Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Workshopping and Critique

By Heidi Wessman Kneale
2005,
Heidi Wessman Kneale


Sometimes fiction writers get stuck on their manuscripts.  Other times a writer feels something isn't quite right with a finished piece; something he can't put his finger on. And all too often a problem slips by him completely.  How does one catch and fix these problems?  Take the piece to a workshop!

Workshopping is a method of revising writing by which pieces are reviewed by peers who offer critique towards its improvement.

A good workshop is comprised of peers who are at about the same level of development.  If the skill levels vary too greatly, then members may not benefit from the critique of others.  If some members find they are consistently teaching other members the craft, they should realized that it has stopped being a workshop -- with mutual improvement all around -- and become a class. 

Groups should contain between five and twelve people.  Any more, and there will not be enough time to cover everyone.  Any less, and the piece may suffer due to lack of a variety of readers.

The key to a good workshop is the positive support of peers towards the improvement of writing.  Any negativity, whether through lack of support, improper critiquing methods, or simply failure to critique work, will harm the members of the workshop and, therefore, the workshop itself.  A bad workshop is worse than no workshop; a good workshop is worth its weight in gold.  No two workshops are the same, even if they follow the same method.

A workshop offers many things:

                    a sounding board for working on new ideas;

                    general feedback on a piece, including some proofreading and copyediting;

                    opportunity for improvement of the craft;

                    training in critical thinking (towards both your own work and that of others);

                    industry info and contacts; and

                    support of peers.

Writing a story is creative.  Revising is analytical.  Regularly critiquing the works of others is the best training for revising your own material. 

Structure of a Modern Workshop 

The modern workshop was invented in Milford, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1960s, when a simple set of rules was devised for the structure and pattern of the workshop.  This is now called the Milford Method. Since then, this method has been adapted and applied to many workshops all over the world, including some workshops on the Internet. Working by the Milford Method:

                    Writing is handed out and read by the critiquers.

                    Critiquers make their notes.

                    The writer listens silently while the critiquers, going around the circle one at a time, share their critiques.

                    The writer can answer only yes-or-no questions.

                    The writer is allowed to respond, uninterrupted, at the end of the circle.

 

It's best if pieces are handed out far enough in advance that readers can give them a good read (preferably several times through) and can offer the best advice.  Handing out pieces at the beginning of the workshop may cheat the writer of some rather valuable advice, since readers may not have had time to really soak in a piece.  Some people prefer to read a piece and then set it down for a few days before reading it again, to allow their impressions to develop.

Critiquers should set out with an idea of what to look for in a piece.  This can be presented as questions or a checklist posed by the writer.  Some critiquers tend to focus on voice and style while other critiquers are grammar nit-pickers.  Each critiquer is different.  A good critiquer, while sometimes preferring to examine particular aspects of a manuscript, will keep her eye open for all aspects of writing.

Critiquers make notes on the manuscript itself (when possible).  Not only will this help point out specifics to the writer, but can also help clarify things later. Notes are extremely useful to the writer, especially during rewrites. A critiquer should always put his name on the manuscript before handing it back to the writer, so the writer knows who to go to if she wishes to seek further clarification.

At the workshop, the writer is allowed to make a brief opening statement.  This can be a reiteration of the brief "Authors' Notes" he may have handed out with the piece, or it can be to pose any final queries before the critique begins.  One thing the author cannot do is to explain the piece.  That is saved for the end.

One by one, the critiquers give their critique. They remark on their notes (though not necessarily explaining every single one), and include further information.  During the time this feedback is being given, the writer is not allowed to say anything, unless it is to answer yes-or-no questions posed by the critiquer.  Anything else she wishes to say should be kept for the end.  Crosstalk between critiquers should be kept to a minimum.  If these rules are not kept, the critique will drag out longer than is necessary and waste everyone's time.

Most workshops impose a time limit, say, five minutes or so, on oral remarks.

Each critiquer gets a turn presenting his critique.  Often a critiquer may have noticed the same thing a previous critiquer mentioned.  If this is the case, it is usually better to simply point out that they agree with a previous critiquer's comments, and then continue with one's own comments if they add to the critique.  To repeat in depth something a previous critiquer has already said (a "Me, Too"), only wastes time.

At the end, the writer is allowed to speak, uninterrupted. He can comment on what critiquers have said, and clarify any information.  If critiquers failed to understand what the writer was trying to say, now is the time the writer can explain.  (However, if the writer finds he has to explain the piece, he hasn't written it as well as he should have.)

If so desired, the group can engage in an open discussion of the piece.  When all is said and done, all manuscripts are handed back to the writer. 

How the Critiques Work 

Writers may include a brief sheet of "Author's Notes," that can include questions about the piece, requests for a specific sort of criticism, and, in the case of a larger piece, a brief explanation of back story that may have occurred in previous chapters/sections for the benefit of the reader.  One thing the writer must not do is try to explain what he is attempting to do with the story -- that's the story's job.

The reader reads the piece, more than once if he desires, and offers constructive critique. 

A good critique will contain the following:

                    What the story is about.

                    What was good about the story.

                    What could be improved.

                    Some useful advice. 

What the story is about

Some people may consider this question a no-brainer, but it is very important for a critiquer to offer what he thinks the story is about.  The writer may have been trying to communicate a certain theme or get a certain point across.  Having the critiquer tell what he thinks the story is about may reveal how well the writer communicated the idea. 

What was good about the story

Offering good critique is not just pointing out what's wrong with the story, but also pointing out what's right with the story.  If a writer is aware of what she does well she is more likely to do more of it in the future. 

What could be improved

A good critique will also point out those foibles that creep in.  Problems aren't inherently bad, but they are points for improvement. 

Some useful advice

Often a writer may know there is something wrong with a piece but not how to correct it.  Offering useful advice and possible solutions is often welcome.  Completely rewriting the piece for the author is not. 

Some things to look for when critiquing:

                    Opening

                    Conflict

                    Plot

                    Resolution

                    Setting

                    Characterization

                    Dialogue

                    Point of view

                    Showing versus telling

                    Format of the text

                    Grammar and spelling

                    Style and voice

 

Never, never, never criticize an author.  Not only is it bad manners and unprofessional, but it does not contribute in any way to the improvement of the piece.  Remember, it is the piece of writing, not the author, who is under scrutiny.

When the time comes for you as the critiquer to offer advice, it helps to give a few moments thought to structure and presentation.  Have an idea of what you wish to say.

Draw attention to what you want the reader to notice.  Don't go through every single nit. (This is why there is  annotation on the manuscript.) 

Even if a time limit hasn't been set in which to offer your critique, try not to ramble.  If you've already given your critique, and a subsequent critiquer says something which triggers an impression in you, it is better to note it on the script, rather than interrupt the critiquer.  You can always mention it later at the appropriate time.

Writers need to be courteous as well.  Remember, critiquers are offering advice they hope is useful.  It is only fair that you listen to what they have to say.  This doesn't mean you have to take their advice; you are more than welcome to ignore as much of it as you wish.  However, if you find that several critiquers point the same thing out, it may be a good idea to consider what they are saying.

Take notes while listening to critiquers.  There is no guarantee that you will remember what they have had to say, and they may not have noted all their oral comments on the manuscript.

Give a few moments thought before delivering your rebuttal.  Don't be harsh in your comments towards critiquers -- after all, they are only trying to help.  Your rebuttal is a good time to clarify any misconceptions, ask further questions, and solicit further advice. 

Workshops are a valuable tool for writers.  A good workshop fills the gap between feedback from your mom and selling to an editor.   

Bibliography 

Cory Doctorow and Karl Schoeder, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction", Chapter 5; 2000; Macmillan U.S.A. ISBN: 0-02-8639318-9

Victory Crayne, "How to Critique Fiction", version 6; 1995; http://www.crayne.com/ (24 March, 1997) victory@crayne.com