Critting Protocols

Since a few people have expressed interest, I thought I’d post a little protocol for how to run a critique session in a class.

The feedback routine is basically the procedure we used at Clarion West, as suggested by Maureen McHugh, though after a few weeks most of us tended to play a bit more loosely and freely with it.

Basically: for a given crit session, students will have texts ahead of time, and are expected to have written a critique of each text to be critique, but also are expected to provide verbal critique.

The critique session begins with the author of the first text to be critiqued choosing to begin critiques with the classmate to the left or the right. Each student sequentially gives feedback within a given time limit. This can be up to three or five minutes, depending on the number of students and number of works to be discussed. I often use 1.5 minutes or 2 minutes in English writing classes in Korea. During the group-critique time, the student whose work is being critiqued is instructed to remain quiet, taking notes or otherwise listening carefully. He or she cannot speak except to say “Thank you!” or “Sorry?” if something said during a critique was inaudible. (Unclear statements, though, should be clarified later.)

Each student should, during his or her critique, endeavour to include the following:

  • A sense of what the text is “about,” dealing with, or the effect it’s seeking to have on the reader. Note: I find when I explain it to students this way, they usually end up making a very simplistic statement of the topic, which I think anyone would agree is not necessarily what the work is about. I almost always tell my students, now, to talk about the effect that the author seems to want to have on the reader, or the deeper issues and arguments that are being made in the text if it’s that sort of text.
  • What is being done well, or effectively, or working in the text.
  • What isn’t working in the text, or could be improved.
  • One recommendation for improving the piece. If you were to focus on just one aspect of the text to make everything go up a notch, what would it be?

Students are expected to confine their comments to the set time limit. There is a timekeeper for each meeting, who gives a 10-second, 30-second or one-minute warning before the end of a student’s allotted crit time.

(Optionally, students can choose to go over their allotted time, but should be willing to give something up for it; for example, a ticket for a book draw was given up by those who chose to go overtime at Clarion West when I was there; a professor could track it and tell a student he or she has however many more overtimes left for the month. Though in my opinion, in classrooms students tend to not go overtime very often at all.)

One shorthand that helps facilitate speedy crit, and which even my Korean students quickly get used to using, is the “Ditto” — as in, “Ditto Jungmin, I think this is too long, but anti-ditto Myoung Seok, I think the language is actually very clear and easy to understand.”

Students are carefully reminded to not be unkind, and yet also to be honest. Everyone must have at least one good thing to say about a work, even when it is a terrible struggle to figure out just what to compliment.

At the end of the students’ critiques, the instructor takes over for a while. He or she may ditto and anti-ditto comments by other students, especially highlighting those applicable to many students’ writing, or those that touch on areas the particular student really needs to focus on. However, the instructor is often better off focusing on a few big-picture mechanics-problems, or issues that nobody else raised. The instructor can talk anywhere from 5 minutes, to the bulk of the remainder of classtime.

However, it’s also customary to allow the student who has been critiqued some time to ask questions of classmates or the instructor. Usually 2-5 minutes will suffice, depending on the class.

Finally, this process can be used in “normal” (ie. native  speaker) writing classes as well as critique groups. It can also very profitably be used in TEFL courses, although it’s important to consider the cultural context within which students come to a course. Korean students, at least those I have known majoring in the humanities, almost never show their written work to classmates, and they tend to have an experience of education in which a great deal of anxiety is attached to mistakes, errors, or other imperfections in their work. While critique sessions can ultimately be extremely therapeutic for them in that they come to recognize nobody’s work is perfect, before they realize this, critique can be an extremely stressful experience. It is rare for a student to burst into tears in the middle of a crit session, but it is not so unusual for someone to burst into tears after class has finished.

That said, in my experience every student who has reacted this way has also responded will to reassurance, has learned to relax about his or her work a little and set realistic goals and standards for himself or herself, and has finally become one of the top writers in the class.

Still, if you are dealing with a class of students, some of whom you know and some of whom you don’t, it is always best to have students who’ve been through critique before, or who seem stable to you, to go first. It’s also highly advisable that you talk about your own experiences in having work critiqued, and how stressful and scary it is. Insisting that what is being critiqued is not the student, but the work, won’t help much, but it may help some. Ultimately, though, it’s the experience of giving and receiving constructive criticism that gets students past this difficulty. It can take time, but the benefits are many and varied.

Not only to students learn to read critically, to write for an audience, to edit, to proofread, to verbalize what they see as problems in written work (often for the first time), but they also come to understand that errors, imperfection, and problems are inevitable in their writing and other endeavours — and that, in writing at least, editing is an absolute necessity. For that reason, I think the word I used above — “therapeutic” — is exactly the right word for this mode of teaching. It is a way of helping students recover from the fear of making mistakes embedded in their minds during their primary and secondary educations. Since making mistakes is a crucial part of learning, the effect is probably broader and more positive than anyone might realize within the context of the writing course alone.

If anyone has thoughts, suggestions, different protocols, or ideas, feel free to comment below!

3 thoughts on “Critting Protocols

  1. This was a great post, Gord. I particularly loved the detailed order of how to deliver the verbal critique. I would say every creative writing class or critique group I’ve been in comes in different shades of this model. I’ve noticed in critique groups, it’s very easy for those giving the critique to get excited and talk over one another. I suppose this happens because a critique group is smaller and not bound to the time constraints of a class.

    One of my former critique group members (she moved away) mentioned one model she’d been introduced to; each person giving verbal critique follows an ABCD pattern (A for absolutely loved this…, B for this bored me…, C for this confused me…, D for I didn’t believe the character or plot when this happened…)

    It certainly is a quick, streamlined way for all those to follow, but there are the connotations of the letters. I’m sure more students would be upset hearing about the Cs and Ds of their work. I haven’t used this model, but I could see how some might find it useful.

  2. Stephanie,

    Oh, I really like the idea of a mnemonic for the four steps of the crit. As it is, I have to drill the four steps before ever crit session, and some students still don’t follow it.

    (I don’t think I could use ABCD in my own classes, but it might work in a formal group of writers who are, you know, actually writers. My 1234 pattern seems to prompt them to read a certain way, which they’ve mostly never read before, and but remains open-ended enough for praise and criticism on all kinds of nitpicky things like grammar and spelling and punctuation if that’s what the student fundamentally needs.)

    Now I’m wondering what it’s like to teach Creative Writing to native speakers of English.

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