Critical Response Process

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

I’m hopeful that a new generation of writing workshops will offer the kind of meaningful and useful feedback that’s possible with Critical Response Process, the kind of feedback that fosters creativity and the desire to resume work, and not the kind that is so demoralizing the writer gives up in despair.

Critical Response Process is a dynamic method for both giving and receiving feedback on creative endeavors. Initially developed within the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, CRP is a process that can provide “useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.”

Last week it was my great good fortune to attend a two-day workshop in Critical Response Process with Liz Lerman, at Marlboro College.

I was there to learn the process, so I can use it in the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop I’m scheduled to lead at the Marlboro Graduate Center in the fall.

I was already all too familiar with the shortfalls of the workshop methods I’d grown up with, where participants generally tell a writer how they would rewrite the author’s work, which isn’t really helpful at best, and can be quite harmful.

As a writing teacher for more than thirty years, I’d already developed better methods, starting with praise, and limiting students’ comments to two simple questions: 1) Where did you get lost in the text? and 2) What questions do you have that rise from the text? Sometimes I’d start classes with, Have you ever had a conversation only in questions? These were good practices, but I wanted more, and I knew from others that Critical Response Process offered it.

The theory behind CRP is that there are ways to provide feedback that make the artist eager to return to work with new understanding and ideas; in practice, CRP enlarges artistic capacity for all who participate in the well-defined steps of the process.

Participants include the artist, the responders, and the facilitator. In a writing workshop the author is the artist, the other workshop participants serve as responders, and the workshop leader facilitates. In the narrative non-fiction workshop I’m planning, I hope to pass the facilitator’s role to each of the other participants, so that they can bring CRP back to their classrooms and writing workshops.

CRP coverAfter an artist presents their* work, Critical Response Practice follows four core steps.

Step One: Statements of Meaning. Following the artist’s presentation, the facilitator asks the responders what they found meaningful, memorable, challenging, compelling, delightful – or some other quality through which responders can filter their reactions. These are not simple affirmations, but statements of meaning that serve to establish what responders witnessed in the work.

Step Two, The Artist as Questioner, places the writer at the center of the process; it’s the writer’s chance to ask questions about the work. In Step Three, Neutral Questions from Responders, responders ask neutral questions of the writer, which the writer answers. A neutral question does not have an embedded opinion. For example: How are you hoping the reader will experience this passage? is neutral. How do you expect the reader to understand this passage? is not; it contains the embedded opinion, This passage is incomprehensible! (Example from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman and John Borstel.) Neutral questions allow the artist to think widely and creatively; they help artists define their focus and understand their intent and/or their presentation better.

After two days of intensive practice, I can confidently assert that learning how to ask useful questions in both Steps Two and Three are at the heart of this process, and this skill alone is transformative to both writer and responders.

Finally, in Step Four, Permissioned Opinions, responders are invited to ask permission to give an opinion about a specific topic. For example, a responder might say, I have an opinion about your use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Would you like to hear it? Only if the writer says yes may the responder share that opinion.

Throughout all these steps, the facilitator checks in with the writer, coaches participants to ask helpful and neutral questions, helps with follow-up questions, and keeps track of time.

The process takes time, and the more people in the group, the more time it can take. But as a group gains practice of CRP, it gathers group knowledge, skill and momentum. I witnessed this over the two days twenty of us spent together learning.

While Critical Response Process was initially designed for use in the dance world, it’s successfully used across the spectrum of creative endeavor. My purpose here is to prompt writers, teachers and writing workshop participants to know that Critical Response Process can make the writing workshop a positive, engaging, creative activity that fosters writing the story a writer wants to tell. But this post is necessarily just a thumbnail sketch of a powerful tool. I encourage you to learn more.

* This is a deliberate use of the Singular They.

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, and an educator who has been teaching writing and literature to learners in a wide variety of settings, from the Ivy League to Vermont prisons. Her blogs include Living in Place and The Middle Ages.

20 thoughts on “Critical Response Process

    • Thanks for the reblog! Glad to spread the word about this process, which fosters creativity rather than confines it.

  1. Deborah, this was a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing. I found it helpful as a writer, but more importantly, I found much wisdom in it that applies to my work as a professional writing tutor. I look forward to more of your posts.

  2. This was really helpful, Deborah. The online flash fiction class that I’m taking requires weekly critiques of fellow students’ work, and these guidelines and comment props are a great way to frame up feedback.

  3. Glad you found this helpful, Jamie. I find CRP challenging in any of the three roles: artist, responder and facilitator. It prompts all engaged to question assumptions, confront biases and values, and work together to ask questions that ultimately, only the artist/writer can decide to answer and how. Very deepening.

  4. Critical response with care and “manners” goes beyond writing workshops. It should be required of university presses across the board.

    My most recent experience with a UP shut me down for about 6 years. The reader of my biography, which originated as a dissertation applauded by my committee, was so abusive that after a year and a half, I was still unable to please this person.

    UPs have a policy of hiring an anonymous reader, after editorial approval, to work through the text with the writer. However, this reader gave only negative comments and no matter how many times I’d rewrite the manuscript–trying to address specific “flaws,” he or she would send back comments like, still doesn’t answer the question or no. Just no. At last I asked that this reader, who refused to speak with me by phone or meet with me face to face, mark the exact pages and sentences that were “wrong.”

    I wanted 3 months to receive the specific comments when my editor called me with bad news. The reader claimed to have marked the manuscript and mailed it 3rd class mail and now it was lost. After a year and a half of this torment, the editor and I agreed to a 6 month rest and then she would hire a new reader and we’d start over from scratch.

    When I called her in 6 months, she’d moved to India and retired without letting me know and that was that. DONE with UPs forever, and after 6 months of healing, a friend/historian scholar read some articles on this same woman and asked me to publish it was a friendly small press and her as editor. We are finally back with minor edits working toward publishing the story of a fantastic unknown woman writer.

    I wish you could teach your course to UPs all over this country.

    • I’m so sorry you’ve had such a terrible experience – and so glad that you’ve found a better home for your work. Yes, much “criticism” can be brutal, and often in ways that are more about the critic than the work. CRP is truly different; it puts the artist and process of creation front and center.

  5. I wish they’d taught a method like this in my creative writing classes. Some of my peers could be very insightful, some not at all and some responses were just hurtful. I know many times I was too critical and by the end of Intermediate CW I was trying my best to give my peers helpful feedback and not be too critical. I found the best feedback I got were summaries about the story. It showed what they focused on and got from it. It also show what I had emphasized without realizing it.

    I’ve tried to hone my critiquing skills in the years since then. It seems like the methods for critiquing are few and far in between so thank you for sharing this method. There were tips in there I hadn’t considered. The neutral questions are definitely something I think is important, but easy to overlook.

    • I’m glad you found the post helpful. The neutral questions are amazingly helpful – and also difficult to formulate at first. But as with so much – practice helps. Thanks for reading and commenting on the post.

  6. “fosters creativity rather than confines it” is a wonderful concept. I completely agree with that. People are certainly more apt to continue with the creative process if they are encouraged. Furthermore, the motivation of praise will certainly give people further encouragement to continue as well.

    • Yes, praise is helpful, especially for allowing the artist to hear the questions responders have. Often, simply hearing what readers (responders) read/heard/understood is of enormous help. CRP is a valuable tool; I’m looking forward to practicing it in the writing workshop I’ll be teaching in the fall. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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