The Milford Method of critiquing has become so ubiquitous at writer’s conferences that it’s become the default. It’s also terribly flawed, and it needs serious reconsideration.
There’s a lot to be said for the Milford Method, of course. Let’s pretend there’s a brand-new writer who’s never attended a critique group before. He has his short story pages. He’s absolutely sure they’re the best thing ever, and once he’s corrected a typo or two, it’ll be a straight shot from here to the New Yorker. He’s got his degree (or whatever), he’s read some classics, and there’s not a chance his work is anything less than brilliant.
According to Milford, writer-dude takes his place in the circle and the other writers in attendance take turns giving him feedback, offering both praise and suggestions. He has to stay quiet and must not argue. Good thing, right? Writer-dude needs to learn how to listen, and humility’s an easier pill to swallow if you don’t embarrass yourself by arguing back before you’ve had a chance to consider the criticisms. The moderator finishes up with what is (one assumes) a more authoritative critique, and writer-dude finally gets to respond with thanks and maybe some more questions. Then writer-dude can go off and ditch the critique, or not. Hopefully, he’ll make revisions, and maybe someday the New Yorker is not out of sight.
It’s good to be forced to listen.
Here’s another scenario, however. A person of marginalized identity – let’s say, a non-binary writer, or a writer of color with a disability – also attends the critique group. They’ve already crossed into a space in which they feel foreign. They’re sharing work that’s specific to their experience, but not shared by anyone else in the circle. Their work gets hammered because nobody else finds it credible or honest. “I don’t see how a character in a wheelchair could pilot a spaceship,” says one person, and there are nods. The writer has to listen. It keeps going.
After, the writer has their chance to respond, but – according to the description of Milford that I linked to above, and to the standards typically applied – the writer should “avoid defensive explanations, justifications, synopses or clarifications about the story.” So the writer has to contend with a heap of problematic critiques, and may not defend themselves. The critique group becomes not so much a helpful tool as a trial by fire, a means of toughening up the writer, thickening their skin against abuse – or else weakening them until they decide there’s no place in the community for them.
These are both examples on the extreme, but how many of us have experienced snarky critiques and had no recourse? I’ve had a guy really run roughshod over my work before because he “will never be able to relate to a story about a mother and a daughter,” as if we’re some alien species, or as if I haven’t read countless stories about boys coming of age, or about fathers and sons, or about men and their troubles in love, etc. Milford put me in a position of having to just listen, and what could I say?
I’ve also had a recent Milford critique experience in which I broke the rules at the end. The chapters that I brought to the group engage with questions of faith. After the rest of the attendees had finished their critiques, the two moderators took their turn, and each took significant issue with my treatment of religion, with the clear assumption that I don’t know anything about the religious experience (if the singular can even be used). One moderator wondered aloud if I knew anything about religion, or if I’d spoken to anyone who is religious. The second spoke a bit angrily, remarking that speculative fiction has for decades treated religion as intellectually inferior and regarded atheism as ascendant.
Then it was my turn to respond.
I explained that the work at hand was in many ways a response to a crisis of faith I’d experienced following a very difficult stretch of time. Turns out, I am a member of a faith community (although if you’re wondering, I really don’t know exactly what I believe, which is basically just being honest because nobody really does, we’re all just working through stuff). I took some comparative religion courses in undergrad, and I’ve attended services from a variety of faith traditions, both in an academic context and as a personal guest. I am actively reading works of theology, in part to give nuance to how I depict characters of faith in my work, but also to try and understand more about myself and the world around me.
Both of the moderators – for whom I continue to have only the highest respect – backed off their critique of my handling of religion. It was a case in which, I believe, they’d each brought their own context to the two chapters, and when they didn’t see their own experience reflected, they reacted negatively. They assumed that, like most people writing in the speculative fiction space, I had no experience of religion.
That isn’t to say they were wholly wrong in their remarks. I’ve since returned to the chapters with an eye to see how I can clarify certain moments and at least delay a religious reader’s knee-jerk negative reaction until later in the story, when more texture is revealed.
However, had I said nothing, they would have carried their assumptions about my work and about me forward for the remainder of the conference and beyond. In fact, I believe my later interactions with them were better for my having spoken up and explained my own context. Our conversation about the work was better for it, and I learned more from them.
Milford muzzles people. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it’s really not.
So what are the alternatives?
I come from a theater background. In my community, we’re strongly influenced by the many graduates of a particular MFA program who have either stuck around or returned. The standard for staged readings around here is that you have some actors read the script. There’s a strong moderator, often a director or dramaturg, who actively guides the conversation. Audience members respond to the moderator’s questions – such as “What do you remember most?” or “What was confusing?” – rather than launch their feedback in a free-for-all. The moderator also ensures that the playwright doesn’t go off on the audience afterwards or some other really awkward and embarrassing scene that everyone will sooner or later regret. The audience members also talk to one another during the discussion and may even debate a point among themselves.
The playwright is forced to listen, but the playwright is also protected.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s ABCD method offers another, very different option that I’ve voluntarily adopted when critiquing other people’s work. You mark A for awesome, B for bored, C for confused, or D for disbelief, to mark your reactions, and that’s pretty much it. That’s a totally different direction, but it’s worth considering.
So many writer’s groups and conferences have inadvertently carried forward the practices of an earlier era when half of being a writer was showing how thick a skin you could grow, and how big of a passive-aggressive asshole you could be. In some places, that’s still the dominant mode.
It doesn’t have to be. What’s gained by proving how tough you are? How’s the work better because you’ve survived a truly cutting takedown and kept your mouth shut?
Just like drinking yourself stupid every time you sit down to work is perhaps counterproductive, so is voluntarily walking into a situation in which you are defenseless. The alternative doesn’t have to mean listening to new writers protest that nobody understands their work and they aren’t reading correctly. There are other ways of critiquing that build a writer and their work up while still preserving the act of listening that’s so vital to growing as a writer and as a person.