As Writers’ Conference Season gets into full swing--and I’m participating in a few workshops this summer--I’ve been thinking about how to deliver (and receive) critiques. Writer Jim Tomlinson in his journal yesterday talks about a recent experience he had, and some ideas for what would be more effective. Recently, Writer/Blogger Mary Akers posted some rules for critiquing, with which I whole-heartedly agree.
Everyone is different, but almost everyone gets defensive. If a critic in workshop (whether in written or oral remarks) launches directly into the weaknesses of a piece, the writer is very likely going to shut down and hear nothing else, or at least not be receptive to anything else. On the other hand, if a critic's comments are glowing at the outset, it’s possible the writer won’t hear anything after that, either, so that the discussion of weaknesses that inevitably follows will also be lost. One of the problems with my workshop with Amy Bloom at the IUWC earlier this month was that the discussion was too loose and without direction. The only "rule" that Bloom introduced--a new one for me--was that if someone agreed with a speaker's comment on a story he or she should knock on the table. The loudness of this knocking chorus would be a sign to the writer of how widely or strongly the group shared the viewpoint of the speaker. At least this prevented a lot of repetitive comments.
The most productive workshops I’ve been in--most notably Charlie Baxter’s workshop at Bread Loaf last year--have been more highly structured (yes, Baxter told us how he wanted us to proceed): readers look first (and discuss first) what a piece is trying to do, and then look at what the writer has done to achieve that goal. Thus in Baxter's workshop we would first describe the piece--the point of view, the tense, the setting, the narrative arc--and only then would we be able to talk about what worked and what didn’t work. I think this approach accomplishes several things. First, the writer hears what close readers perceive the story to be about, which is enormously useful in understanding the comments that follow. Second, having heard this discussion, the writer is probably going to be open to hearing what works and doesn’t work in furtherance of the goals of the story. Third, the critics/readers are less likely to talk about what they “liked” or “didn’t like,” which is irrelevant, but the door is opened to talking about effective craft choices and opportunities missed.