Critiquing in a Workshop Context

by David Alexander Smith

Critiquing in a workshop context is a skill worth learning. Some tips for the novice:

  1. Before you begin. Familiarize yourself with workshop procedures and etiquette. Take some time with the Glossary of critiquing terms and become familiar with the jargon; we use it frequently, especially in the verbal critique, and it is efficient and illuminating. Familiarity with the jargon will also help you see attributes of the story on which you are working.
  2. How to approach the critique. We recommend reading the story three separate times, with intervals for reflection between each reading:
    1. First reading, as a reader. Just read it once through as if you had come upon it published somewhere. Collect some general impressions as a reader. Perhaps write some short notes to yourself.
    2. Second reading, as an auditor. Having absorbed the story and gained a sense of what it did and wanted to do, go back and examine it in detail, thinking about your general impressions. Why did the story affect you as it did? What specific parts of the text work, and what parts fail? In each case, why? Where did your attention wander, and why did the text allow you to do that? Here is the place to make detailed comments on the manuscript. What textual aspects, minor in themselves, occur frequently enough that they merit general comments?
    3. Third reading, as a synthesist. Now that you have been through the story twice, once in gory detail, go back to your general impressions. What did you perceive, when you paid close attention, that you missed the first time? Why? What patterns emerged? What could the author do to bring additional texture into your normal initial reading? What other general conclusions did you discover, on close reading, that were invisible initially? More substantively, where do you find yourself asking, ‘Why choose this rather than that?’In the third reading, put yourself in the author’s shoes. Try alternate approaches to solving the problems you identified. You should have a clear sense of what the author was trying to do, whether it came through, and why. You may be able to identify specifically which parts worked and which failed to achieve the author’s goals.
  3. What goes into the written critique? Critiques, whether written or verbal, are normally structured on a top-down approach, starting with the major issues and working through them to the minor.
    1. General critiques. These are the big issues, the story’s major building blocks. Often the written critique will provide extensive examples, whereas the verbal delivery will simply assert the problem and go on to discuss alternate solutions.
    2. Specific. All the nuts and bolts. Fiction is made up of words, and it is only through the pointillist changing of words that we can change the fictional image. So the critic can be as detailed as he or she wants in deconstructing paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words, and then reassembling them. The written critique is the place to do this in detail – sometimes in great detail. Some people simply mark up the manuscript with copyedits or marginal annotations; others flag locations and type up specific suggestions. Either way, detail is good, and more detail is better.The written critique of a short story will typically be 2-5 single-spaced pages long. It can be longer if the story requires more. Longer works usually generate proportionately longer critiques. The written critique of a novel can be enormous.
  4. What goes into the verbal critique? The verbal presentation consists of talking through the issues for benefit of three distinct audiences:
    • The author, who has to absorb the big ideas first (so he can sift among many critics).
    • The other critics, who may change their minds or expand their ideas based on what they hear.
    • The critic him or herself, who may in the verbalization express different perspectives. (This last is especially common in a critic going later in the round, because the critic may be stimulated by previous critiques.)

    With the written critique already done (and to be handed back to the author), the critic need not worry about getting his words in edgewise. Thus the critic need not try to score cheap points at the expense of his audience. Rather, the verbal critique should be educational and constructive, contributing ideas to a large mental stew pot that the author, in rebuttal, stirs and tastes.

    For folks unused to workshop verbal critique, reading the written critique is a means to start, if only as a means of structuring your comments. But as the critic gains experience, the verbal critiques are often quite a different presentation: they use the written words as an outline and then describe them. A good verbal critique is thus conversational, the critic talking directly to the author, and watching the author to make sure the author understands the critique (if not necessarily agreeing with it).

    As the verbal critique works around the circle, themes become reinforced and sometimes established. What the first critic may tentatively hypothesize can become, by the fifth critic, an accepted conclusion. Or a particular area may become a topic of debate, with different critics weighing in on various sides. (In such circumstances, remember that you are not trying to win the debate, you are trying to give the author a full briefing on your views. The author wins the debate.)

    Later critiques tend to be variations on melodies already laid down. If a half-page insight you were keyed up to deliver is neatly made by someone ahead of you, don’t grind through your prepared remarks. Instead quickly agree with the point, or expand on it, or give more time to focusing on other issues. Similarly, things you may not have identified in your personal written critique may strike you, on hearing them, as particularly noteworthy or frivolous, and you can extemporize about them. Either way, voice your reaction to what has gone before – again, the critics are trying to brief the author on the full range of opinions.

    Of course, don’t hesitate to disagree with a previous critic, but give that critic the same respect you accord the author – that is, credit the critic with intelligence and perception in observation, just a different diagnosis or prescription. Point and counterpoint is the essence of a good workshop.

    A good verbal critique may, therefore, be loosely outlined something like this:

    • Overall impression of the story.
    • Some major strengths.
    • Some major problems.
    • Specific examples illustrating the problems, and why they fail.
    • Discussion of alternate ways of tackling the problem.
    • A specific alternative solution, if only as an experiment.
    • Recapitulation of the story overall, emphasizing its strengths on which to build and highlighting the critical changes to improve it.

    Don’t feel bashful about suggesting changes, even to the point of offering up major surgery such as a new plot line, collapse or conflation of multiple characters, or some other radical rethinking. The author won’t be offended (in CSFW, we do this all the time), and is always free to decline your suggestion or to accept it. Or, in the authorial rebuttal, the author or the group can pick up a particular alternative and tinker with it in a variety of ways. Some remarkable inventions that amaze and delight everyone, most especially the author, have come out of these spontaneous combustions.

  5. How to react when you are being critiqued. For most newcomers (and even for some of us grizzled veterans), this is the hardest time, because you want to explain or rebut point by point, and you may not. Try not to let the stress get to you. Ways to do this:
    1. Whose work is critiqued first? A newcomer to a workshop should seldom be the first author to have a work critiqued. Much better is to have one of the established members’ works as the focus of the first critiquing round, so the newcomer has a chance to see how the workshop functions, the level and nature of critique. Watch how the critics and author interact during critique, rebuttal, and roundtable.
    2. Take notes. Take a lot of notes on the specifics of what you hear. You will need the record for the rebuttal, so that you can ground yourself and take best advantage of the time. Note-taking also engages your superego, which is so busy trying to digest the information content the poor old id has limited stage time to be hurt or upset.
      Take specific notes of good ideas that you hear, ideas that you think are misguided, or intriguing solutions that you want to explore. If a critic identifies a problem without offering a solution, flag the point and plan to return to it in rebuttal and discuss what might be done. (This is also healthy in keeping critics on their toes rather than allowing them to pontificate generally.)
    3. Hit the high points. You need not transcribe every suggestion – you’ll find it impossible to keep up. At the end of your round, you will receive back many marked-up copies of your manuscript and many detailed written critiques. You can study both at leisure. CSFW critics write down almost everything they plan to say, so that you needn’t worry about writers’ cramp. (If you find yourself scribbling at top speed, you can interrupt to ask the critic, ‘Do you have all that written down?’) Concentrate on noting the points that made you think.
    4. Interrupting for clarification. You must keep silent except when the critic is unclear or unfocused; then you can gently interrupt and ask either for clarification or a specific example. Don’t interrupt to explain what you meant or show how the critic misread the text – save that for rebuttal. You’ll get your chance.
    5. What goes around comes around. Never forget that we’ve all been through it many times and do it to one another all the time, so most critics, however harsh their comments on the prose, understand the stress a critique imposes on the author.
  6. Authorial rebuttal. When the verbal critique is done, the author now has the floor. This is an important time.The author is not required to say anything, but usually the author is filled with reactions bursting to get out. This is where your scribbled notes can come in. Take a deep breath and organize what you want to say – the critics, having shot their bolt, will wait attentively. Go back through your notes and talk about your reactions. Now you can explain what you were trying to do, what the critics missed, or what should have been there but isn’t. (“It will already have been there,” is a common authorial response to a particular apt criticism.)Here also you can explore whether a particular solution does work, doesn’t work, or might work. Having made all your responses, you can open up the discussion to focus on solutions and let the rebuttal devolve into a free-flowing discussion.
  7. Conclusion. Newcomers, especially those with little or no prior experience in other workshops, sometimes find a structured workshop experience overwhelming. Compared with the typical casual critique, a structured workshop is a tidal wave of ideas. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer volume of work, thought, insights and suggestions that the critiques will deliver. It will be more extensive and more thorough than you probably thought possible.
  8. As you absorb this torrent of ideas, bear in mind that a detailed critique is the highest form of respect one author can pay another, and the more effort put into the critique, the more respect the critic has for the author — and for the work being critiqued.