I went to an excellent revision workshop by author Pat Schmatz a couple weekends ago, and one thing the attendees did was exchange manuscripts for critique -- sort of. In the type of critiquing I'm used to, we jot comments and suggestions in the margins as we read, pointing out spots where we got confused ("Is Lizzie outside the house looking in, or inside the house looking out?"); POV trouble ("You've entered the thoughts and feelings of three people in the space of two paragraphs"); passages that drag; places where dialogue predominates too much over action or setting, giving a "talking heads" effect; emotional reactions that aren't quite convincing; character motivation that seems lacking -- in short, anything we can find that needs a second look. But when we exchanged mss. at the workshop, Pat gave very specific instructions: "ASK QUESTIONS ONLY, about things that pique your curiosity." It's not that I've never asked questions in a critique, or in a student manuscript, because I have and do. But the overall approach in this workshop exercise was to be one of asking questions, not making comments, and the idea of sticking to questions only was new. It made me realize a few things:
- Asking questions means I can't enter "automatic critique mode" and make any of the comments I would normally make, such as "POV slip" or "His hair was short two pages ago; now it's long." I have to get out of the box, change my mindset. It means I'm primed to see in a fresh way before I even start reading.
- Asking questions makes me focus on the bigger picture. First, with this method, line edits are out. A comment like "POV slip" becomes a related but more macro question: "Whose story is this?" Next to a passage that I suspect goes into too much detail about a minor character, I might jot, "Will this character be important later?" Or, to use the above example of long/short hair, the question might become, "Do you have a clear mental picture of Wilbert's appearance?"
- Asking questions leaves ownership of the story with the author. This way, the critiquer isn't suggesting fixes. Instead, she's raising questions and leaving the answers to the writer.
- Asking questions is freeing for the critiquer when revision is at the macro, big-picture stage. It prevents the critiquer from getting bogged down in trying to point out "everything," and keeps the early revision focus on larger aspects such as voice, conflict, character development, motivation, plot points, and sense of place.