Thursday, September 10, 2009

Work in Progress: Why Critiques Are Valuable

No, not reading a critique of your own work…writing one of someone else’s piece. Surely every workshop student/writing group member has had the experience of taking home the written critiques after a discussion of their work, rereading them, pondering them, and then coming up with the wonderful revision that addresses those concerns but beautifully and magically transcends the tedious “check—I fixed everything you told me to” trap.

Obviously, critiques of our own work are often quite valuable. But what about all those weeks in workshop where you’re trudging through everyone else’s work, writing your de rigueur 1-2 pages about what’s working and what isn’t? Is that valuable to you, or simply what you do as part of the price you pay because you want them to do it for you? What about spending time and energy teaching and critiquing, when you might be applying that time and energy to your own writing?

I write many critiques throughout the year—and years—but just now I’ve come off about 10 intense days where I critiqued a 300-page novel manuscript, three separate 30-page chapters for my writing group, and four 20ish page stories/chapters for my low-res MFA students at Converse College. Of course I won’t go into any details whatsoever about their work specifically (and any example I use here is entirely fictional or is based on my own writing), but the experience has left me thinking positively—and dare I say fondly?—about the process of the critique.

As I read someone’s manuscript, it’s so easy to think, “oh, this isn’t working,” but much harder to figure out why it isn’t working—and then even harder to be able to articulate my precise feelings as to why. In this batch of critiques, with the exception of the writing group critiques, I do not have the benefit of shared group discussion about the manuscripts, so it’s crucial that the critique fully outline my thoughts and support my points through examples. It’s also important to be able to base comments not only in terms of “what’s working/isn’t working,” but to also be able to bring up principles of writing as needed: why shifting points of view is disorienting, the balance of summary and scene, my world-famous dialogue trick that really, really works (sorry, you’ll have to take a class with me to learn what it is, but I promise you it’s amazing!).

What I often find is that though I have a strong sense of the areas that could be improved as I read, it isn’t until I sit down at the computer to write the critique that I really start to see the bigger picture of the story; writing the comments in the margins and taking notes as I read is like hacking through a forest. Once the path is cleared and some sunlight comes in, that’s when I can examine those larger issues: structure, meaningfulness, which elements are crucial, and so on.

In short, I discover the potential of the story in the act of writing about it. (Which isn’t that surprising…as a writer, I turn to writing to sort through just about any issue.) And discovering what makes other pieces tick helps me take apart my own work. When you spend a lot of time thinking about exactly what elements are needed in the first chapter of a novel to draw in the reader, it’s much easier to see that your own first chapter is sadly lacking some of those elements. When you see someone taking an interesting chance on point of view—and making it work; why? How?—you think that maybe you can shake up your writing a bit too.

Critiquing reminds me that writing is the way through to the other side: if you don’t quite know something, you will…but only if you sit down and write about it, whether it’s the answer why X’s story isn’t working, or the answer to what will happen next in your own novel. For me, the answer to any question whatsoever is, without fail, “writing”: write about it.

The act of critiquing also reminds us to be humble. “Admit you are powerless before the word,” said Francine Prose, and I’ve read works-in-progress that has taken my breath away, either in total, or a paragraph, or a scene, or even simply one perfectly-chosen word, and sometimes these moments come from the student you’d least expect to produce something so wonderful. That’s inspiring.

And it’s never far from my mind that I could be missing something entirely—or be entirely wrong in my assessment and suggestions. We’ve all heard those stories: “My teacher told me to take the uncle out of the story and change it from Florida to New York and tell it in the past tense not the present, but I didn’t, and it got published and will be in the next Best American Short Stories.” Ah, well…just how it goes sometimes, and it doesn’t mean that teacher was necessarily “wrong,” as it’s all subjective. Still. It’s an exciting internal tension.

Finally, like most writers, I love books and love reading, and I especially love nothing more than to be totally lost in a good book. Consequently, it’s often hard for me to read as a “writer,” picking everything apart. When I have precious time to read now, I just want to escape and enjoy, I want to be moved and enthralled; I generally don’t want to analyze every page of the published novel I’ve just picked up. Reading in manuscript form, though, sparks my critical thinking: this isn’t escape, this is a writer working to help another writer, and, happily, in the process selfishly helping herself, too. We know it can always, always be better—but how?


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.