Monday, June 20, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: Critiquing Others: The Constructive Critique by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of the TeachingAuthors (Carmela Martino, Mary Ann Rodman, JoAnn Early Macken, and I) hold MFAs from Vermont College. Last Monday, our series began with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View." In Wednesday's guest post, "Decide vs. Discover," Cynthia Newberry Martin shared a technique for letting the characters tell you what happens next in your story. On Friday, Sion Dayson gave us another method for moving forward with "What Happens Next?"  Today we hear from Lyn Miller-Lachmann on the art of critiquing. --Jeanne Marie

Critiquing Others: The Constructive Critique by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Before entering the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I had extensive experience in critique groups and workshops. Some of these were helpful, but others left me with more hard feelings than ideas for improving my work.

Like unhappy families, unsupportive critique groups can be unsupportive in many different ways. Some function as cheerleading squads, leaving the writer unprepared for the highly competitive and often cruel world of publishing. Others spend more time tearing down the work and the abilities of the writer, leading to discouragement and disengagement from the critique process. Some members consistently fail to pull their own weight, refusing to read and comment on other people’s work or else to share their own. Others see the group or workshop as a competition, an attitude that some workshop leaders encourage.

Enough of the negative. The workshops at VCFA offer a model for the constructive critique that enables all participants to share their work in a safe, supportive environment and to learn from their own and others’ writing. At each residency, students take part in daily workshops, two hours long, with 10 fellow students and two faculty workshop leaders. At each workshop, two student pieces from 10 to 20 pages long are critiqued, giving each student an hour to hear feedback on the work and to ask questions. The workshop members are at different levels in the program, from nervous first semester students to workshop veterans about to graduate, and the types of works presented range from picture book texts to novels in verse to short stories, from early readers to edgy young adult.

On the first day, faculty advisers set the tone and the ground rules. The student with work to be critiqued reads a paragraph from that work. Then we go around the table, each person stating one thing he or she likes about the work. Faculty advisers take their turn. No one’s comments are more privileged than anyone else’s. After fifteen minutes of what we like about the piece, workshop participants discuss questions, which may be problems with the piece, or confusing parts, or aspects that touch on general writing topics. This part occupies thirty minutes of the discussion. For the final fifteen minutes, the writer, whose work is being discussed, finally has a chance to respond. Until that final fifteen minutes, the writer remains silent—unless there’s a factual question that requires a quick answer.

The silence of the writer for nearly an hour requires a level of trust at the core of the VCFA workshop process—that the discussion of the piece will focus on the piece and not on the writer, that the tone remains positive even though the time devoted to questions is twice as long as that devoted to favorable impressions, that all workshop members take their turn in voicing positives and raising questions, that all comments carry equal weight rather than gravitating toward the observations of the workshop leaders, that we learn not only from our own work but also from examining others’ efforts, that we put forth our best effort but know that any piece can be improved.

All of these principles can be applied to critique groups beyond VCFA. Here are some general tips for constructive criticism:

* Ask the person whose work is under consideration to listen to the initial discussion rather than explain or argue

* Make sure all other members have the chance to speak—do not allow some to dominate and others not to speak at all

* Treat all comments as having equal value, regardless of the writing and publishing experience of the one commenting

* Begin with the positive—what works in this piece?

* Frame what didn’t work for you as a question and relate the questions to larger issues that may apply to several group members’ works

* Give adequate time for the person who wrote the piece to respond at the end

* Make sure all members have the chance to share their work equally as well as respond to others’ work.

Of all my experiences in critique groups, the VCFA workshops have helped me the most. Beyond the specific critique of my own work, they have addressed larger questions with which I struggle—getting readers to connect emotionally with my characters, revealing backstory without halting the action, making the first person narrator’s voice consistent. As often as not, I’ve discovered the answers for my own work while discussing someone else’s story, which is why it’s so important to both participate and to listen.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is in her second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. She is the author of an adult novel, Dirt Cheap (now back in print), and the award-winning YA/adult crossover Gringolandia. She also contributes reviews to the online Albany Times-Union, Readergirlz, and The Pirate Tree, a new blog about social justice and children’s literature. You can read more about Lyn and her work at If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact her directly at

Exciting plot… great characters… exotic setting… a good story will invariably have at least one of these things going for it. But a GREAT story will always have heart. For a look at how one writer learned to find heart in her story. Please check back here on Wednesday 6/22, when Pam Watts, a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults reveals her journey.


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for such a great explanation of the VCFA workshop process, Lyn. I try to follow the same format in my own "Craft and Critique" writing classes.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Sometimes it's hard to do, especially without a designated "leader" to make sure rules are being followed. I think of all the times I'm in a critique group and either don't practice what I preach (such as not bringing my own material to read as regularly as I should), or don't say anything when other people interrupt or argue when their work is being critiqued. Perhaps appointing a different facilitator each time to take responsibility for keeping to the rules will help when it's a critique group and not a workshop with a clear leader.

Megan Frances said...

Great article, and very helpful guidelines. Makes me want to attend the VCFA program.

I'm lucky to have a great critique group - three women writers who met in a UCLA novel writing class. We ask tough questions and expect a lot of each other.

I'm delighted I'll be hosting 5 articles for the VCFA Summer Blog Initiative in August, on my blog, On Beyond Words & Pictures

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

A wonderful critique group is one of life's biggest blessings. I am grateful for ours.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for your comments, Megan and Pen and Ink. And yes, having a good critique group makes a world of difference. I'm grateful for mine, too.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you to all the people who commented. One of my critique groups hadn't been following this method--we allowed the writer to argue his (yes, it was a he) point. Two days ago, I handed out the article and the group voted to follow this method. All of the people who presented their work said the responses were far more insightful and useful than ever before. The critiques lasted a bit longer as well, so we need to set aside more time in the future.