Milling the Ford: Don’t Expect the Wrong Things from Critiquing

I’ve seen recent online discussion of writers and workshoppers slagging the Milford method.  (That’s the formal name for classic critiquing method, used by most all F/SF writing workshops including Odyssey and both Clarions, where you go around in a circle and everyone gives the author their comments on a submission).

These writers blame it for, among other things,  sending young writers into a spiral of unending revisions on the same story and leaving them tied in knots of self-doubt about their own ability.

Those fates are possible consequences of critiquing. I’ve written probably a thousand critiques and had hundreds done on my own work.  I’ve seen those outcomes and at times resembled some of them myself.

But the Millford method is not the cause.

The cause is writers expecting things from critiquing that it’s not going to deliver without work.

Critiquing is only as good as the critique group’s insight, but not just their insight on writing in general or the specific type of writing in that submission.  Also their insight on you the author–what kind of writer you are, what your goal for that submission is. If they don’t know as much about your writing and its goal as they know about characters and their goals, they won’t be able to give comments that fit not just your vision for the story but also your aim for it.

The benefits of critiquing also depend on you the author’s ability to extract the wheat from the chaff. You have to decide which comments fit your vision for the story and which don’t. Writers who end up tied in knots from getting critiques clearly haven’t figured out how to do this. It’s difficult; even maddening. But that’s not the fault of the method.

And critiquing is never going to add a spark of brilliance or magic or “quan” to a story that doesn’t already have it. The onus for instilling spark rests squarely with the author. Maybe it happens on first draft, or maybe inspiration strikes after critiques or even during. But if the story ends up merely average or competent and without any spark, there’s only one place the blame lies.

To be fair, these subtleties require critiquers who are experienced, familiar, and mature, far moreso than the beginners at most workshops. In fact, a reason why most workshop critiquers are not this good may be that critiquers who are this good have no need to go to a workshop.

Rejecting the Milford method seems to feel liberating for some young writers, but to me it looks like an escape hatch. Spend time cultivating some familiar and mature critiquers, and tackle its difficult decisions, before you give up on it.

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