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.)