Some Notes on Critiquing Method and the CSFW Critiquing Manifesto

by David Alexander Smith

Those of us who’ve been in the Cambridge SF Workshop for some time have developed an approach to critiquing that we find serves us well. These principles — our Critiquing Manifesto — help us work together to create the best fiction we can.

1. Why Are We Here?

Often workshops founder because the people have different reasons for attending. Everyone in CSFW subscribes to a basic principle:

We’re here to help one another produce our best fiction.

All other goals are subordinate to that. If you want to work out personal issues in your fiction, that’s fine, but if the results are bad fiction, you can’t defend yourself by saying your life happened that way.

2. How Do We Critique?

We subscribe to a two-edged commitment to criticism: (A) Tell the truth, and (B) Criticize the prose, not the writer.

As a critiquer, not a reviewer, comment on anything that moves you. Line edit if you want. Argue with character motivation. Question the rubber science. Suggest alternate plot lines. Identify clearly what you think needs improvement.

At the same time, you must respect the author’s right to tell his own story. To be sure that the critics understand the objective of a work critiqued in pieces (such as a novel), the author often submits an overview of the story’s objectives. Without this, critics sometimes misinterpret the author’s intent, and thus suggest improvements that run counter to what the author’s trying to achieve.

Critics have a duty to help the author achieve his or her objectives — not yours. You may not like heroic fantasy, but if you’re critiquing an author who does, you have to provide suggestions for making it more fantastic or more heroic. You’re not here to demand that an author change his agenda. You can suggest other agendas, but if the author declines them, you must help the author go his way, not yours. Several points follow from this.

A. You must do the work.

It’s unacceptable to say, “I never read military action stories, so I’m not going to comment on this.” Wrong. You’re not here reading for pleasure. You’re here because other people have agreed to work on your material. And they won’t do that unless you work on theirs. Put in the hours, even if you’re struggling to find things to say.

B. Be general first.

If something bothers you over and over, state the general issue first. The other participants — who didn’t write the material but read it, just as the critiquer did — can evaluate the general issue and think about it.

C. Then be specific.

It’s not enough to say, “the characters are wooden and the plot is slow.” Which characters? When don’t they react appropriately? Where does the action flag? Why do you feel it’s slow? Identifying chapter and verse as an illustration helps everybody examine the issue.

D. Then be constructive

Once you’ve identified the problem, suggest an answer. “She shouldn’t just sit there when he threatens her, she should tear his face off.” Show us how you’d do better what you think the author did inadequately.

The author, of course, doesn’t have to take your suggestion, but the act of examining an alternate story line is enormously helpful. All too often, writers see their stories as having no options — they must occur a particular way. The eye-opening experience of examining a whole different road will often jog someone’s thinking process so that the author will create a third solution, neither his original choice nor the critic’s alternate, that’s better than both.

3. How Do We Listen?

As an author, you must absorb what is said to you. That doesn’t mean you accept it or reject it, it means you listen to it. You take it seriously as being motivated for your benefit. Perhaps you say back to your critic, “I was trying to do this, but it didn’t come across. How could I have gotten that idea (feeling, theme, view) to work for you?”

Being critiqued in a roundtable workshop is no fun. You sit there, naked and exposed, as someone goes over your flaws with a microscope. Ouch! A bunch of other people who’ve also read your material agree with the critic. Double ouch! Emotionally you’re in turmoil, but intellectually you’re realizing that a good chunk of what’s being said is dead right. So you don’t even have the normal defense of rationalizing that your critic is full of beans.

How do we get through this and come back for more? Because the prose gets better. Just like exercise, which hurts at the time but produces results, workshopping reveals all the flaws and lets you correct them. And, when you come right down to it, wouldn’t you rather hear the problems from a few folks in private, than have editor after editor recognize them, reject your story, and never tell you? Or worse, have your story published with the flaws there for all eternity, for hundreds of people to notice and cluck over?

That’s why in our workshops:

A. No outsiders

You can’t be vulnerable with other people if there’s somebody who can take free shots. What goes around must come around, otherwise the temptation to cheap-shot a helpless victim is too great.

B. Everyone must submit periodically.

A person who stays in the workshop for a long time without submitting becomes effectively an outsider.

C. You have to build trust.

You have to come to believe that people really are trying to help you, otherwise you’ll close up to the comments.

D. Things are written down.

You can react to them later, after the pummeled feeling subsides.

E. Over time, we become very respectful of one another.

We hold nothing back in terms of identifying and pounding problems … but we’re all extremely solicitous of each other’s intentions.

4. What About Giving Away Ideas?

We’ve had people get very upset when given ideas or when asked for ideas. “I’m not going to write your story for you!” Is that a valid fear?

If you write something and I suggest an idea to improve it, you don’t have to accept it. That act of acceptance or rejection — that artistic and literary choice — means you’re still the author, all the way across the board.

Now how about me? I came up with this neat idea and gave it to you. My cleverness is going to show up in print under your name. Aren’t I shortchanged by that?

In 19 years of critiquing, I’ve never felt that way. To begin with, I’ve always received lots and lots of neat ideas from the workshop. My work is peppered with them. They make my books stronger. Second, my idea that shows up in your story would never have occurred to me, but for the fact that you created an environment where it popped into my head. I’ve given you the benefits of an hour or two’s thought, and received in return ideas that I’d never have developed in ten hours’ thought. We’re both better off.

As long as things are reasonably reciprocal, everybody wins.

If you stick with it, sooner or later everybody gets published. Everybody progresses. Everybody achieves. When that happens, each person in the workshop can share in that wonderful feeling, because everyone contributed to making it happen.