This is How You Do It: No Typed Critiques

Update since my last post: I wrote a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and they published it, along with a response from Elise Blackwell. Since then, she and I have emailed privately. We shared some ideas and experiences. We even know people in common. The air is clear, and all is well. It’s funny how you meet people these days.

Okay, so now that THAT is out of the way, back to my series, “This is How You Do It,” which focuses on ways to re-think your classroom practices in order to accommodate long projects.

Fiction writer Matt Bell (How They Were Found, 2010) was kind enough to post an excerpt from my Millions article on his blog, but it was the reposting of that entry as a note on Facebook that generated the most discussion. It was in this forum that fiction writer Josh Weil (The New Valley, 2009) chimed in to share how Brooklyn College accommodates novels in their curriculum.

Josh said: “The credit goes to Brooklyn College for making it a part of the curriculum that’s available to MFA students, but, honestly, I think it worked, and worked well and isn’t that hard a thing to do. The key? Not workshopping a novel until the writer is a good way into it. We workshopped 150 pages at a time, 4 hour workshops devoted to one submission. In one case, where the writer had written a completed draft, we workshopped 300 pages (and that was his sole turn “at bat”). This, I think, is a useful way to run a novel-writing-workshop.”

When I read this, I wondered a few things:

  • How many people were in this workshop?
  • What kind of preparation (besides reading the submissions themselves) was required of students. Annotation? Line edits? Typed critiques?

I’m not sure of the answers, but I know what I would do if this was my Novel Workshop: I wouldn’t require students to write discursive critiques.

I know. Heresy. But hear me out.

If the short story is our primary pedagogical model, the critique is just as de rigueur. And I’m a big believer in the value of assigning lots and lots of critiques. Jeremiah Chamberlain wrote one of the best essays I’ve read about this topic, one of our most sacred pedagogical practices:

“You become a strong writer by writing critiques, not reading them, ” I say. Being forced to analyze the effectiveness of other writers’ stories and to then provide them with clear, concise, specific suggestions for improvement will do more to develop a writer’s craft than almost anything else.

But as much as I believe in critiques, I also believe that they aren’t necessarily appropriate for every kind of manuscript, nor for every kind of fiction writing course.

We can’t forget this: the time it takes to read and evaluate a big thing. We can’t treat 150 pages “up” in workshop the same way we treat 15 pages. And perhaps one of the reasons so few teachers are willing to welcome 150 pages to the table is that we only know how to handle 15 pages.

This is why I think it’s okay to suspend common workshop practices (which were designed for the review of small things) when a big thing is up for discussion.

For example:

If someone submits a 15 page story to workshop, I might spend 3 hours annotating the manuscript, doing line edits, and writing a discursive critique. And that manuscript might be one of two manuscripts that are “up” in a given 3-hour long workshop, giving me approximately 6 hours of prep time to lead your typical workshop. Minimum.

 

So, let’s say that someone submits 300 pages to workshop and takes up both “slots” or “at bats” in a workshop. Then it’s reasonable to expect everyone in the class to still spend 6 hours reading that manuscript. Annotations, line edits, and critiques optional. Instead of line edits, the writer receives oral feedback only as the class discusses the manuscript as a whole.

From the point of view of the writer: You leave the workshop without that big stack of marked-up manuscripts, and without typed critiques to mull over (obsess over?) later. You don’t get a close, close read (which you may not be ready for yet anyway). Just the workshop’s reactions and the ensuing discussion. You listen, take notes. Who knows, maybe at a certain point, you actually contribute to the discussion, too. And perhaps the best part: your instructor and your peers aren’t grumpy about how much you’ve given them to read, because they ended up investing the same amount of time preparing for class that they would have spent if two 15-page stories were “up.”

What do you think? Is it smart, or is it sacrilege?

(And thanks Matt Bell for helping me to keep the conversation going.)

CW Programs Teaching

20 comments

  1. Anna Leahy says:

    I’m teaching an MFA thesis course for the first time. I haven’t worked with the two fiction writers in the group before, so I don’t know their work, but I do know they are at least 100 pages into their projects. One is a novel, and the other is a linked story collection. I’ve been trying to decide how to critique their projects, knowing that they each will need to polish the big thing up by May for a defense. I decided to ask for a proposal and the first 25 pages to get a sense of the project and the style, then meet to talk about how these pages work as a beginning of a big thing and how the rest of it is unfolding from what I’ve read. We’ll talk about what openings generally do, what this one does specifically, and about large issues like plot, character, and pacing.

    They may want me to write pages of critique, and I could do that, but I think it will serve them better if I do that after they hit the 150-page length requirement in a few more weeks. For instance, if I say, “you really need to develop your character’s relationship with her niece by putting a scene in early,” that may mean moving a scene from page 100 to page 2, but if I don’t have page 100, the writer may think it means doing something else to the opening. I don’t want either student to get stuck on page 2 now. But I may well type something up that focuses on those first five pages, because a lot gets established (or not) there.

    I’m trying to balance discussion of the parts (I love talking about sentences and paragraphs! they need to work on their sentences and paragraphs!) with discussion of the whole. For their second conference, two weeks later, I’ll tell them to give me as much of their project as they can, but not notes or really rough, new pages. It’ll be a lot of reading, but that will force me to think about the bigness of the projects, the narrative arcs, the pace that a “real” reader would feel. I hope it works. I’m excited about it.

    Critiques DO have a place. I assume these students have been critiquing in their fiction workshops, and I agree they’ve probably learned more from critiquing others than by receiving written critiques. I bet they want more workshopping this semester. But the semester is 15 weeks long, and they want to graduate. The thesis isn’t a book. Mine wasn’t. But a book doesn’t get revised until it gets drafted.

    • Cathy Day says:

      You’ve just described the scenario I’m speaking of. Your choice to “workshop” a proposal and 25 pages is what many would do. What I’m saying is why not have the students show ALL their pages to the class? You’re correct though: when there are 100 pages on the table, the talk is not of sentences and paragraphs, but rather overall plot, character arc, pacing, chaptering, etc. What I’m saying is that THAT is what a novelist very much needs, and I think we shortchange that discussion. Of course, when we talk about the ms. in Macro terms, we shortchange the Micro. That’s the conundrum. Yesterday, I met with one of our MA students about her manuscript (over 100 pages). Our discussion was mostly Macro, but I did spend some time line editing selected pages to demonstrate what he needed to do on the sentence level, about language. I often feel as though creative writing instruction emphasizes beautiful sentences at the expense of plot, and the problem with that is that in order to draft a book, sometimes you need to get the ideas and words down on the page and focus on style and language later.

  2. Well, Cathy, as you know, I’ve inherited your students (fine job, btw) and since I have had all of them in workshop last semester, I emailed them before the semester started and had everyone share what they had of their “big thing.” So now when they workshop chapters or excerpts everyone is up to date. We’re trying to work on what a chapter accomplishes within a longer piece, establishing voice and maintaining suspense. Hopefully, students won’t get derailed, but rather have a better sense of where to go and how to get there more efficiently. Once we get that down we’ll tackle this nasty global warming thing, and maybe bring bipartisanship to our legislature.

    • Cathy Day says:

      So you taught the grad workshop two semesters in a row? I think that typically in MFA programs, there’s an emphasis on faculty rotation each semester, which privileges “variety” but prevents the kind of extended mentoring you’re getting to do. In essence, you’re getting to do the back-to-back semesters, year-long Novel Workshop that many say is the ideal, but which the “faculty rotation” approach makes difficult. I’m really glad you’re there to help. Next year, I plan to rail on interminably about the Bank Foreclosure Crisis. Prepare yourself!

  3. Richard Gegick says:

    I agree with this notion of no written critiques, especially in advanced and/or graduate fiction classes.

    Example:

    Last term I was in a “Thesis Workshop” with 11 other students. Our requirements were to draft a proposal, read four published works (both novel and short story) and workshop fifty pages of our thesis, revise, and submit. Four students were to be workshopped in a three hour class. Which meant at least three hours to each student’s chunk of work (line editing and written critiques) amounting to twelve hours of prep time each week (if performed properly).

    Some students were writing novels, and some like myself, were writing short stories. Regardless of the form, what ended up happening was that students (myself included) half-assed a great deal of the critiquing in order to balance our own work demands, thereby negating the effectiveness of the class. What we had at the end of the term was not even half of the thesis requirements regarding page count (on a side note, I don’t care about page count necessarily) let alone a significant chunk of a manuscript. We had fifty polished pages heading into the next semester of independent study.

    The weekly workshop model of written critiques did not work. While our professor, (a man deserving of unlimited love, admiration, and respect) worked extremely diligently on our manuscripts (may God bless his soul), even he determined that the class format was a failure. We would have been far better off working as a group independent study as you propose. It allow both novelists and short story writers the ability to think and write on the larger scale that a manuscript requires.

  4. I really like the idea of trading “more pages read” for “no written critiques.” I’d like to try that in a workshop sometime soon. The only obvious drawback I see is that some students don’t speak much in workshop, but offer a lot in their line edits/write-ups. I also find that the workshop sometimes alters students’ views. If everyone else is saying x, sometimes a student will chime in and say x, even if their critique said y. It’s fine for opinions to change, of course, but it’s always nice for the writer to go home with a record of everyone’s gut reaction.

    Possible solution? I’ve never tried this before, but what about asking students to record podcasts instead of typing critiques? They take a lot less time and would, necessarily, be less formal. Students could spend five minutes recording a five minute podcast that would be filled with their impressions, reactions, and suggestions.

    Anyone tried this?

    • Cathy Day says:

      Aubrey, it’s true that f2f can create a kind of group think. I have found that some form of non-f2f workshop often generates BETTER feedback, MORE feedback. These days, I have students post their first reactions to manuscripts on the discussion board. What you’re suggesting is something similar. Post a *recording* of your first reaction to a discussion board so that the writer and other students can listen to each others’ ideas. I think the only difficulty is that the faculty member and the students all need proficiency. In Pittsburgh, I wanted to do something like this, but discovered that there were resources and facilities to help ME learn and implement, but no place to send students, and no assurance that all students would own the required technology. But I’m committed to trying something like this. Lots of compositionists do this already.

  5. As someone transitioning from screenwriting to fiction-writing, I continue to be very excited that you’re discussing this subject. Back when I taught screenwriting to undergrads, I had a blanket rule that any student who turned in a complete draft of a full-length script, no matter how flawed, would receive an “A”. It came from a sincere belief that just finishing a long project is a feat in and of itself — and that talking about specifics before someone’s written “the end” can be paralyzing. I have found this is even more true with prose, which is a far more intimate medium. Close critique of a work-in-progress puts a writer in the uncomfortable position of defending what they’ve written before they know what they’re writing.

    I think the workshop model you bring up in this post presents a real solution to the problem. However, I would say that verbal critiques are only valuable if students have a shared vocabulary and a lot of experience giving feedback. It seems like the sort of thing that would work best in the second year of a program, after students have already spent a few semesters honing their note-giving skills on shorter, more manageable works.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks for these ideas, Jonathan! I have a series of posts coming up later this week about that idea of encouraging a certainly flawed but *finished draft* of a manuscript.

  6. Sherrie says:

    Hi Cathy. Thanks for this discussion. What I’ve tried/am trying to do this semester in my graduate level Novel Writing workshop is take the notion of the workshop and reshape it for a more active classroom. The classes are 3 hours, 6:30-9:30pm.

    The first 4 weeks was all about generation and proposal. We did not meet as a class. Each student was to write 400 words a day and then send me a word count via Word doc or 750words.com at the end of each week. (I didn’t read this work–it was simply about writing, producing content. Thank you Cathy Day for this idea.). At week two each student sent in a formal 2-page proposal for their semester’s project, which I could approve or send back for revisions. In the first round, I sent all but two back.

    With articulate proposals and at least 12,000 words written, we started week 5 by each student reading aloud the first 5 pages to the class with in-class responses (no written critique). I think having the opportunity to read work aloud is important. (And I thank John McNally for talking about this with me and giving me this idea.)

    As the class continues, each week every student will put up 5 pages of content from their novel in progress. They will focus on craft elements. Last week was character. I had the students workshop in small groups (15 minutes for each person) and then come together as a full class to discuss characterization as a whole. Everyone in the class has critiqued all five pages from everyone (12 students total). My hopes here are to help students learn to talk craft–to learn how to apply ideas to any project, not just the project at hand. To learn.

    In the meantime, I have scheduled one-hour conferences with each student. They send me max 25 pages to read and then when we meet the/she reads aloud 5-10 pages and then we discuss both micro and macro issues. We carry these conference discussions, ideally, back into the classroom.

    Because I have 1st year and 2nd year students in the class, people are in much different places with their projects. Some are finishing up drafts (60,000 words) others are just beginning to think about the novel and what it means.

    In this way, with this structure, everyone is “up” every week. Everyone is on. I am also bringing in published novels each week, and we go around the class reading the first sentence aloud and discussing what that first sentence tells us, which is so often A LOT, about the book.

    The whole structure is less about the formal, written critique and more about encouraging discussion about concepts and hearing work aloud. I want each student to leave the class each week with at least one solid idea to take back to the larger MS for revision. We’ll see.

  7. Cathy Day says:

    Sherrie, keep me posted on how this all goes. Can I ask: the five pages they bring each week, are they sequential pages? First five. Next five. And so on. Or not? Are they pages from that initial 12,000 words they wrote? Do they continue moving forward throughout the semester, or is the semester divided into two stages: generative (first month) and revision (thereafter)?

    • Sherrie says:

      C–No, the pages don’t have to be sequential. Yes, they are pages from the drafted material. Ideally, the first month is generative, and then the rest of the semester is taking that work and revising/understanding it. Moving forward.

  8. Kevin McKelvey says:

    Very interesting. Good ideas. Have you guys tried VoiceThread?? It’s a great software where you can add audio comments and written comments right on the page. You can do this in Word, whatever, but VoiceThread is more robust as a software. I haven’t used it yet, but a lot of colleagues are. This narrative or audio feedback has been around in comp for a long time.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I’m stealing all of it.

  9. AshleyFord says:

    The length of my writing progressed as my study of writing progressed. My first creative writing course (after Intro) was poetry, then a fiction course focused on flash fiction. The last one focused on non-fiction and memoir in short story collections. In that class, I received one consistent critique from my instructor and my peers: There is too much story in all of my stories. At the end of that semester, my professor told me, “You need to write a book. A whole one.”

    Now, I find myself wishing I had the option to take a course that would help me do just that. I’ve been reading a lot of novels and connected short story collections, but finding that I’ve unintentionally wired myself to tell a story in 1500 words or less. Even if it isn’t a complete story. I’m lucky enough to have worked something out with the professor mentioned above that I can work with her individually in this process. It’s been a great surprise to me that the question doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how to write a book as much as how I write a book. More specifically, how do I write MY book.

    As far as written critiques, I hate writing them. I’m highly verbal (as you know) and my face to face critiques are always much better than my written ones. I understand that learning to critique is important, but only if I’m editing for style and grammar do I feel I’m actually helping. But that’s just a preference, not a pedagogical suggestion.

    • Cathy Day says:

      It’s definitely interesting for all us teachers to hear from students, esp. someone in an undergraduate program. If it helps, Ashley, I would say that it is *rare* to find *any* undergraduate curriculum that encourages big things. I hope that reading this blog helps give you some ideas about how to starting thinking about, planning for, conceptualizing long projects. Are you around this summer? I’m teaching a one-day seminar at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop called “Creating the Storyboard for Your Novel.” Maybe we could work together there?

  10. Dean B says:

    I don’t believe in typed critiques from classmates, because I believe the intentions, the formal concerns, and even the plot and subplot of the piece at hand, short or long, only come out in a well-moderated discussion. It’s a group process, the workshop, and sending a student home with fifteen letters of vastly different opinions constructed before the workshop began is overwhelming and I don’t think helpful. An evening of vigorous discussion about the achievements of the piece and the possibilities for expansion is what an emerging writer needs, because a well-led discussion will arrive at some conclusions and some credible concerns.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thank you Dean. I worry about where that leaves the really quiet students, but certainly, there are ways to moderate discussion so that everyone participates. When I require critiques (I don’t always) I wish I could do this: tell students that, before they left class, they had to read the 15 different letters, keep three that struck a chord with them, and throw the rest away.

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