This is a 40 credit two semester long module that is compulsory for our creative writing students. They work on their own writing and share it three times a semester with their own group. I have twelve in my group so four people submit each week. So far – we’re Week 4 – we’ve had at least three submissions a week with only one student failing to submit and only one student failing to turn up to get feedback.
Students email their work to me and each other 48 hours in advance of the class. So, we study four texts each week and get thirteen opinions on each. Even if someone is unavoidably absent form class they will email their comments, though of course then these remain unmoderated by myself.
A skill gap
The first couple of weeks went well. This last week, however, I felt I was doing all the work and the students were making little contribution. It may have been tiredness. I don’t think it was laziness. It was clear they had all read the texts. In fact one couple had got together during the week and looked at their texts together. I think it was more they didn’t know what to say. This course teaches them to edit and critique. At this point, however, they may need a little more guidance. Time to give them some more strategies.
Strategy 1 – Sandwich variety
This is perhaps the one I use most in all of my critiquing and my marking.
The sandwich method is to give positive criticism, followed by negative and finishing with positive. I vary this slightly. I do the following:
· Point out what is working well
· Say what is working less well
· Make a suggestion about what will make the biggest improvement.
At the same time, though, I also fully annotate the text.
Strategy 2 – Just say what you get
Simply tell the writer what you think they’ve written. It’s surprising how well the picture in the reader’s head matches the one in the writer’s – even including some of the details that haven’t been made explicit. However, alarm bells should ring where there is a mismatch and this mismatch indicates the writing needs adjusting.
Strategy 3 – Reassuring the writer
The writer may send specific questions about their work. Certainly the readers should answer those but should also point out anything else they’ve noticed.
Strategy 4 – Make at least ten comments
Keep revisiting the text until you have made at least ten comments. This can be anything from a global “This piece has an effective pace” to “There’s an apostrophe missing line 10”.
Strategy 5 - Annotated close reading
Give a close reading of the text but say how overall shape, development of content and any devices used are effective or not. Comment also how well this text fits or clashes with its apparent genre. Identify who is the perceived reader.
Strategy 6 – Use a prompt sheet
A colleague has devised an excellent one for this course. I’ll ask her permission to display it here at a later date. In effect, it combines several of the strategies mentioned above. Students can also make their own prompt sheets combining the above.
Some workshopping etiquette
Remember, you are always critiquing the work and never the person, not even as a writer. There is always something positive you can say. Avoid emotive words when giving negative feedback. Consider using questions as a way of making suggestions.