Critical Reading Workshop FAQ

Every second Wednesday, the critical reading workshop meets to discuss a published short story in a casual, roundtable discussion. The best way to become  better writer is to read widely and well, and that’s why we’re here.

So it’s a book club?

No. We’re not reading literary fiction to be more empathic or intelligent (excellent side benefits, both), and we’re not here to talk about our feelings. We’re here because we’re scrappy, resourceful writers out to shamelessly steal the techniques of successful authors and make them our own.

How do you decide what stories to discuss?

Stories are selected by the workshop moderator, who is here to serve. If you have a story you’d like to see on the list, suggest it. If you want to talk about a particular writing technique (e.g. dialogue or plot development), we’ll choose stories for a future workshop that focus discussion on that topic. In general, we’ll talk about one story each month, and use that story to focus on a particular aspect of the writing craft.

How do I prepare?

You can always just show up. We won’t turn you away, and we won’t put you on the spot. But the more you put in, the more you’ll take away. The goal of the workshop is to talk about writing, so here are a few ground rules to help keep us on track:

  1. Read the story. Then read it again. The first time, let the story have its way with you. The author has put considerable time and effort into her art: allow that art to speak to you. You may call this “the book club reading.” On the second read, go through like a detective with the question: “How did they do that?” Don’t take “magic” for an answer.
  2. Talk about the writing, not the content. It can be hard to parse those out. Our goal is not to talk about how the story made us feel, but about how the author made us feel it. To answer the question, “How did they do that?” we have to get down to a sentence level. Go ahead and mark up the text. (If you have a library book, photocopy the story in question.) Underline, circle, cross out, write in the margins. It’s okay. It’ll help with Rule Number 3.
  3. Support your comments with proof from the text. This rule is the cornerstone for any critical reading workshop. If we can’t pinpoint exactly where in the text the author works her magic, we can’t possibly repeat it in our own writing. If you love the dialogue, what line drew you in? If the plot fails, on what page do things start to fall apart for you? If the setting is well-described, what details did the trick? Is the description stacked together or spread apart? What page?

These rules ensure that our discussion pushes us toward a better understanding of technique so we can all walk away with some concrete ideas for improving our own writing.

Workshoppers are also encouraged to write a story that uses the techniques discussed in the reading workshop and bring it to the next writing workshop. In other words, put your pencil where your mouth is. Read better, write better. We’ve got you covered.