Creative writing workshops are a popular form of teaching writers. Different from a regular class, workshops require students to share their work with the rest of the students and give/take feedback. This is the process of critique. It’s easy for new students to feel a little lost during this experience. How does one go about critiquing stories? And what should they expect for their own? So, here’s a guide to the critiquing process.
Read the Story
This is the obvious first step. Depending on the teacher, you may or may not be instructed to read the story twice, reading it once all the way through and adding notes the next time around. Either way, read the story carefully. What is it doing well? Where does it need work? Are there grammatical errors, inconsistencies, or things of that caliber? Point them out during your markup, which is the written part of your critique.
The way you perform a markup is up to you. Many writers create a system of symbols or highlight colors to communicate without having to spell everything out. For example: “I weaved my way through the crodw.” Green represents good word choice and red means incorrect spelling. Whatever you choose, your markup system should make sense and be simple to understand. Always include a legend on the first page of the story before you start critiquing. What are you looking for? Small changes, word choice, grammar, inconsistencies, moments that lack clarity, bad sentence structure, poorly written scenes, etc. Also, tell the writer why something doesn’t work. For instance, if the writer doesn’t use enough detail in a scene, point that out and explain to them how it puts a handicap on the story.
Keep in mind that this is constructive criticism. When you critique, you are expected to have respect for the writer and their work. Be polite. Instead of saying, “This scene is poorly written,” say, “I think this scene could use some work. It doesn’t make me feel the way you intended.” The point of a critique is to help each other write well, not discourage one another from doing it altogether.
Criticism does not have to be negative
Markup is a time not only to correct the writer but applaud them. Tell them what they’re doing right and what you like about the piece. It’s imperative that writers know what to do as well as what not to do. If you only tell them what’s wrong with the story, they’ll think it’s irredeemable. As one who critiques, you must paint a full and accurate picture of how readers receive every aspect of a story.
I encourage you to simply react to parts of the story. If something surprises you, it’s perfectly fine to write, “OH MY GOD!!!” If that part of the piece was supposed to make the reader surprised, the writer will know they did a good job. If not, the writer will know it needs to be rewritten.
You may have noticed that large changes and overarching problems have yet to be mentioned. All this goes into your endnote, which you include in paragraph form at the end of the story. The endnote is a summary of your markup and should be used as a place to address problems that frequently occurred throughout the story. You are also to provide suggestions on how to fix those problems. You should start the endnote with everything you like about the story and what you think it is about. Once you do that, you may begin spelling out those problems. Again, that needs to be performed in a polite manner.
Oral critique is the time at which you voice all this to the writer. Traditionally, everyone in the class will gather in a circle, and the writer will read the whole story or part of it. It usually depends on the story’s length. Throughout the oral critique, the writer does not speak. This tradition has been changing recently, so follow the instructions of your teacher.
When it’s your turn to speak, mention everything in your endnote and read examples in the piece that justify your complaint or compliment. If you disagree with another critiquer’s suggestion, politely say that, too. It is important not to argue with other critiquers; this is purely a discussion.
When all opinions have been voiced, the writer is allotted time to ask questions. Answering these equations is usually optional, so don’t feel like you have to give a suggestion if you don’t have one. Once all the writer’s questions have been answered, you will give your markup to the writer to keep and refer to during revision.
Congratulations! You’ve completed your first critique session! Now, what should you expect when it’s your turn?
The critique process won’t start for you until oral critique begins. It’s normal to be nervous, especially if this is your first time or if you don’t have much faith in your piece. But don’t worry; the people around you want to help you and further develop your skills. Expect them to be polite and respectful. During this time, it is imperative to take notes. They will be of great use to you during revision.
There are two things you need to remember during your oral critique. The first is that it’s extremely easy (and very normal) to become defensive. As a writer, your work is important to you, and sharing it with others is a risk you must take. Don’t be discouraged if someone doesn’t like it; your career will be full of people criticizing your work. You need to become accustomed to receiving criticism. Over time, you will come to trust the students in your workshop, and sharing with them will be easier.
With that in mind, also remember that the entire critique process is a collection of suggestions. If you don’t like the feedback you receive during written or oral critique, you don’t have to take it. No one but you dictates how you write your pieces. Please tread carefully: you may not enjoy the feedback that would benefit the story. Disregarding that feedback is ill-advised.
Hopefully, you feel prepared for your first round of critique. The goal of critique is to help and receive help from your peers. Ultimately, it should become something you look forward to. Good luck!