To Critique or Not to Critique: Kristine Kathryn Rusch Weighs In

interview by Carl Slaughter

KKRWorkshop instructors Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith take a different approach to coaching writers:

“We do critiques at first because people want them. We time the critiques and give rules:

  • If you liked this and would have bought it as an editor/reader, then say that and nothing else.
  • If it’s not your genre or your kind of story, say that and nothing else.
  • If you would like it and would buy it if x, y, and z were fixed, then say that.
  • And say what you believe is strong about the story. No grammar nits.
  • You have only one minute in which to say all of this. If you go over, you get cut off. If you’re under, that’s good.

Then we teach them how to read like editors/readers. If they don’t get caught by the beginning, they don’t have to keep reading.

They’re done. They can move onto something else.

From that point, the “critiques” are this:

  • “Stopped at page 1, paragraph 2”
  • “Read until page 10, liked it, then stopped on paragraph 3 because the character did something unbelievable.”
  • “Read it, liked it, not sure I want to buy it.”
  • “Read it, liked it, but not enough to buy.”
  • “Read it, loved it, will buy it.”

And that’s all.

Dean and I will then interpret,if everyone stops on paragraph two, there’s clearly a problem with the opening, but if people fade out,some stop on page 10, some on page 5, most on page 7, then the pacing is off, etc.

If we hated the story, but 3/4 of the class loved it, we don’t critique it in depth, because all that writer has to do is mail the story, and 3/4 of all readers who like that kind of story will probably like this story.

We have great success with this method because it mimics the real-world way people read.”


Carl Slaughter: Much if not most of this is in direct contrast to other workshop strategies and rules. For example, at Critters, the largest and oldest online speculative fiction workshop, the minimum word count for getting full credit is 200. Longer critiques and detailed critiques are encouraged. They even offer a Most Productive Critter Award for people who crank out the highest volume of feedback. Clarion, the Harvard of onsite workshops, devotes a large portion of its schedule to peer critiquing. At Odyssey, 50% of classroom time is peer critiquing: “Everyone in the class learns to become a top-notch critiquer, providing insightful feedback on your work. Workshopping sessions are designed to maximize their helpfulness.” How did you arrive at conclusion that brief peer critiquing is better than the longstanding and almost universal practice of extensive peer critiquing?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: I am an editor, and I know what an editor’s job is. The editor must find something that readers will like and buy. Readers don’t care if a comma is missing on page 64. Readers want to know if the story is good, if the characters are memorable, and if the book pulls you all the way through to the end. When you reach the end, do you want to read the next book. If not, then your book failed. It’s really very simple.

If you look at the history of peer critiquing, you’ll see that it came out of the university system. The man who “invented” it later repudiated it. It’s a way to keep students busy without doing much work yourself. Now it’s become this monster that destroys writers and builds up critics rather than helping writers.

If critiquing were so important, then great writers of the past would have come out of workshops rather than out of their own practice and enjoyment of great fiction.


CS: Jeanne Cavelos, former senior editor of Bantam Doubleday Dell, is director of the Odyssey workshop. She says, “You should not apply unless you are ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and ready to work to overcome them †We target those weaknesses one by one and work to conquer them †In critiquing stories, I give the same unflinchingly honest, concrete, detailed feedback that I provided as a senior editor.” But you were an editor too. You were the editor of a leading magazine for 6 years. You said you shared that view back then, but now you believe in emphasizing strengths. How did your view evolved?

KKR: I have spent the last ten years teaching professional writers how to save their careers. Most careers fall apart for two reasons: 1) a lack of understanding of business and 2) a lack of belief in your own voice. Workshops destroy voice and make a writer doubt. I have “repaired” so many writers who went through decades of peer critiques. Those writers stopped listening to “what’s wrong,” started learning what they did well, and began to sell their work again. Hell, most of them started writing again, because peer critiques had frozen them and made them stop writing altogether.


CS: OK, so you’ve got a system for establishing popularity. What about recognizing literary value. From “War of the Worlds” to “Harry Potter,” many classic stories were initially rejected by leading editors. Some were rejected several times, “Dune” being the most famous example. Suppose the census of the workshop critiques is to pan what turns out to be the next “Flowers for Algernon.”

KKR: Oh, the art question. It’s so silly. Readers determine literary value. They always have. They pass memorable works to their friends and then to the next generation. If you don’t have readers, your work will never have literary value. It’ll never get passed on. So popularity and literary value are related. Do most popular novels get read 100 years later? No. Were all novels we read 100 years later popular in their day?

Most workshops do pan works that will become popular, because those works are based on voice and vision, something peer critiques destroy. You cannot write by committee. You cannot learn to write from a committee, particularly one that reads critically.

Readers read for enjoyment. Writers in peer critiques do not. So they automatically misread a story when it’s presented to them.


CS: Your workshops are 4 days and 8 days, whereas others are several weeks. Why only a fraction of the usual time?

KKR: Because working writers (and people with day jobs) don’t have several weeks to devote to a workshop. Only students and retired people do. When Dean & I teach workshops, we look for people with drive. People with drive generally can’t take a summer out of their lives to sit around and chat about literature. In fact, people with drive get bored at such things.

We structure our workshops to appeal to people who have the drive to succeed, the willingness to work hard, and the ability to learn.

By the way, even though our workshops are shorter than the other workshops, we force our students to write more. They write tens of thousands of words at our workshops. At the others, they might write a story or two.


CS: Do you and Dean provide verbal or written feedback or both? How long are your written critiques? How long are your written critiques?

KKR: We provide some verbal and written feedback. We tell writers they can ignore everything we say. We never write more than a paragraph on the back of a manuscript. We also write and mark what’s good about the manuscript.


CS: How much time do the workshops devote to feedback versus revision?

KKR: We don’t believe in revision. That’s a waste of time as well. Write the next story. No musician becomes good by going over the same piece of music at the expense of all others. We move the writers forward, asking them to write new material while keeping in mind what they learned about the old material.

We spend a lot of time debunking the “revision” myth. You cannot fix a broken manuscript. The manuscript is not the story. If you like the story and it didn’t work, then you must start from scratch and write it all over again.


CS: What portion of your feedback is devoted to structure, clarity, character development, etc? How much macro focus and how much micro focus?

KKR: All of it focuses on the story, character, and voice. None of it focuses on the words.


CS: Stanley Schmidt once said, “The first sentence of a story usually tells me whether I’m in good hands.” Sheila Williams said, “Get my attention in the first paragraph.” Mike Resnick said, “Put everything you’ve got into the first page.” The cutoff for the Hatrack workshopis 13 lines. How much of your workshops are devoted to opening sequences?

KKR: We don’t waste time on sentences or words. I really can’t emphasize that enough. Nor are the above comments from Sheila, Stan & Mike about words. They’re about how fast the writer takes the reader into the story and away from the real world.


CS: Is this practice even a good idea for editors and authors alike? How many good stories have been rejected because the first impression wasn’t awesome?

KKR: None. If the opening isn’t good, the story isn’t good.


CS: Are your workshops for short fiction, novels, or both?

KKR: It depends on the workshop.


CS: What are the most common misconceptions writers have and how do you address those misconceptions?

KKR: That words and critique are important. Story and business will give them a career. Focusing on one manuscript won’t help at all. Most workshops teach writers how to write one beautiful story. Most do not teach writers how to have a career. Yet writers want a career, and they’ve just wasted their precious time learning stuff that will hurt their careers rather than ever help them.


CS: What are the most common mistakes writers make and how do you address those mistakes?

KKR: They don’t learn how to write fast, how to write a lot, how to practice, and how to tell a story. That’s craft. But the biggest mistakes they make are ignoring and refusing to learn business. It doesn’t matter how well you write. If you can’t tell a story, your work won’t sell. If you can tell a story and don’t know business, someone will take advantage of you. It happens all the time.


CS: Do you advise writers to submit stories indefinitely or do advice them to put a story on the shelf after half a dozen or so rejections?

KKR: Keep submitting. Or self-publish.


CS: Do you ever tell a writer to adopt a different vision for a story? As in, “This story would be better/more marketable if you took it in a fundamentally different direction?” At what level of revision does the story cease to be the writer’s story and become the instructor/editor’s story?

KKR: Never. Never, never, never, never. That’s horribly destructive.


CS: Do you ever completely rewrite a passage or scene for a writer?

KKR: No.


CS: Is there a place for telling an author, “This story is fundamentally flawed. It has no hope. Abandon this project and move on to something workable.”?

KKR: God, no. And anyone who says that should never be allowed near writers again.


CS: Is there a place for telling someone, “You’re not cut out to be a writer.”?

KKR: Who voted that critic God? No!!!! That’s horrible. Again, that person should never ever ever be allowed near writers again.


CS: What about your new online workshop for beginners. How will that be organized? What skills do you teach? How many stories do they submit? How many times do they revise the same story?

KKR: They’re craft workshops. The writers learn new tools. They become aware of the tools. They do not submit stories. They do not revise stories (see above). They certainly do not waste their time revising the same story.


CS: The Clarion website says one third of participants get published. Odyssey cites a success rate of 56% of graduates. Critters has an announcements page for critiqued stories that get published. Do you keep statistics for stories that got critiqued in a workshop and later got published, or writers who participated in a workshop and later got published? How do you, and potential students, know your new approach works?

KKR: We don’t take credit for our students’ successes. We provide information. If they want to use that information, that’s their business.


CS: Now that you’re conducting your own workshops and now that you’ve adopted a different workshop philosophy/MO, does this mean you won’t be participating in other workshops?

KKR: No one asks any more. We tried teaching our way at Clarion in 1992 and got banned. I suspect others don’t want us either.


CS: What do you recommend for writers who can’t afford a workshop, can’t travel, can’t take time off from work, haven’t been able to beat the competition for a workshop seat, and so on, and therefore don’t have the advantage of personalized feedback from experienced writers and editors?

KKR: Stop stressing about it. You’re probably better off not going. Write a lot, practice new techniques, mail everything you write even if you think it’s bad, and keep at it. Learn business. You’ll be a success eventually if you do all those things.


Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he hCarl_eagleas traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.