Skip to main content

4 Steps to Useful Critiques: The Lerman Method

If you've been finding that critiques of your writing leave you feeling unsatisfied, this article by Wolf Pascoe will help guide you.

What do we really have to offer one another as writers?

Every so often, I read a blog post about how to listen to criticism. Recently there was a good one on this blog: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group. More rarely do I run across suggestions for how to give feedback.

Let me clarify that.

Rarely do I run across suggestions for giving criticism that I find satisfying.

Yes, it's important to work from a clean copy, to be considerate, to be specific.

But is that it? Where's the meat of it? Where's the method?

For the past ten years, I've been a member of a group of playwrights that meets once a month to support one another's work. We have a specific way of criticizing our plays that has kept us on track. The method was developed by the MacArthur winning choreographer Liz Lerman to work with dancers. Lerman calls it Critical Response Process. The technique works for any sort of art, any writing. In our group, we call it the Lerman Method.

The process has four steps.

  1. Statement of meaning by the group
  2. Questions by the writer for the group
  3. Questions by the group for the writer
  4. Opinions

I use the word group here, but the method works just as well one-on-one. It works in person or in correspondence. It works with any written form or genre. Also, the order is important. Often, the sessions are so rich that we don’t have time to get to the opinions. It’s just as well. Opinions are the least helpful.

Let’s take it from the top.

4 Steps to Useful Critiques: The Lerman Method

4 Steps to Useful Critiques: The Lerman Method

Step 1: Statement of meaning

There’s nothing fancy about a statement of meaning. You just say what you found meaningful, evocative, startling, or exciting in the work. It’s not a general statement, it’s specific. It’s where or how the work “got” you, where you entered the world and it became real to you. Here’s some examples:

“I loved that she threw up on him. I split my sides laughing.”

“John is so creepy he made my skin crawl. When he said .…”

“I got turned on when they had sex. You told me everything I needed to know, and left the rest to my imagination.”

“I loved how the poetry of your description created a sense of longing in me, yet didn’t slow me down.”

Statements of meaning are helpful for writers at any stage of development. They’re positive. How can they help but be? You’re talking about what grabbed you.

Beginning with positives has nothing to do with politeness or with sugarcoating bad news. Rather, it’s important because writers are often unconscious of what they’re doing well. Focused on the problems, they discount what comes easy. And that’s a mistake, because what a writer does well is what she builds on.

This is so important I’ll say it again: What a writer does well is what she builds on.

I went to a film once and cried. I thought it was a great film. Afterward, I read a critical review and learned all the things that the filmmaker had done wrong. I felt tricked. I realized the film probably wasn’t great. I began to talk it down.

One of the other playwrights in my group happened to ask me about the film. I told her the whole story. She said: “You know, the important thing about the film for you was where you cried. You had a real response to it. It was important and genuine to you. The rest is just other people’s ideas.”

I’ve never forgotten that.

Whether giving feedback or in my own writing, I’ve found that the greatest thing I have to offer is my genuine response. The rest is mostly other people’s ideas.

Writing classes are often long on other people’s ideas, short on responses. Here’s Charles Bukowski, who left a marvelous clue about authentic responses for developing writers:

...There was something to be learned about writing from watching boxing matches or going to the racetrack. The message wasn't clear. It was wordless, like a house burning, or an earthquake or a flood, or a woman getting out of a car, showing her legs. I didn't know what other writers needed; I didn't care, I couldn't read them anyway. I was locked into my own habits, my own prejudices. It wasn't bad being dumb IF the ignorance was all your own.

Step 2: Questions from the writer

The writer asks, the group responds. This begins a dialogue that supports the writer in solving problems on her own.

“Did you believe he’d actually kill her?”

“Was there enough description during the murder?”

Everyone gets to say “Yes” or “No.” No tinkering here, because that wasn’t part of the question. No “Maybe he should just choke her a while and then go kill his mother.”

Just answer the question.

Step 3. Questions from the group members

The group asks, the writer answers. Sometimes what is perfectly obvious to the writer isn’t to anyone else. Now the writer gets to hear where he’s left the reader in the lurch.

“So, what happened to that guy in the black coat from Chapter One?”

“How did the weapon work again?”

“That thing about Brazil—was it a dream or real?”

Are you allowed to ask questions that may have embedded opinions, such as involving awkward exposition? Yes, if it’s a real question. It helps the writer to see the process of the reader’s confusion.

“I know Laura would remember an abortion she had ten years ago in Mexico when she got pneumonia and almost died, so what’s going on when John says to her, 'You know that abortion we had ten years ago in Mexico when you got pneumonia and almost died?'"

Inquiring minds want to know.

Oh, I almost forgot.

Step 4: Opinions

Gosh, I’ve already spilled so much ink on 1-3. Well, what’s to say about opinions?

Oops. Out of time. Got to run.

--

You can read more about Liz Lerman and the Critical Response Process on her website: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Getting Started in Writing

When you take this online writing workshop, you'll discover your voice, learn the basics of grammar and examine the different types of writing. No matter what type of writing you're planning on crafting—nonfiction or fiction—you'll need guidance along the way.

Click to continue.

Jen Frederick: On the Power of Found Family

Jen Frederick: On the Power of Found Family

New York Times bestselling author Jen Frederick discusses how she represented the adoption experience in her new romance novel, Seoulmates.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 597

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write an "Imagine a World..." poem.

How To Create a Podcast, Develop an Audience, and Get Your Novel Published

How To Create a Podcast, Develop an Audience, and Get Your Novel Published

We’ve discussed podcasting to help promote the book you’ve written—but what about podcasting as a way to tell the story itself? Here, author Liz Keller Whitehurst discusses how the podcast of her novel, Messenger, came to be.

Hunter or Hunted?

Hunter or Hunted?

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, we're in the middle of a hunt.

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory from Writer's Digest magazine, which includes advice from 41 agents, 39 debut authors, and 27 small presses.

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at The Idaho Review, a literary journal accepting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction submissions.

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using an abbreviation vs. acronym vs. initialism with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Alison Hill breaks down the definition of investigative journalism, how good investigative journalism makes for sweeping societal change, and how the landscape of the work is evolving.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!