Workshop and Critiquing Guidelines

I. RULES OF THE ROAD

1. Remember: The work you bring to a workshop should be as good as it can possibly be for the stage it is in. It should be professionally presented (double-spaced, white paper, 12 point font, Times New Roman, one inch margins, numbered pages, titled and labeled with your name  and contact information). Don’t dishonor yourself or your readers by bringing sloppy work to the workshop. If your piece is an excerpt, it is okay to include a short note describing the larger piece and asking your readers to look at specific elements of the piece. But keep these notes to a minimum.

2. Remember: Critiquing is NOT criticizing. Critiquing is reviewing, responding to, and describing. Your job is to help the writer move the piece into the next revision. Critiquing is a skill you develop over time with experience. At first we might be reticent about it because we think we don't know what to say about a piece of writing, but remember, all of your responses are valuable. Writers Need Readers.

3. Remember: Your response to a work depends upon what stage the work is in
the generating phase,
the drafting phase,
or the editing phase.

If the piece is an early piece of generated writing, your response will be informal and exploratory. You'll ask questions that will generate more material and you will help the writer think about what possibilities there are in the material.

If the piece has gone through the generating stage and has been drafted, revised and drafted again into a more formal piece, your response will be much more formal. You will want to look at the content, structure and style of the piece and ask all the big questions about how the three elements interact. You may ask questions about content, pushing the writer toward developing themes or ideas or fleshing out scenes or explaining confusing ideas. You may ask questions about structure, transitions between ideas or scenes, beginnings, endings, structural balance. And you may point out stylistic techniques that work (or not).

Only if the piece has been drafted and revised many times and is DONE and ready to be sent somewhere, will your response be the response of an EDITOR. Unless the piece you are critiquing is in the editing phase, comments on grammar, usage, spelling, etc., should not be a high priority, unless there are issues with these elements that create a significant challenge for the reader. In that case, a reader should reserve the right to refuse to critique the piece.

4. Remember: Be positive and productive. Being positive and productive does not mean being “nice.” It means asking productive questions in positive language. For example: "Have you experimented with writing this essay as a chronological narrative?"  is more positive and productive than, "This mosaic structure isn't working," and way better than “The structure sucks,” or “I don’t get it.” Also "nice" is less useful than "I really liked it here where you took a whole page to describe how the cat sat in the sun licking its fur. These are wonderfully wrought details. It really lends a wonderful "lazy" feel to the piece. Is that what you wanted?"

Productive means that your question or comment will “produce” a response in the writer. Being positive and productive also means not "trashing" a piece of writing. That doesn't do anyone any good. On the other hand, you need to be honest about a piece's weaknesses.

Being positive and productive also means that you don't take the writing over. You don't have to fix this writer's work, you only have to respond to it. Remember this: your role is NOT TO JUDGE OR EVALUATE, but to DESCRIBE AND RESPOND.  You are not a “teacher” but a fellow/sister artist.

5. Remember: Address the writing rather than the writer. We can get plenty of people to read our work and then say, "Oh, honey, let me give you a hug. That must have been terrible when your father died. Have you seen a therapist?" But how many people can we get to read our work and say, "God, how awful. But listen, this scene, where you describe finding your father dead in the living room, I felt that it was central to the essay and you move away from it too quickly."

6. Remember: Set a tone of respect and generosity in your critiques. For that reason, don’t dive right into the small--begin by making MACRO comments about the work as a whole, its vision and the author’s intent. Honor it. What is the writer trying to do? What’s the big picture? After that, feel free to focus in more closely and make more specific MICRO comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

II. SOME IDEAS FOR STRUCTURING YOUR CRITIQUE

1. LAYING IT OUT
What happens in this piece? What is the story/narrative/ plot of it? What is the apparent subject? How is the piece arranged (i.e. structured)?

What is this piece about? What are the ideas in it? What is the deeper, less apparent subject? What does it WANT to be about, but isn’t yet? What is the writer trying to SAY?

What is POSSIBLE for this piece of writing?

What is the predominant impact (on you)? What is the overall feeling or impression you are left with?

(These responses help you approach the writing on its own terms and help the writer see whether or not his or her ideas are getting across).

2. STRENGTHS AND CHALLENGES
What are the strengths of the piece? What really works? Where are the sparks? Where is the energy? What dazzles you? What images and details jump out at you? Where is the beautiful writing, the outstanding dialogue, the brilliant characterization, the subtle transition?

What are the questions you still have of the piece as a reader? Where are the holes, or the parts that don't work? What are the challenges of the piece?

(These responses help you help the reader see where the piece succeeds and where it still has room to grow)

3. THE WRITER’S “NAP,” STYLE, VOICE, SPIN
What forms, structures, styles or other idiosyncrasies characterize the piece? Can you hear the author’s “voice”? What does it sound like?

(This is an important question to respond to because it will help the writer see aspects of his or her “style” that may at this point still not be obvious to them).

4. CRAFT ELEMENTS
Does the piece of writing include the “six hallmarks” of creative nonfiction?

  1. Narrative (it tells a story)
  2. Reflection
  3. Attention to craft
  4. Timelessness
  5. Apparent and Deeper Subject
  6. Is it true?

Or does the piece skillfully engage all the craft elements of fiction?
- Plot
- Setting
- Character
- Theme
- Point of View

III. WORKSHOP PROCEDURE

1. Read each piece at least twice
The first time, read it for pleasure and to get a sense of the whole piece. Don't write any comments, or jot notes in the margins as you go—just relax and read. After you are done, you may want to write a few comments about your first impressions at the bottom of the last page. You may want to answer a few quick questions in your initial comments: What are my initial reactions? What did I learn that was new? What questions to I have? What happens, and what is the piece about? The second time read actively with a pen in your hand, making comments in the margins as you go.  Your comments this time around will be much more specific. Respond to everything--asking questions, giving encouragement, making comments, arguing points, even pointing out spelling or grammar errors if you see them. You may respond to structure, style, word choice, clarity, etc. When you are done with your second reading, make a few more general comments at the end of the manuscript about what your impressions were the second time through (they may have changed substantially!). Finally, type up a page (250 words) of summary comments that pulls your ideas about the paper into focus. You can answer the basic questions: What do I like? What works? What doesn’t? What questions do I have?

2. REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE A FRIENDLY READER
Remember again that you are reading your peer's work to help him/her figure out where to go with it next. You are not FIXING it for them, but giving them ideas for the next draft. You are not the teacher, the editor or the critic. Your tone should reflect that.

3. COME TO WORKSHOP
Once you have read and commented on the drafts of your group members, you will come to workshop. Here’s what happens then:

- The workshop leader designates a timekeeper. This person makes sure everyone gets the same amount of time and that the group stays on time.

- The workshop leader will either assign someone to be the first to have his or her manuscript “on the table,” or someone will volunteer. The workshop leader may also ask someone to be the first to start the discussion on the manuscript.

- The writer will read a paragraph or page of his or her work aloud. This helps settle everyone down, and it gets the author’s voice out into the room.

- The group starts out by laying a foundation of respect and generosity, acknowledging the intent of the writer and honoring it.

- Discussion first focuses on macro comments--what works about the piece, what it is trying to do, what readers like about it, then the discussion can move toward more specific comments or suggestions for revision.

- Everyone should expect to actively engage in the process. Workshop participants should not just read aloud what they’ve already written on  peer drafts in summary comments, but each participant should listen to what others are saying and respond to it--that way, a conversation takes place. Workshop conversations can travel down many paths. A workshop leader may, for instance, decide that something in the manuscript on the table warrants a mini lesson in a specific technique, or someone might want to offer reading suggestions for the writer, etc., but the conversations should always come back to the work on the table.

- During this process the writer whose work is on the table should remain silent, listen and take notes. At the very end, after everyone has had his/her say, then the writer may have a few minutes for questions or comments.

- Finally, each participant respectfully hands the writer back a commented-on copy of his or her manuscript.

IV. POST WORKSHOP

1. FORGET ABOUT IT (for a while)
Ideally, the writer will have lots of notes from the workshop, as well as a stack of commented-on manuscripts. This can be an exciting time—looking through all the comments and basking in praise. But it can also be a drag, when you realize how much more work your story needs. It is often a wise idea to set the whole pile aside for a while—even a day or two—and come back to it refreshed.

Some tips and suggestions: Keep what you want and leave the rest. There will always be some readers you trust more than others. Look for commonalities and patterns in the comments—usually most of your readers will notice some of the same things. Take one of the copies of your manuscript and transfer all the comments to that draft. Open your writers notebook and start working through the problems. Make a revision plan.

2. GET OVER IT
Workshopping can be fun, but also stressful, and, if it is done with the wrong spirit, downright soul-squishing. Learning how to disengage your ego from your writing is an important step in your own self-preservation and a major mountain to climb on you journey as an artist. Remember the golden rule: take what you want and leave the rest. It is okay to ignore some comments. If, however, you have serious problems with the conduct of someone in the workshop, or with comments you received on your manuscript, you should first contact that person. If you can’t do that, contact the workshop leader.

3. KEEP A LID ON IT
It is imperative that we all agree that what happens in the workshop—the things we say, the stories we read, etc. not become fodder for gossip or any other speech that a good Buddhist would not consider “right speech.” So, for the sake of professionalism, let what happens in the workshop stay in the workshop. 

A HANDOUT PREPARED BY GRETCHEN Legler