Monday, January 25, 2010

On Critiques (a long overdue article)

Today was the first day of my 2010 classes. 2010! Unbelievable--especially when my former students write me that they're graduating from college and need advice on an essay for graduate school!

My current students learned today that a truly constructive critique session is TRULY CONSTRUCTIVE. They helped each other construct their revisions by offering suggestions like a team, with everyone rooting for their workshop teammates in a noncompetitive pursuit of excellence. I asked them to take notes about the ideas suggested by their classmates, and to decide later whether to incorporate those changes, "if they make sense in terms of what you want your reader to experience." The workshop atmosphere held no defensive posturing, no stubborn frowns, no teary eyes, or grimaces--only nods, pondering looks, and note-taking. By considering their fellow young writers' ideas, they not only showed respect and openness, but also gave their critics more confidence in their own skills.

Learning to respond to literature as a writer, not just a reader, with an eye on meaning and style, eventually carries over into the critic's own writing. Once I can get students to think and react critically to what they read, not just absorb words to regurgitate them later in superficial summaries, then I can create writers whose analytical skills translate into carefully chosen words. Too often, writing students tell me that the only criticism they get from peer editors AND teachers in regular school is negative, focused on problems with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and form. Or they get useless comments, like "great vocabulary," without any comments on how that "vocabulary" moved their readers/listeners. Using sophisticated words means nothing if the writer uses those words merely to impress, rather than to clearly and vividly communicate thoughts and word-pictures, as well as touch the reader in some way. Problem-centered and vague comments during critique sessions are DESTRUCTIVE in that they destroy the joy in the writing process by ignoring the meaning of, and the reasons behind, specific word choices. The purpose of writing is communication, sharing images and ideas to establish connections between the writer's and the reader's perceptions; all words should contribute to that purpose. The constructive critique session used in workshop-style writing classes is the only way to inspire awe for words and awesome writing--my goal as both a teacher AND a writer.

I was proud of my first "workshop team" today. I look forward to fostering a team spirit that enables everyone to progress happily this year.