Workshopping and Critique
By Heidi Wessman Kneale
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
Workshopping is a method of revising writing by which pieces are reviewed by
peers who offer critique towards its improvement.
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.
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.
workshop offers many things:
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
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
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.
writer listens silently while the critiquers, going around the circle one at
a time, share their critiques.
writer can answer only yes-or-no questions.
writer is allowed to respond, uninterrupted, at the end of the circle.
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
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.
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.
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.
workshops impose a time limit, say, five minutes or so, on oral remarks.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
reader reads the piece, more than once if he desires, and offers
good critique will contain the following:
the story is about.
was good about the story.
could be improved.
the story is about
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.
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.
could be improved
good critique will also point out those foibles that creep in. Problems
aren't inherently bad, but they are points for improvement.
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.
things to look for when critiquing:
Showing versus telling
Format of the text
Grammar and spelling
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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) firstname.lastname@example.org