Critique Part 2 — Reporting Experience

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In my writing workshops, I invite students to skip the question “What do you think?” and answer a different question instead: “What did you notice?”

Consider some of the differences between these questions:

“What do you think?” invites opinion.  It invites grand pronouncements, verdicts, and thereby situates the conversation outside of the work instead of within it.

“What did you notice?” invites a report on a reader’s experience.  See how the verb notice makes room for even the smallest observations, ones that may seem trivial at the moment of being offered but which may turn out to contain important information.

“What do you think?” produces a conversation where respondents argue over their opinions, whereas it’s nonsensical to disagree with someone’s experience.   “I was confused as to who was talking during the stretch of dialogue on page seven.”  Though others might report having no such difficulty, they can hardly disagree with this report.

“What do you think?” invites the others in the workshop to become reviewers, a pursuit beyond the scope of a creative writing workshop, whereas “What did you notice?” keeps the participants rooted in the question of making art.

Because “What did you notice?” keeps the conversation rooted in the work, it invites the respondents into discovery.  The conversation, I have found, continues to uncover aspects of the work that escaped the first response.  “What do you think?” invests each respondent in a position.  Changing her mind comes at a moral price.  By contrast, “What did you notice?” allows the respondents to remain fluidly engaged and leaves room for backtracking, “Now that I think about it, what I actually noticed was . . .”

For all of these reasons, I have found that “What did you notice?” offers a more fruitful framing for discussing work by someone else and, of equal importance, for reading one’s own work. 

Thank you for reading.