Critiques in the Classroom

I want my students to feel our writing critiques have launched their work to the next level. At its best, competition in the classroom raises everyone’s game.  But it’s easy to cross the line from healthy challenge to catty, snarky, and mean. When I teach a workshop, channeling that energy in a positive direction is one of my top priorities.

Matt Groening’s Simpsons courtesy of simpsons.wikia.com

Instructor Mantras for Great Classroom Critiques

As the teacher, I set the tone.  I want a positive, honest, challenging, listening environment with firm boundaries.   These are my instructor mantras.

  • I believe in each work.” I may imagine a long road between a current draft and publication.  But if I treat a student’s work like it’s hopeless, the whole class will pick up on that vibe and amplify it. The goal is not perfection, but getting the current draft to the next level. The fact is, every work can improve.
  • I say what I mean.”  Balancing the previous mantra, I don’t do my students any favors if the workshop turns into a mutual back patting session.  I don’t beat around the bush.  I call out the things I see that are working and the things that need work.
  • I ask questions about what I don’t understand.” Assumption is the mother of all, ahem, screw-ups.  Just because I’m the instructor, I don’t need to pretend I know it all.  When presented with something unfamiliar or unclear, I ask questions.
  • I listen carefully.” I should probably move this mantra to the number one spot, because as the teacher, I want to TALK.  Boring.  Belittling.  Discouraging.  I need to listen to my students first, and talk last.  I listen attentively so that I can return to emphasize students’ important contributions by name, and only then fill in any gaps that haven’t already covered.
  • I stop behavior that doesn’t belong in my class.” Especially with adult students, it’s tempting to cop out and think ‘we’re all grown ups here’, and let the class devolve into Lord of the Flies. Instead, when one of my students starts in with destructive criticism or wanders into a ranting monologue, I politely interrupt with, “Interesting point, Sally, but we’re getting off track. Let’s you and I talk about that offline after class.”

Classroom Rules for Great Critiques

Luke Whisnant’s ‘Responding to Other People’s Fiction’ is my handbook for setting critique ground rules, whether the writing is strictly fiction or not.  I repeat the headlines before each critique session.  Most people need to hear something three times to register it and ten times to memorize it, so it is not overkill to provide gentle reminders at the start of each workshop.

  • Start with what’s working.  Every piece has something that’s working for it.  We start there to encourage one another.
  • Continue with what needs work.  We’re not here to congratulate each other.  We’re here to improve.  Let’s get specific about what needs work.
  • Phrase with “I think”.  Our critiques are opinions, not facts.  We offer them thoughtfully, we listen to them carefully. In the end, it is up to the writer to decide what to do with our opinions.
  • Avoid “I liked…” or “I didn’t like…” This isn’t about tastes in reading material.  We are here to help each other with the craft, not share what we read in our free time.
  • The critiquers talk firstThe writer benefits most from unfiltered critiques.  The writer gets time at the end to respond.

I have found variations on these ground rules to be helpful in other creative and collaborative environments: Brainstorming about starting a business. Rehearsing for a play.  Setting strategic goals for an organization.  Co-writing a manuscript.  But for me they are particularly rewarding when I get that enthusiastic email from a student, thankful for the rekindled energy they have for their work, excited about how much it has improved, and ready to tackle the job of taking their draft to the next level.

If you are interested in more information on constructive critiques in the classroom, please contact bethanyjoycarlson at hotmail dot com.

Bethany Carlson

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