the author was trying to say or do. This makes the critique sessions much more interesting and swifter, as we can focus on the important stuff and areas for general improvement. 

When it comes around to my turn to talk (I'll go last), in addition to my own critique I'll use the story to discuss writing recommendations relevant not just to this story but to writing in general, things such as thoughts on character, plot, setting, senses, and more - kind of micro-lectures. I've put together a ton of documents about each of these things and will share those that the story and our discussions bring up - rather than flood you with a bunch of theory right away (you can find many of them here, and linked from there, if you feel like drinking from a fire-hose; I post things there mostly for reference after workshops).

While everyone is giving their critiques, you'll see me writing more notes about each story during the discussion. This is because hearing others' thoughts often stimulates more of my own, or responses to other people's thoughts. I find the discussions really useful for my own writing, and urge you to consider the same. Half the value of critiquing others' work is what we can learn from their successes and misses.

Finally, keep in mind that the most important thing you'll learn is not specifically how to revise these stories. You heard me right. Optimally, what you'll come away with from our sessions is how to write your best new stories in the future based on what you learn over the course of our workshop. Keep your mind open for the big picture, rather than narrowly focused on the individual story at hand - and not just for your own story, but for everyone else's, too. How can you learn from everyone else's successes? What can you learn from other people's misses? How can you avoid making the same mistakes again, or others' mistakes? How can you re-create your own or others' successes?

If you strive to do all of this during our time together, I guarantee that you'll get the most out of the experience, and your writing will vastly improve. Optimally, honing your critique skills on other people's work translates into self-critique mastery, and that leads to writing publishable work.

Critique Guidelines:
How to critique a story

First, read the work through once, preferably in a single sitting, to see what it's about and what happens.

Second, come back to the piece later for a more critical reading. This time, read with pen in hand and make your margin comments, marking parts that worked well for you and parts that didn't. For example, "nice image - I could see this" or "here I wanted more details" or "this dialogue is good, but I want more." If you're good at grammar, you may also correct any errors you see (but kindly, not obnoxiously).

Then, when you've made plenty of margin comments, open up a Word document and type the author a letter. This note should be at least a half a page long, single-spaced. In it, I suggest doing the following things:

  1. Recap what you understand the work to be about (not a plot summary, but what the idea of the piece is, what it means, what the author is trying to express. "This is about a sock monkey who is trying to get home after it escapes a trash bag and finds itself in a landfill.")
  2. Describe your impressions of the piece-where it was most interesting, what moved you, what bored you, what confused you.
  3. Tell at least two things you thought worked well, and why.
  4. Tell at least two things you think could work better, and how.
  5. Sign your name.
  6. Save (and maybe even print a copy of) the critique letter. Upload it to the Blackboard slot for that story to get credit for doing the work, and send (or hand) it to the author.

Here are a few questions to get you started. Feel free to address these in your note to the author:

  • Does the title work? Can you think of a better one?
  • Is the piece all there, or do you want to see more development on some parts?
  • Does the story leave questions unanswered for you?
  • Would you like to see more (or missing) scenes, images, details, explanations?
  • What is the piece about (the idea of it, the theme)? How well is that coming through?
  • Are scene and exposition well-balanced? Would you like more scene? More exposition?
  • Is it clear what the main character wants? Is that desire clearly related to the action of the piece? Is there a change in character, an insight, a revelation, a reversal? Does the story reveal something essential or insightful about what it means to be human?
  • Are the characters believable? Why or why not? Are their actions clearly motivated? Is their speech - the dialogue - natural and believable?
  • Is the plot plausible? Does it make sense? Are events causally related, or seemingly random?
  • Does the opening capture your attention? Does it suggest a real-feeling character in an interesting situation with a compelling problem? Or does it tread water, going nowhere? Does the opening line grab you?
  • Is the work paced well, neither too fast nor too slow?
  • Is the setting clear? Would you like more details of time/place? More physical description?
  • What's at stake? In other words, is the subject of the work important enough to write about? Or is the experience related too trivial to be interesting, in your opinion?
  • Is the style smooth and free of grammatical error? Are there aspects of style you found effective? Other aspects you found less appealing?
  • Does the ending satisfy you? Why or why not?

When writing these notes, always say "I think..." or "It seems to me..." Express yourself, but don't dictate - it's not your work. And avoid vague comments such as "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." You're allowed to like or dislike the story, of course, but you need to describe why. "I liked it" is good for a writer's ego, just as "I hated it" can be damaging, but neither improves the writing.

Remember, this the point of critiques it to offer constructive criticism and constructive praise of the writing. Use language like, "this is working" or "this could work better." This is not an opportunity to boost your ego by giving someone a litany of what's wrong with their story, but it is also unhelpful to give only praise. Find the right balance.

When you begin answering these questions, and others like them about other people's writing, you'll begin to address the same questions in your own work. By reading others' work critically, you begin to read your own in the same way.

Updated 10/12/2017

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