Thursday, June 9, 2011

Critiquing: Questions vs. Comments

Win OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt! Enter through June 12. Scroll down one post.

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. 
It occurred to me that if I'm on the receiving end of a question critique, I think I'd like to know this: Does this question mean you're confused at this spot and need the question answered now in order to understand or stick with the story? Or is it something to consider for the chapter or book as a whole, i.e., globally, not locally? As long as I have that distinction, I feel like I've gotten a glimpse into a reader's reaction to the story and can begin to work out answers to any answer-less questions. I'm reminded of John Gardner's statement something to the effect that the really good novelist anticipates and answers any questions the reader can reasonably ask. So this question approach to critiquing, if we've only heretofore dabbled around the edges of it, can raise us to new levels as both writers and critiquers. Thanks, Pat. :)

87 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

One of my CPs that is mainly what she does. Ask questions. And it's very effective.

Marcia said...

Laura -- I agree. Questions lead to thought and discussion that can even branch out from the original question.

Kim Kasch said...

Marcia I got a really good idea from you about my last cake :) I used it for today's blogpost. Thanks for lending me your creativity.

Vijaya said...

Yes! I couldn't agree more. When I revise, I'm always asking why, why, why and I do the same thing when I critique, esp. if things don't jive. I'm asking what it is that I missed? Which mean, the author needs to make that more transparent.

Holly Black and E. Lockhart gave a demo of how one can brainstorm a story together. The author answers the questions that the critiquer asks.

Great post!

Jeff King said...

Awesome idea... and one I'll use. thx for sharing it.

Andrea Mack said...

I often jot down questions when I critique. And I like it when I get questions, because they almost always make me think more deeply about the story.

Marcia said...

Kim -- I saw the cake... How did the idea come from me? Now I'm curious as all get-out. Have to go over again and see...

Vijaya -- I agree with asking why, why, why, because motivation is so important.

Jeff -- I'm sure you'll find it useful.

Andrea -- Annie Dillard talks about a sentence being like a probe into whatever we're writing. Questions sure fill that role too.

cleemckenzie said...

Absolutely true. Questions are such great keys. I love the question, "What if?" That always leads me places I might never have thought to go.

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