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.
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 first. The 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.
In my day job at the University of Virginia, I do research, which many people may not realize involves a lot of writing. As my boss says, “In academia, the coin of the realm is publishing.” Our research group, called Foundations of Cognition and Learning or FOCAL, examines the underlying foundational skills that children need to succeed in school. Skills like self-control, visuo-motor skills, and motivation.
This post is about how writing groups can help technical and academic writers. Academic writing is a certain type of creative challenge because it’s essentially like learning a new language. There are particular words to use and not to use. Rules for when to use something called causal language, which implies a traditional experiment with a control group. Rules for the precise difference among highly similar words, like effect, effects, affect, and affects. Rules like never using fragments or phrases.
If you don’t know the difference between impulsivity, impulse control, effortful control, inhibitory control, inhibition, perseverate, attentional shifting, and executive function – if you’ve never even heard of these words and feel perfectly content about that – you are a normal person. Because all those words essentially mean “self-control,” and they have to do with how we must deliberately plan, organize, and apply effort to learn new things.
In academia, because scientists examine the most subtle details of phenomena like human behavior, we end up coining obscure phrases that only a few experts in that particular area master. As a graduate student, or as a scholar new to an area of study, figuring out what an article is even about can be maddening. Learning how to write in the style of scientific writing takes years, and learning how to write well in this style is even more of a challenge.
I was reminded of this a few years ago when I started writing about an area that is new to me: visuo-motor skills. I had been writing about self-control for 8 years, and when I tackled motor development, I felt like a first-year graduate student all over again. I remembered how challenging and just plain frustrating it was to build a skill from scratch. It felt like I would never get better!
For the past two semesters, I’ve been involved in an academic writing group that helps doctoral students and their mentors make progress on their writing. When the group concluded this spring, the students liked it so much they decided to keep meeting over the summer. The mentors liked it so much we decided to keep meeting over the summer too! (In the fall, we’ll all get back together). Here are five benefits of our group:
1. Effective feedback mechanism. Scientists are trained to consider a position from all sides and refute challenges. Arguing for one’s point is part of the business. But when learning to write, this somewhat antagonistic stance serves no one. My academic writing group adopted the BACCA model of allotting the first 15 minutes or so of the session for the readers to comment and for the author to listen. As our academic writing group leader Dr. Sonia Cabell pointed out, “Not responding when someone comments on our work is simply unnatural. We spend so much time on the piece that it feels impossible not to respond and defend our efforts.”
Even so, she and I agreed that was the best decision we made in structuring the group. An “author listening period” allowed the readers to build a conversation and comment off one another. Themes became evident and so were areas of disagreement among the readers. After the listening period, the author was invited to ask clarifying questions and seek more information from the readers. A side benefit of this practice was that we learned one can separate the piece of work from one’s own identity – this is what I call “ego work.”
2. Allow for comparison and contrast. In our group, students with widely varying interests – literacy development, self-control, preschool math education, measurement of visuo-motor skills, and cultural competence of student teachers – all read each other’s drafts. They told us this had two benefits: first, they learned about areas they didn’t otherwise encounter. Second, they more easily saw the principles of strong writing because they had examples of the same style of writing (academic) on so many different topics. In other words, their tunnel vision – so essential when becoming expert in a focused area – broadened.
3. Confidence building. The group involved four mentors – established research faculty who have been writing for a long time – and we mentors submitted our own working drafts. Thus, the students got to see our rough drafts. Our rough drafts were – and this is a technical term – messy. We started calling them “crappy drafts.” For university students, who are surrounded by long-time PhDs, it’s a relief to see that writing well is difficult for mentors, too. It’s difficult for everyone. Which leads to the fourth benefit:
4. Practice: The writing group provided multiple opportunities to practice and receive timely feedback on our writing. A few students submitted the same paper more than once, albeit with changes and improvements. And as research on expertise shows, improving at a skill requires practice. A LOT of practice.
5. Large return on investment. Our academic writing group did not take a lot of time. Students enrolled for one independent study credit. We met every other week for 1 hour, and reviewed two pieces of writing. When necessary we were able to review in BACCA speed, 20 minutes, though we tried to give each person more like 25-30 minutes.
Other than the professional benefits, we had a lot of fun together! The students keep coming back, so we must be doing something right. If you are interested in creating your own academic writing group, please contact Claire Cameron at cecameron(at)virginia.edu.
I’ve wanted to be part of the Virginia Festival of the Book since I moved to Charlottesville in 1998. Just being in the same room as these creative authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals expands my world. I’ve volunteered for the Festival for many years at several venues. The Omni, Northside Library, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports. I was the smiling woman at the door handing out evaluation forms to audience members. I’d never been on stage or at the podium. Never been a moderator or a speaker. But I wanted to be. Every year I’d stand at the back with the other volunteer and envision telling an audience about my writing. I don’t know which member of BACCA proposed the idea that we present at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book but I am grateful she did. Maybe it was me or maybe it was Bethany, Anne, or Claire channeling my dreams.
BACCA (Bethany, Anne, Carolyn and Claire) came together as a writing group in the spring of 2011. Since then, BACCA has slowly uncovered the formula for creating, leading, and sustaining a great writing group. Now we were ready to share our discovery with the world. Our proposal was submitted, along with our application, to the Virginia Festival of the Book in September, 2012. By October, 2012, we were in! BACCA was going to the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book, and not just going, we were presenting.
By the end of winter, BACCA was almost ready. We had informative handouts on How to Create a Writing Group, How to Lead a Writing Group, How to Find People, andBACCA 101, andAnne launched our beautiful website. We had the date and location of our presentation – Saturday, March 23rd at the Omni in Downtown Charlottesville. Special thanks to Bethany Joy Carlson for securing the Omni on Saturday, the best venue and the best day for maximum exposure. But we still needed just one more ingredient … practice. We scheduled a Writers’ Retreat in early March. (See Claire Cameron’s excellent account of our retreat.)
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Saturday, March 23, 2013. We agreed to meet at the Omni Hotel, downtown Charlottesville, at 9:15 for our 10:00 am presentation. We didn’t know what to expect. Would we have one attendee or one hundred? We’d made fifty copies of our handouts.
Our presentation was located in the Preston Room. Where? To get to the Preston Room we had to walk through the Omni’s in-house restaurant. We waved off the confused maître d’. “No, we’re not here for breakfast.” Diners stared at us as we bypassed the breakfast buffet and found a short hallway that lead to an open door. The Preston Room was almost perfect. Good sound system, plenty of chairs, well lit, but we had one concern. Location, location, location.
I was worried. I’d volunteered at the Omni quite a few times and I’d never even heard of the Preston Room. All the other presentations were along the main corridor, on the other side of the hotel. Not in the middle of a busy restaurant just beyond the confused maître d’. How would our audience find us? Fortunately Anne had brought extra flyers with directions to the Preston Room. We taped her flyers on the hallway outside the restaurant and kept our fingers crossed.
Our Festival of the Book volunteer, Susie, showed up and it began to feel real. We’d already decided on the order of our introductions. Bethany, as moderator, would go first. Anne would be second. I (Carolyn) was third. Claire was forth. As Claire illustrated in the previous post,The Writing Group Weekend, we were well prepared.
We placed handouts on the first few rows as our audience began to trickle in. Three women saved seats in the front row then scurried away. Saved seats! We took that as a good omen. Familiar faces arrived next. My husband, Claire’s boyfriend, Anne’s husband, and Bethany’s friend. Strangers walked in. They filled the first few rows. More friends arrived. Our confidence grew with each new attendee.
We chatted with the audience as we waited for 10:00 am. One woman told of her bad experience forming a writing group with friends. Hurt feelings and friendships threatened. Another chimed in. She’d formed a writing group with friends as well. Some took the writing seriously, others didn’t. They had to disband. We assured these women that they came to the right presentation because BACCA had the formula for success. The middle rows filled. We glanced at each other, our excitement building. Amazing!
Ten o’clock. Bethany welcomed audience members. She thanked both the Virginia Festival of the Book and our volunteer, Susie, and introduced herself:
“I’m Bethany Joy Carlson, and I’m a storyteller. I write fables, screenplays, and YA fiction. I’ve always loved a good story – in books, at the movies, told around a campfire. Story contains, for me, something essential about what it is to be human.”
She shared a share a quote from a favorite author, Haruki Murakami:
When you listen to somebody’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have a true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter – it actually might elevate the truth factor of the story. Turn this around, and you could say there’re stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all.
“Since writing is a solitary enterprise,” Bethany said, “being part of a thoughtful, fun, engaged group of kind critics has not only been a boost to my craft but a boon to my soul.” BACCA has given each of its four members much-needed feedback, but more than that, the women of BACCA also become cherished friends as we share the intimate act of putting the words on our hearts to paper.
Anne was second. She talked about the benefits of BACCA to her writing process, comparing our writing group to a farm cooperative. She contrasted her creative writing with the nonfiction essays and opinion pieces she had written previously. The audience laughed when she added, “Can I just say, the term ‘submission’ is unfortunate? I prefer to say I’m ‘sending my work out’.”
Bethany called my name, and I suddenly I realized I hadn’t heard a word Bethany or Anne had said during their introductions. (I had to ask them, “What did you say?” for this blog!) My mind was blank, my vision tunneled. I felt like I was inside a thick balloon floating underwater. I began by telling the audience what I write. “Fiction, mostly,” I said. My voice was shaky. “But I’m starting to write non-fiction. I’ll tell you more about in a moment.”
Since I write speculative fiction, I wanted my introduction to take an unusual turn. I looked at my notes and told the audience about one of my my favorite animals, the cuttlefish: a wondrous aquatic invertebrate that seems more like a creature from an alien planet than inspiration for my Festival of the Book introduction. Someone in the audience laughed, which is what I had hoped would happen, and I began to relax.
“The cuttlefish quality I admire is its ability to change color to match its emotion.” I compared this ability to my online presence. My Facebook, twitter, and blog pages change colors to match my emotions. From blue to red to black, depending on what’s happening. I returned to the previously mentioned non-fiction, a very personal blog I began with my diagnosis with endometrial cancer last December. “We share our souls when we write. And no one can share their soul if they fear gossip or ridicule. Trust is the foundation of a great writing group.”
Claire gave the final introduction. She discussed BACCA’s process. How and when BACCA meets, what we talk about, how we each comment on another writer’s work, and how we observe boundaries. She shared a few key principles of learning based on her research as an educational psychologist.
“Many of us have an ability bias,” Claire said, “where we think we can’t get better at something if we’re not already good at it.” (See link to Carol Dweck’s Mindset website, http://mindsetonline.com/). Claire cited research contradicting this bias and emphasized that expertise evolves through putting in the time. “We’re talking thousands of hours,” she said. Expertise also comes from supportive, effective feedback, which a great writing group can provide.
After introductions, Bethany asked the audience to take a minute and travel back in time. Remember when they received positive critique on their writing from another person. Maybe it was a teacher, a friend, or a family member. Maybe a commenter online. She reminded the audience that “critique is a loaded word. It sounds pretty close to criticism.” The room quieted as we all thought of our writing experiences.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Our panel discussion came next. Bethany asked the questions and Anne, Claire and I took turns answering. Our answers were sincere, humorous, and instructive.
Where do you meet? What have been the highlights and lowlights?
Anne’s house because it’s private. The Mudhouse in Crozet unless it’s hosting a violin recital.
Have you become friends? How does that impact your critiques?
After two years together, friendship was inevitable. We keep our critiques strictly about the writing and try not to let personal feelings influence our feedback.
Is there a difference between how you critique fiction and memoir? Why?
Memoir, by its nature, is more personal than fiction so critiquing can be difficult. Plus, readers know the ending.
What has enabled the trust to be vulnerable as a writer in a critique group? As a reader?
This question reiterates the importance of selecting the right people for your group.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
After the panel discussion, Bethany launched our second planned activity: Writing GroupTest Drive. This activity allowed the audience an opportunity to practice giving and receiving feedback. Bethany referred the audience to our two-page handouts. On the first page was a short excerpt from a famous (unnamed) fiction author. On the second was Luke Whisnant’s critiquing guidelines, Responding to Other People’s Fiction.
We asked audience members to silently read the paragraph, and then form small groups of three or four people. We asked them to focus on “what’s working” and “what needs work” in the excerpt. We gave the audience ten minutes to complete the task. Extra points for guessing the name of the famous author.
After the exercise, Claire asked the audience how focusing on “what’s working / what needs work” rather than “I like / I dislike” changed how they read the piece. One person said, “it made me see the details of the construction, rather than my emotional response to the piece as a whole.” Another noted, “The run-on sentences reflect the endless roads.” Three teachers in the front row chimed in: “Never begin a sentence with a number!”
Even the extra points question was answered. “When you’re John Steinbeck you can make your own rules!”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The audience participation exercise was the perfect segue for Bethany to widen the discussion. She asked for questions from the audience. A woman in the second row raised her hand. She asked about forming writing groups with friends. I suggested she carefully consider each member of her group. Members need to be serious writers who respect the feelings, privacy and integrity of the other members. “It’s easier to invite someone to your group than to un-invite them.”
Another hand went up and a man asked what makes a group work. Anne was emphatic with her answer: “Being present. Showing up. It’s noteworthy that BACCA has met every month for two years.”
Another woman asked the benefits of e-mailing our Works in Progress (WIPs) a week in advance versus reading them on the spot, as we did in the exercise. I talked about needing the time to read each piece fully and non-critically before going back with the red pen. Anne countered, noting the benefits of a spontaneous reaction without falling into over-analysis.
Bethany brought the session to a close, once again thanking the Virginia Festival of the Book, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Writer House, and Susie, our volunteer. “Feel free to pick up more materials at the back, at the Writer House booth here at the festival, or at BACCALiterary.com,” she said.
Bethany told the audience we would be available to answer questions after the presentation and reminded them to fill out the feedback form. Quite a few people came up with additional questions. Everyone left in high spirits, both BACCA and the audience.
Memory is a tricky thing. I committed to write this blog entry for our Festival of the Book experience during our writers’ retreat, but actually being in front of an audience is very different from sitting around with friends, practicing our questions and enjoying our answers. I thank Bethany Joy Carlson, Anne Carley, and Claire Cameron for helping me fill in the details.
One of my favorite things about writing – both fiction and nonfiction – is that you never know where you’ll end up. When the four of us met in David Ronka’s Evening Fiction workshop at WriterHouse two years ago, I’m certain that all we expected was a writing class. But now we are BACCA Literary: Bethany, Anne, Carolyn, Claire – aspiring authors, already-writers. After responding to Bethany’s emailed invitation, we’ve spent the past two years honing our skills in monthly critique sessions.
We’re honored that our writing group was the first – as far as we know – Virginia Festival of the Book session by writers-in-progress, for writers-in-progress. We presented on Saturday morning, March 23, 2013, at a Publishing Day event called “Creating a Great Writing Group.” We were excited – maybe even a little nervous – and wanted things to go well. To prepare for the session, we decided to spend a late-winter weekend at a nearby retreat.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Like walking into a new class for the first time or sharing your work with strangers, spending an entire weekend writing with people you normally see once per month is an “uncertainty situation.” It’s hard to know what to expect. The pay-off could be huge – or not. And the weekend got off to a rocky start. Two days before the retreat, Carolyn was forced to drive herself to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Her husband was out of town and she began to bleed heavily from a recent cancer-related surgery. When we heard the news over our private Facebook page, we went from preparing for the weekend in excitement to worrying about Carolyn and wondering if the retreat would work out after all.
While Carolyn was in the hospital, I realized how much I wanted all four of us there. We are yin and yang: two fantasy writers, two reality-based writers. Two Baby Boomers, two Gen X-ers. Like a table with four legs, BACCA would wobble if one of us were missing.
Carolyn’s condition turned out to be caused by loose stitches. Though she needed a blood transfusion, her doctor still gave her the green light to leave town. Her husband, a true “knight in shining armor,” drove her out and unpacked all her things. After they arrived, I asked Anne, “Do you think this is pushing it?” Anne checked with Carolyn, who reassured us that if anything should happen, we were only 40 minutes from the nearest hospital. Luckily, we never had to test that drive.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
After the novelty of settling in, I could appreciate our beautiful surroundings. The retreat had one space for meeting and another for resting, dining, and socializing. Internet was limited. By chance, we were the only group on the grounds. Though the air was chill and the skies cloudy, the land cradled us in rich earth tones of straw and bark, red clay, and spring-green grass in spots. Just beyond were the Rapidan River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, timeless reminders to relax and let our creative energies flow.
We began the weekend with a writing prompt, plucked from a paper bag at 5pm. The instructions were simple, based on our composer Anne’s experience with a music retreat: choose one prompt, then take 24 hours to write a short piece. The next day, read your work to the group.
The others seemed game, but I was initially skeptical. Our writing group routine is to share, one week before meeting, material that we’ve polished for months. What could we possibly produce in 24 hours? Especially without knowing the topic in advance?
The prompts were:
Write about an object you love dearly – something besides photo albums – that you’d save in a house fire.
You’re convinced that your best friend’s son plans to bring a gun to school.
You’re sorting through your childhood things and a stuffed animal suddenly begins talking to you.
You have a near-death experience. When you awaken, the only person you remember seeing is Adolf Hitler.
After choosing our prompts, we rested or brainstormed in solitude. Then we made dinner and chatted. By sheer coincidence, Anne and I are both on gluten-free, dairy-free diets, with several other restrictions, so Anne generously volunteered to prepare entrees for both nights. Her chicken soup and tomato-free turkey chili were delicious as well as diet-appropriate. After dinner, Carolyn brought out a dog-eared “Moon Signs” book and we playfully psychoanalyzed ourselves before bed. We weren’t surprised to learn that our moon signs were compatible. It started to feel like a bona fide slumber party. That night I slept on a loft with a window to the sky. I awoke once to the moon at its peak, a shining light I could have read by.
The next morning, we prepared for our VA Book session. Then we wrote. The 5pm prompt deadline approached. At 4:50pm, I was 99% done. I needed an ending though – the piece hadn’t gelled. Then, an insight, and a hasty final sentence, which ended up the same as the first. Funny how things come full circle. But was it any good?I didn’t have time to edit.
At 5:01, I walked into the kitchen. The three others sat around the table already. Everyone looked as hesitant as I felt. Someone said, “Y’all realize this is a rough draft, right?”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
If you want to know what we wrote, you’ll have to wait until we publish our pieces. But suffice it to say that after we finished sharing, we agreed that each piece was submission-worthy, with a little tweaking. We agreed that the prompt activity had far surpassed our expectations, and that two years before, there was no way we each could have written something coherent in 24 hours.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
So was it the beautiful place, the energy of an all-but-unplugged retreat? Was it the change in scenery or the moonlight? Or was it two years of monthly meetings and regular feedback? Whatever it was, here we are. Four women, four writers, four friends. After working together, we presented at one of the country’s best book festivals – Bethany’s preparing to teach her E-publishing WriterHouse class – Anne’s consulting other writers in her small business – Carolyn won second place in The Hook’s 2013 short story contest – and I just completed my first book. Could we have accomplished what we have without each other? Possible, though unless someone invents a parallel universe, we’ll never know. But what’s certain is that without each other to lean on, cheerlead, and listen, the successes we have enjoyed so far wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.
“Uncertainty situations” are designed to stretch us, sometimes in uncomfortable directions. But perhaps that’s the point of writing, writing classes, and writing retreats. To stretch, learn, and grow. Especially in the company of friends.