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Reevaluating Student Critiques in Creative-Writing Workshops Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Students are not experts in how to write literary fictional stories, yet student critiques are, to different degrees, a major part of almost all creative-writing workshop experiences.    In these workshops, students are given the opportunity to act as experts making comments about quality of writing and what is needed for excellence.   Some might argue that critiquing is essential for learning, but for unaccomplished critiquers to critique beginning writers in workshop settings is not a valuable activity for anyone.

There are many reasons to avoid student-critique based workshops.  To start, student critiques may have detrimental effects.  Students often give vague or wrong advice about how to master the difficult art of creating a great literary story.  Frequently, students judge work on what they like or dislike about a story.  This approach can easily be perceived as personal criticism of the author, rather than the manuscript, that is hurtful.  This is so common that many writers dread in-class evaluation of their manuscripts.  (The valuable critique is whether the author achieved what he or she was trying to achieve, why or why not, and how should his or her goals be adjusted.  This requires objective evaluation by experts, not students.)

Over the last few years, another negative aspect of student critiques has developed.  Some  students attend workshops for the opportunity of a forum for their ideas and opinions about writing.  These students have little desire, talent, or passion to become good writers, and they  find joy in being allowed to enter a student-teacher relationship without qualifications.  These critiquers are often wrong about facts on the page, often fail to read the works of others carefully, and are often poor writers.  Yet, they frequently express destructive comments about subject matter and process – particularly narration, POV and drama.

To make matters worse, there is the natural tendency for students to form cliques that bolster confidence in speaking out, but this increased confidence often results in unjustified and inaccurate observations about a student’s writing that are rarely effective, and, at times, are hurtful.  These cliques can be subtle, but are quickly established as friendships and attractions develop in workshops.

In order to fill classes in fiction workshops, it is common to lift the restriction of admitting only students who write fiction, and accept students writing memoir, creative nonfiction, and essay as well.   Memoir, creative nonfiction and essay have different techniques and goals than fiction.  Nonfiction writers should not be expected to provide effective critiques for fiction writers, a difficult undertaking even for an accomplished, talented writer.

Teachers, of course, benefit when using student-critique techniques: less preparation is required; there is no need for time-consuming lecture preparation (about process, craft, storytelling and literature); less energy is required to direct class discussion than to prepare and present useful manuscript analysis; and the teachers face no creative demands to find new and better ways to teach the difficult process of writing fiction.

Most of this trend for student critiques is primarily a result of failure of the academic institutions to graduate effective teachers and writers.   MFA programs are now common in universities, often hastily formed with faculty incapable of teaching the nuances of great fiction.  Entrance requirements into an MFA program are far from stringent, and rarely based on writing talent.  Almost all who matriculate graduate and for decades these MFA programs have initiated and perpetuated student-critique workshops that produce inferior writers, inept storytellers, and uninformed educators.

To face facts, most students use an MFA program to land as cushy a teaching job as possible.  Once graduated, the student is led to believe he or she is qualified as a writer and is often promoted as such with publication of inferior work in academic presses.  But worse, these students are given diplomas that qualify them for teaching positions.  Many are teachers who will never master the complexities of fiction and have no skills in teaching others, even if they were competent writers, and these are teachers who readily adopt student critiques for teaching and perpetuate inferior education.

Serious students of fiction should carefully investigate their opportunities for learning and refuse to pay for courses heavily reliant on student-critique based learning.  These workshops have little learning value, and may even erode the potential of a talented writer.

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