critiques: look for doorways

I was just going through a pile of papers that was teetering precariously and found a page I had torn out from “The Care and Feeding of the Work in Progress” by Catherine M. Wallace (Writer’s Chronicle, Mar/Apr 2008).

Writing workshops generally require you to read and critique the work of others. We do this at every residency at Vermont College. My writing group exchanges manuscripts every three months.

In the article, Wallace advocates not attempting to “fix” others’ work:

…the muddled passages are usually growing edges, and my “fixing” them will stop the new growth that might have happened.

She suggests thinking about “troubles” not as problems to be fixed but rather as doorways:

Picture platform 91/2 in the Harry Potter books: it looks like a wall, but try running straight at it and see what happens.

What she suggests:

to circle the “good parts” and put question marks whenever you get lost.

Our readers’ responses are a gift, she says. I agree.

10 thoughts on “critiques: look for doorways

  1. This is exactly how I used to run writing workshops in the fourth grade. We had a ritual say three things you liked and why, and ask one question. I think it would work well with grown-ups, too.

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  2. Thanks for posting this terrific food for thought, Cynthia. I think Wallace makes a great point about growing edges, and about not fixing, but is it a universal point? I can see how it would be useful to question a difficult passage in a narrative, if the difficulty is based in something like plot or sequence. But what if the issue is something like clarity at the sentence level? What if you can show your colleague that the action is locked up somewhere other than in the verb and the actor is hiding somewhere other than in the subject position? That takes more than a question mark.

    I also learned a lot from a longstanding policy in the University Writing Program at UChicago that prohibits lectors (the teachers who lead writing groups) from writing marginalia. Instead of writing puzzling phrases like AWK or Huh? in the margins, lectors at UChicago have to articulate their responses to a text in written comments.

    That process of articulation is often also a process of discovery that reveals more to the lector about the problem between the text and the reader. And a question mark can’t convey what was learned. We should read like writers, right? Be analytical readers, so we don’t devolve into “I like your character Bob, but that character named Jane—?”

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    • Jeff, thanks for your thoughtful response. I think you’re exactly right that responding only with a question mark is not the universal best response. I can easily see how framing a note to a writer about whether he or she meant X or Y might enable the writer to see where the problem lay far better than a question mark. It might just crack open the issue and allow for the writer to realize that after all she meant Z.

      I love the prohibition against marginalia by the lectors. I’ve never heard of such a thing but what a great idea. I’ve just finished my critical thesis, and one of my points was that merely writing “show; don’t tell” in the manuscript margins has done more harm than it has good.

      Also, I’m sure I oversimplified Wallace’s points. When she is working with someone, her response is to point to a muddled passage and ask the writer to talk to her about what’s going on in that passage. So perhaps the question mark is only the preferred response in the absence of an opportunity for articulation, written or otherwise. And here again, I can even think of examples where “fixing” would show the writer something that a question mark would not…

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  3. Glad you stopped by, as I’ve been meaning to stop by and been way-laid with life! Hmm, to catch up quickly, I’ve been writing poetry, the odd essay, cramming my mouth full of chocolate (left over from Valentines, you see), and reading my eyes out.

    Great advice on critiquing, I met with my crit group a few days ago, I like the idea of “troubles” not as problems to be fixed but rather as doorways…I’m bringing these thoughts to my next meet up! (Thank you for this!)

    Hope you are well and writing, as always, yes? 🙂

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  4. I like the image of revision doorways as I’m in the midst of revisions myself. I like a combination of overall impressions and line edit comments to pinpoint problems. Positive feedback bolsters spirit, but the negative, constructive comments are necessary too as long as they are specific.

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    • I like the image of revision doorways, too, Sarah. I think I was just trying to remind myself that sometimes rather than fixing, a circle and a question mark might give the writer the space to clarify the muddled passage her own way.

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  5. I would be tempted to use the circle/question mark theory only to save time trying to figure out how to “fix” it. But would I like that kind of critique for myself? I think not. I would want to know why the question mark. Otherwise I might go off in the wrong direction when the person was only telling me I was in the wrong POV or tense.

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