I met my husband in 2001 and soon started telling him about a family saga story I carried in my head. I talked about the details often but concluded I hadn’t figured out how to tie the story together. Finally, in 2013, while listening to live music one evening, the idea appeared, the visions flowed, and I excitedly told him, “I figured out the common denominator for my novel.” He responded, “Then stop talking about it and go write.” Little did he know that’s all I would do and talk about for the next two years. I wanted to write and had my spouse’s backing, but I had no formal training.
During those two years, I joined the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group and Lilac City Rochester Writers. When I mentioned I had no college-level writing experience, people told me it didn’t matter. I beg to differ because it was only then that I started learning about peer critique, head hopping, point of view differences, ellipsis, the various types of editing a manuscript needs, and multiple revisions.
I finished the first draft of my very long novel and thought I was done. Yes, you may laugh, and I’m laughing with you. Talk about being naive, lacking understanding, or being ignorant. I remember giving a trusted writer-friend a dumb look when she asked me who I would have edit it and how much revision was I prepared to do. I had no idea at the time that I wasn’t “done” or that an author could rewrite anything another twenty ways before it sounds the best that it can.
In my Veteran’s group, we write memoir or call it historical fiction if our memory doesn’t recount exact details. When we were working on essays for the first book we self-published, we edited each others’ writing by saying, this doesn’t make sense, or if you switched these two ideas around, it would work better. We corrected punctuation and the use of whom versus who, and that versus who when referring to people. We didn’t change the writing but might have asked for more detail or emotions. We acknowledged what happened to the author and were happy to share the experience in story form.
In Lilac City, we have three peer (fellow member) critique sessions yearly. A member is welcome to submit up to 2500 words per session. Each person who submits agrees to review everyone else’s work. The favored genre or experience of any author is not taken into consideration. Everyone “plays.” It’s been my experience that in this situation, the suggestions given tend to veer to the person doing the critique wanting the author to write the piece the way they would have. The storyteller ignores the fact a piece is plot-driven and pushes for character development. The plot writer generously takes the time to explain how to write an outline so someone can get all the information into a neater package. I have heard comments that a piece was “infantile,” not feasible in real life, too long, uninteresting, or the subject matter was not original. Each reviewer does all types of editing. Personally, I have found the process to do more harm than good because I am not good at letting go of the negative and looking for the positive. Most of us are writers, not trained editors.
I recently backed out of a weekly ZOOM meeting called Inklings where participants read aloud their work and listeners offered suggestions for overall improvement. There were four “regulars” at the event and sometimes a new face or two. I did learn a lot in the beginning. Sometimes I can recognize a POV “problem” now, but I can also hear three of the people’s comments whenever I read any author’s work. I will say out loud to my husband while reading a novel, “This wouldn’t have made it through Inklings.” Charli attended one evening and decided, though she did get good feedback, that she could use those two hours more advantageously if she didn’t participate. I came to feel the same way.
On a different note, it took the Inklings regulars about six months to accept and appreciate 99-word stories. When I started sharing them, the listeners wanted more detail, setting, and senses involved. I kept repeating, “99 words.” They finally got it, and I have to admit, they did help improve a few of my “babies” as we called them. In the end, I heard compliments about how I managed to have a beginning, middle, and ending in so few words. I like praise!
When Charli visited me at the end of August, she explained to the members of Lilac City during a day-long seminar the different types of editors a manuscript should have. A developmental editor, which you can find through an association, looks at the big picture of your book, focusing on the organization of material and structure then recommends revisions based on pleasing the target audience. Next, a line editor addresses the creative content, writing style, and language used at the sentence and paragraph level, which is the “art of writing,” and another set of revisions is needed. Next, a copy editor tidies up the text for conciseness and polishes the information, so it is delivered to the reader clearly. And finally, proofreading is done on the final revision, which should be in the form of a galley copy, so the words can be seen on paper in the chosen printed format. Typos and “old maids” (one word on a page) are easier to spot when in book form.
I’ve done so much editing and “peer” critiquing in the past eight years that I can spot the one typo in a David Baldacci book. Am I a friend or foe to my fellow writers when doing an honest critique? I’m not sure, but I try not to be a “dream stealer” and tell them they have no writing ability, or their writing ability hasn’t improved since I met them.
What experiences have you had with “peer” critiques? Have they been helpful or a hindrance? Do you know how to seek out the correct type of critique “peer?” Share your experiences in the comments. And keep on writing, even if it’s only for yourself.
About the Author:
Sue Spitulnik was an Air Force wife from 1972 to 1979, living in multiple states and England. She now resides in her home state of New York with her husband, Bob, and lives close to her children and their families.
Sue has been a participant in the Rochester Veteran’s Writing Group since 2015 and is the current president of Lilac City Rochester Writers group. She has a story published in each group’s anthology. On her active blog, susansleggs.com, she publishes flash fiction written to the weekly prompt from Carrot Ranch Literary Community, where she interacts with fellow contributors.
When she isn’t writing, Sue is creating with colorful fabric in her quilting studio, specializing in patriotic and t-shirt quilts.
What? You have to revise and edit?! That’s it, I’m out. Maybe proofreading’s my thing. I almost always find a typo or two when reading.
I wonder if the stinklings ever question their motivations; is it to encourage other writers and help them build their craft skills, or is it to tell themselves that they are the better writers? There’s a way to be encouraging and honest, and I also think it can be a disservice to be all glowing all the time; I sometimes see cooing comments for pieces that really should be revised and edited, and the recipient is not learning or experimenting from praise only. Oof, but it’s all opinion, mine included. But opinions should be informed by experience and education and expressed responsibly and respectfully. Thank you for sharing your experiences and ongoing education here.
Seems I can’t reply on the Carrot Ranch site, so we’ll do it this way.
Dede, It saddens me that In high school or college I was never introduced to editing and revisions. Charli showed me her English class plan and it takes a student from decide a subject, research, write, edit, revise and rewrite. She’s the kind of teacher I wish I had had.
My local group often gets new members from our critique. I don’t get it. Stinklings is an excellent rename. Thanks for commenting.
When I was still teaching third and fourth graders, revising was a big part of the writing process. We often started with “quick writes” short and fast drafts to get the ideas out. Then find a focus. I wish I knew about 99 words then, by the time I found the Ranch I was teaching math to middle schoolers. But as I continue to learn I feel pretty good about how I taught writing over the years. Towards the end we were all using Six + 1 Traits of Writing®; Voice, Ideas, Conventions, Organization, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, and Presentation, and it was pretty good stuff. The Author’s Chair that we ran a few times at the Saddle Up was based on what we did in writing classes at my elementary school.
Anyway, I hope I didn’t mess up your replying ability here (I snuck in through a back door and added graphics this morning, maybe that action bumped you from the author’s chair)
Dede, Thank you for adding graphics. I should have had Charli show me how to do that when she was here.
If I had such wonderful writing classes when I was young I don’t remember it. I do remember the story spine. At least I’m learning now.
Sharp and funny, I always read your work first! (sorry everyone else)
I agree Scott. I often read what Kid and Pal are up to aloud to my husband.
Intention is the foundation of critique, D. Unfortunately, not every writer goes into a critique with productive intent. I agree that our opinions need to be informed based on experience and education and offer dignity to all involved.
Yup, been there, Sue. For my first (unpublishable) novel I thought all I had to do was get my 100,000 words onto the screen. Now I’m part of a great critique group that meets fortnightly online and still use an editor in addition.
Anne, you made my day by admitting you were done writing with your first novel. I have learned writing is never “done,” for there seems to always be room for improvement. I’m glad you have found a good critique group now.
Anne, a productive critique group is worth finding, but I think we have to grow into that stage of development as a writer. You once gave me that piece of advice about first novels. It gave me the courage to toss my first novel and reinvent it in a third novel. We get lots of practice regardless.
It seems to be a lot like dating, or finding the right therapist. And what you’re looking for? Varies across time and experience and where you are in your cycle. JK. Kinda.
I will also say that many don’t get the difference between criticism and critique. The mission of criticism is to flatten and destroy. Compare that to critique, which is to lift up and nurture…something like a trellis, some twine, and a pair of sharp, clean gardening shears.
I’ve experienced both. I’ll also note that it’s hard to give the good stuff if you haven’t experienced it yourself. 😉🦋
Liz, Interesting comparison’s to a good editor. I did have one of my veteran friends edit chapters as I wrote. He was up lifting and helpful. Later, I entrusted my first chapter to a published author I know and she told me to tighten it up. Had I known how to do that I would have. So, I have a long family saga sitting in a box where it might forever because family sagas about rich white people are not in vogue. At least I have the self satisfaction of having done it.
Bummer. Our public libraries here in MN have tools & a platform for self-publishing and sharing e-books across libraries, some outstate sharing, as well. Here’s the address for the MELSA version:
http://www.MNWritesMNReads.org . Swim around a bit, get ideas; maybe your library system has something similar?
Thanks, Liz. I know authors that have self published through Word Smash and Amazon. I may get there one day.
Sue, what’s the marrow of the saga? Maybe there is an unassailable universal story above and beyond the unsaleable rwp one.
I’ll have to think about that. There sure are enough ideas in it to create with. Now it’s a timing thing with my husband semi-retired, and I know the manuscript needs lots of revision.
“Varies across time and experience and where you are in your cycle. JK. Kinda.”
Perfect example of what I think an editor might disagree with. I got it immediately but I could easily see an editor say “JK” isn’t a word or a sentence and therefore doesn’t belong here, the same goes for “Kinda”, also not a sentence and should be removed. Here is where that person would be wrong, because those two things fit perfectly. Obviously “JK” is “Joking” and “Kinda” is referring to the “JK”. They are short, to the point and convey exactly what she means. To me, that’s good writing.
Liz, when I first learned peer critique in the 1980s as an undergrad, deconstructive criticism was at its height. Fortunately, it has (mostly) died out. My MFA training focused on productive critique and I’ve since adapted an approach for my students that allows for both curiosity and concern. I wonder… and I worry…resolved by the great question lead, what if… D. mentioned respect and I believe that begins with creating an environment where writers can build trust within a group.
I agree with you!
Interesting post. As probably the most inexperienced writer here I wonder how much an editor or a team of editors could help me. I also wonder if it’s better to figure out what they do and then just do it yourself. How many editors, peer groups, advice givers etc. does it take to change whatever I’ve written into something another person might find enjoyable? Maybe someone else might like what I wrote with only me polishing it up and making it presentable to the best of my ability or maybe whatever I write is so bad it’s beyond the help of any editor. If I use editors, is the work still really mine? I haven’t written a book (I did write ten short stories and put them on KDP) so I don’t know the answer. Maybe I don’t want to know the answer. I don’t have any training in writing but I do read and I can spot good writing and bad from a mile away. Is it the editors fault when I read lousy writing? Like I said, interesting post. I’m curious, how many people here are not actually writers? And I don’t consider one book of short stories on KDP enough to call myself a writer.
The fun thing about Scott Bailey is how he rips lids off of cans of worms.
Before 6+1 my school had a hired guru whose anagram was TAPS, Topic, Audience, Purpose and maybe it was singular because right now I can’t recall the S. But that did the job for focusing writing, and you bring up, as Sue did above, Audience. You can decide if it’s just you and the one or two other people on the planet that are somewhat like you and might appreciate what you have to say. But my main Audience when I put pen to paper is me. If someone suggests that you change your writing so much to make it saleable that it is not something you can live with, that’s a choice. I’m not a writer, but have occasionally been published and the critiques I might have received through the submission/acceptance/publish process I felt did improve those pieces. I appreciate the input of those editors who didn’t let me put a worse draft out into Public. Wish I had their wisdom and more restraint.
But, as Sue says, do keep writing, Scott Bailey.
If you plan to publish your writing, you will need some variation of editing. First, let me share my philosophy on what writing is. Writing has two parts: drafting and revising. Some writers think they go from drafting to editing and that is a mistake. If you don’t revise, you are not finished writing. An editor can revise a draft; it’s called ghostwriting. I believe a writer finishes their own work through revision.
An editor can offer a writer a critique, manuscript review, or developmental editing before that writer knuckles down and revises. This first stage of editing can be a function of peer critique. But if a writer does not have a trusted and productive peer critique group, seeking an editor for developmental edits, critique, or review is worthwhile. Often, this is an affordable option and can clarify what needs revising from structural corrections to plot holes to character development to common errors of first-time book-length writers.
Once a manuscript is revised (and this may take multiple revisions), a writer faces two more stages of editing — line or copy editing. Though some people use these terms interchangeably (including editors who don’t know better, which can be a red flag as to their level of professionalism) each is distinct. Line editing focuses more on the artistic expression of flow, syntax, tone, pacing, variation in sentence structure, and any inconsistencies that break the flow. Copy editing monitors the mechanics of writing to create clarity, consistency, and correctness. A purchasing editor or an editor assigned to an author at a publishing house can conduct both types of editing. A functioning peer critique group or partner can contribute at this stage but not as thoroughly as a professional editor. This stage of editing is expensive. Without it, a book will not appeal to most readers. Indies might argue the point with validation if they have readers not related to them.
The third stage of editing is proofreading. Your eyes are no longer to be trusted. Nor the eyes of a partner or group or even the same professional editor you used at earlier stages. You must read your galley copy diligently and offer it to numerous people you know as “grammar police.” We all have that annoying friend or family member who can spot the one typo in a story we published in a journal or a book by a famous author. To err is human; hire a proofreader if you can’t stand your humanity.
Writers can also engage at stage one with beta readers or stage two with a trusted editor or critique partner who has editing experience. You can ask alpha readers to read specific sections (for example, my protagonist is an archeologist and I asked an archeologist to read for accuracy). Have several people proof a galley with you. Know where you are at in the writing process and at which stage to hire or negotiate for editing. Never skip the revision.
Editors are not responsible for lousy writing. Unless they were hired to ghostwrite. An editor can only work with the manuscript as drafted. If you read a book that you feel is poorly written, I guarantee that the writer did not take the time to revise. Without revision, all an editor can do is suggest revision for structure, flow, and clarity, and correct mistakes. Lousy writing resides with the writer, yet lousy editors can mislead writers in expectation. Choose wisely, and use an association such as ACES, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, or a regional organization for editorial credibility. If you don’t use an association to find an editor, you can review an editor’s background or request a sample edit (one to five pages).
Hope that helps!
Prof. Mills, MFA, Lead Buckaroo, Errorist Prone, Human Who Licks Rocks (Not Goats)
I’m going to chime in, Scott but let me think through a productive response for you!
Thank you for all the great information about the process of actually getting something finished and ready to publish. Of course I had to look a couple of things up, like “galley copy”, but that’s ok, it’s how I learn. I think after it’s all said and done, the revision stage seems to pay the most dividends. It seems like that’s where a lot of mistakes can be discovered and fixed (thank God for Spellcheck!). It’s funny when you said we all have that one person who can find even the tiniest mistake, my person read a couple of my stories and simply handed the book back and said “too many comas.” Wow, thanks. ‘Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?’ Ya know?
I read all your other responses too and what a treasure trove of good advice! The longest story I’ve written is 56 pages and I definitely saw the challenge of keeping tabs on things like flow and keeping my characters ‘in character’ especially compared to my shorter stories.
Thanks again for all the great advice!
Scott, I have read the stories you have written for the Cowsino and your flashes. You are a writer and a published one at that if your short stories are out in the pubic domain. I wonder why you don’t think you are a writer. If an editor works with you on your work, yes it is still your work. Hopefully Charli will have time to chime in. Before she started her MFA classes she had her “Miracle of Ducks” novel either almost finished or finished, in draft form. As her classes progressed she shared with us what she was learning and how she was able to understand and revise her story. I see writing as I see life, I write and live the best I can with the knowledge I have, but there is always more to learn. Keep writing. I enjoy your pieces.
Thanks Sue, if I could write like you do I would definitely call myself a writer!
Scott, you are a writer. You show up and you write. It doesn’t matter how raw or polished your writing is, you have produced written works. Do you like your writing? Do others? I like your writing and I don’t mean that as a platitude. I enjoy that you create distinct characters. I can recognize the style of your voice. Your writing makes me think or react. That’s engagement and high-level writing.
Sue’s right — I had my draft of MOD complete. But Anne G. is right, too. And she told me several years ago that often we never publish our first novels. They are our learning grounds. I kept the title and premise and wrote an entirely different first draft. I’ve revised it numerous times and even when I sell it (or not) I will have more revision to do. Revision is really the workhorse of what we think of as writing a complete or quality piece of work, whether a short story or novel.
Revision is usually where many writers give up. Why? Because they feel intimidated by the work. It’s like being a runner. If you run, you are a runner. But if you want to compete, you have to learn how to train in ways you never considered — form, breathwork, stamina, shoe choice, food choices, hydration, and motivation. Many runners are happy to not compete. Many runners see the work of training and decide competition is hard work and they pass. But they are still runners.
As to your editing and critiquing reflection and questions, let me get back to you on something helpful.
Charli, thank you for those those kind words, that was very nice.
Thank you for sharing this detailed and fascinating account of your writing journey and if your ears have been burning that’s because of me saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ to my computer screen on many occasions.
Below is an extract from one of a couple of opinion pieces on my blog about writing and peer critique.
‘Any feedback that questions the quality of your writing, even when put gently as most critters do, is challenging to accept. (‘How dare they attack my carefully raised and precious child!’) But when a critter uses a sledgehammer to drive a tack into what they see as a flaw it makes it that much more difficult to suck it up and consider that they may have a point. Even worse are the few that seem to take vicious delight in undermining your confidence. And don’t get me started on those who demanded that I write like an American and not use words or expressions they haven’t come across before.’
Doug, Thank you sharing the links. The storyteller I mentioned would say things like, “How did that second person who spoke get in the room?” and he had a good point. I don’t think he realized in other cases that he was pushing others to write in his style. I did learn a lot from him in the beginning.
Doug, I’m going to take time this weekend to read your posts. What a great phrase for those who critique — critters. I’ve found that many critters overcompensate for their concern that they are fraudulently writers so they fault-find to hide their imposter syndrome. When anyone critiques with a belly full of fear, it will never come across with authenticity. Depending on personality types/faults, critters can and do become brutal. Mostly, untrained critters are ineffective. When writers are trained in productive critique, they learn to receive, give, and redirect critique. Reframing comments into questions is a good start. For example, had a critter asked, “Does it matter if your piece uses Australian colloquialisms?” you could have explained why it did not need to be written in an American style. Or, a critter can ask, “What does billabong mean?” That gives you information regarding clarity without the judgment that an expression is “wrong” simply because it’s authentic to a different culture or region.
Many thanks, Charli. I cannot claim credit for ‘critters’; it ‘s what Scribophile members call themselves. 😉 Interestingly I used it in a piece I submitted to Chill Subs and, while they rejected it, they loved ‘critters’ and wanted me to re-submit with as more humorous angle.
‘ Depending on personality types/faults, critters can and do become brutal. Mostly, untrained critters are ineffective.’ Says it all, Charli (Woman Who Stares At Goats While Licking Rocks).
Finding the right critique partner can certainly be a challenge. Sometimes you’ll get bad advice from someone who doesn’t know any better. Sometimes you’ll get situations like what you described where the person wants you to make changes that don’t fit what you’re going for. I’ve had some of the same struggles, but I wouldn’t want to give up because another person can look at what I’ve written with fresh eyes, and I just can’t.
I think the biggest thing to do is to develop your sense of what feedback to pay attention to and what to ignore. And what you pay attention to isn’t always exactly right! Sometimes it’ll just alert you to something you might not have noticed otherwise and point you in the direction of finding your own fix (while ignoring theirs!). Definitely can feel like an uphill battle, especially for those of us sensitive to criticism, but I hope you can find a way to overcome.
You make some good points Shannon. I must admit, that I am sensitive to criticism, but I’m getting stronger. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Shannon, I believe we can learn to receive critique in the manner you describe, distancing ourselves from the comments and sifting through what different perspectives perceive. You are spot on about recognizing which feedback is valid and which is not. With critters (to borrow Doug’s phrase) who have no training or experience, they often find a weak point but don’t know how to explain it. Asking questions instead of making comments is a good way to approach group critique. It eases the experience for more sensitive writers, too.
Hi Sue, I always find feedback on my writing very helpful, but it doesn’t mean I always agree with all of it. I’ve stuck to my guns a few times, mainly when I get a gut feeling that I rather my version than what is being feedbacked to me, especially if I’ve run the feedback past a few people to get their thoughts and they have agreed with me. But fresh eyes are always excellent and valuable.
I know of writers and authors who have self-published without having their book looked at by an editor, something they deeply regret. Many reviews were poor due to all the mistakes, which often spoilt the reading experience.
I learned much of what I know about writing from reading blog posts. I’d never heard of head-hopping until I read about it on a blog. I was horrified when I returned to some of my stories and found head-hopping all over the place.
But belonging to a writing group is a great idea, too, especially when other members offer help and advice, and it’s a two-way thing.
It’s good to trust your gut, Hugh! You might be interested in a method a colleague recently shared with me to trust your throat, too. I teach my students to read their drafts out loud to prepare for revision. Now, I have validation from an expert who says to pay attention to the throat as we read our writing because it will tighten when syntax is not flowing or authenticity is missing. I’ll share more next challenge post. Also, I agree with you and Shannon about the fresh eyes point.
When writers publish without revising, they usually end up with less favorable reviews. Editors can help, but I also find writers to be resistant to revision. Probably because it means more work and in an era of overnight publishing, many are simply impatient. Editors can help writers develop their revisions and then edit for artistic flow, clarity, consistency, and correctness. I used to feel ambivalent about indies adhering to standards the commercial publishers set until one of my profs (a top-selling indie author) explained that readers are trained in these standards and books that don’t adhere to them can be uncomfortable to read.
A writing group that clarifies its style of productive critique can be beneficial. It’s also good to be with peers on a similar writing path or even genre. You’re right about it being two ways!
Thanks for adding your thoughts, Hugh. We have said in LCRW that it’s good to share your work with six people. If only one points out something, forget it, if a few point out the same thing, pay attention.
I recently met a Vietnam Vet who wrote about his experience, with all the adrenaline and gore, but admitted he had never read it. The person who did edit it missed a lot of spelling errors. The powerful story did suffer for it.
That’s why it’s so important to have a good editor, Sue. We’re all human and make mistakes, but an editor needs to make much less when spotting errors.
If I were asked to beta-read a genre I wasn’t interested in, I’d decline rather than say I’d read the book or story and only fed back a few things. Much better to be up-front than dancing around in fear of offending someone.
On the money there, Hugh.
You shared that story with me, Sue, and while it was a poignant book, it’s an unfortunate example of a lack of revision. Each stage of editing requires focus and input from the writer. You can’t fault the editor for missing spelling errors when they probably had a ton of work to do because the writer would not revise or review their work. I understand how difficult it is to write from a place of trauma, but maybe the author needed a ghostwriter before it went to an editor. Typos and misspellings are the last stages of editing and by then a single editor would have been fatigued.
Sue, I’ve had some college writing classes, and it still doesn’t teach us what we need to know to write a novel; but I can write some “decent” non-fiction. LOL! I like the idea of a critique group, but my issue is that it’s other writers/poets looking for help right along with me that are giving their opinions. What if they don’t know either? My poetry challenges and the 99-word challenge give me encouragement, but I still don’t always know if what I’m doing is right or wrong. My first book is a disaster. I plan to rewrite it, but not until I learn more about writing. I’d like to take some writing classes and will do that down the line. Right now, everything is so expensive. Keep moving forward! ❤️
I think your writing is fine. At this point, I’m not sure what constitutes a good writing class. I wish I could take Charli’s. I have taken some at our local educational center called Witer’s and Books, but I didn’t learn anything about the process. It’s frustrating.
I know… me too. I think your writing is fine, too. Yet, it’s more about plot, structure, etc. that I struggle with. I have many ideas, but turning them into a book is another thing. I can write flash, but that’s just a quick snap shot! I totally get you, Sue. 💙
Novels are a many-layered thing, Colleen! That’s why I love writing 99-word stories because we can practice those layers the way someone might start out learning to bake brownies before making a wedding cake. Have I shared my favorite writing joke with you yet? It goes like this:
A brain surgeon and an author meet at a NYC party. The brain surgeon says, “I was thinking of writing a novel next summer.”
The writer replies, “Funny, I was thinking about operating on a brain next summer.”
Thus, the layers. A brain surgeon had to learn biology then human anatomy then brains before learning to use a scalpel. But the brain-surgeon-in-the-making can practice with a scalpel while studying just as the writer can practice creativity by writing syllabic poems and 99-word stories. The more layers a writer learns (plot, tone, character development, genre elements, dialog, syntax, world-building…) the more a writer needs to practice (drafting, challenges, poetry, short stories). All the writing you’ve learned through classes or experience informs your practice. Even brain surgeons say they “practice” medicine. Any master-level skill requires it.
I love to teach. I love teaching frosh to undo the 5-theme essay. I love teaching anyone how writing is a superhighway to finding their voice. I love teaching writing as healing, thinking, and doing good in the world. It’s about creating space to practice those layers. For specifics, well, you know it’s on my heart to have a writing school. 😉
Your brain surgeon-writer scenario reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon of a man looking at an abstract painting in a gallery and saying ‘My 4 year old daughter could do better than that’ and the woman standing next to him saying ‘And she could probably say something more intelligent.’
I know Charli… that writing school will be amazing. There are so many of us that want to learn everything you talked about above. I look forward to your dream coming true. Sign me up! 🖊
To all the commenters – I am excited this topic got such a good discussion going. Thanks for contributing.
Holy smokes, Sue, you struck a chord with your post! I was trying to get to where I could comment on how well you brought your experiences together in a way that is relevant other writers, but I’m still making my way through a full room of great discussions.
Thanks, Charli, It was you that suggested this topic to me. I didn’t know how much I had learned.
I had a meeting at the VOC yesterday and they suggested my vets could help others with ghostwriting and editing. I think I would enjoy that.
I really enjoyed your post and all the comments. It’s interesting to hear and consider all the thoughts. I realise I am possibly too late to join in the conversation, but not to make a comment.
Critiques are things I grapple with. Sometimes I’m in and sometimes I’m out. I belong to two groups, one inperson and one online (both were online for the past two covid years). Sometimes I feel critiques are helpful, but with ten different responses to a story, I often end up feeling confused, devastated, hopeless and unsure of where to go with my story to improve it, and end up putting it aside, sometimes for good/ever.
I’ve also paid for critiques by publishers and haven’t found them any more helpful. They want me to make my story something different, that is, make it a different story, not my story improved.
As others have said, many courses are out of reach cost-wise, and time-wise for me at the moment. I have done quite a few courses in the past, and have even ‘hired’ a mentor.
The benefit, when I’m feeling strong enough to receive critiques, of critique groups is, I think, being able to read as-yet-unpublished manuscripts and consider how they may differ from other published stories and from my own. That can be very informative.
Recently, while doing some research for a book (workbook on writing for 12 year olds)) I’m working on, I came across this poem from one of Australia’s best known poets, Henry Lawson. It was first published in 1900 and I think is a perfect match for this conversaion. Enjoy! And thank you for this discussion.
My Literary Friend by Henry Lawson (pub 1900)
Once I wrote a little poem which I thought was very fine,
And I showed the printer’s copy to a critic friend of mine,
First he praised the thing a little, then he found a little fault;
‘The ideas are good,’ he muttered, ‘but the rhythm seems to halt.’
So I straighten’d up the rhythm where he marked it with his pen,
And I copied it and showed it to my clever friend again.
‘You’ve improved the metre greatly, but the rhymes are bad,’ he said,
As he read it slowly, scratching surplus wisdom from his head.
So I worked as he suggested (I believe in taking time),
And I burnt the ‘midnight taper’ while I straightened up the rhyme.
‘It is better now,’ he muttered, ‘you go on and you’ll succeed,
‘It has got a ring about it—the ideas are what you need.’
So I worked for hours upon it (I go on when I commence),
And I kept in view the rhythm and the jingle and the sense,
And I copied it and took it to my solemn friend once more—
It reminded him of something he had somewhere read before.
Now the people say I’d never put such horrors into print
If I wasn’t too conceited to accept a friendly hint,
And my dearest friends are certain that I’d profit in the end
If I’d always show my copy to a literary friend.
Hi Norah, Your poem says it all. Fix this, fix that, and it’s never quite right. I say to my group, “I am going home and make a quilt. When it’s done, it’s done, mistakes and all. Then I give it away. When I write, it’s never done.
Thanks for chiming in. I think I’ll share your poem with my group.
I was amazed to find the poem had been written 120 years ago. Writers’ angst is not new – just to us. It’s a shame we never think our writing’s done.
You are never too late to join the discussion! My heart is heavy for you, though because you are not in a productive feedback loop. Critique does not need to be confusing. You’re a teacher — would you ever give students feedback that confused them instead of progressing their skills? As an educator, can you pinpoint what is lacking from your peer critique experiences? I remain of the opinion that the lynchpin is intention. I used to say “goals” but I’ve been searching for a better word and landed upon intention after reading a great book about asking questions. I also believe critique is more effective when a comment is reframed as a question.
Back to intention. If we don’t know a writer’s intention for their shared work, then how can anyone offer productive feedback? Doug mentioned earlier about critique that annoys him because critters (to borrow his phrase for those who critique) don’t bother to find out where he intends to publish or who his target audience is. If he got to state his intention and asked peers to help him improve his chances of success, they could focus differently than “here’s my story…” Most of us are not trained in productive feedback. I feel sad that you have been having this experience because I’ve seen such growth in your writing. You are not someone who is resistant to growth!
As for publishers, yes, they are looking for commercially viable stories. Any changes have less to do with story and more to do with sellability. If you don’t want to write what they are seeking, find publishers that align better with what you want to write. It’s like a bad dating app but if you find The One it’s worth it.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and Lawson’s poem!
Don’t let my tale weigh you down, Charli. I’m a survivor. I actually think I’m out of time with the music. I started writing, well a long time ago, and then got side-tracked by other events. Now when I am writing again, I think I am nostalgic for children who are no longer children and stories that were written when they were.
Having said that, I agree with you about intent. We do often ask for feedback about a particular aspect of a story but we don’t always get what we ask for.
I like your analogy to a dating app. There are some ‘speed dating’ pitch sessions with publishers which could possibly lead to a positive outcome. I haven’t tried one of those yet.
Thank you for your encouragment and support.
Here’s a quick story explaining why I’m hesitant to accept the critique of people I don’t know.
After graduating high school in the bottom ten percent of my class, I joined the Air Force. Four years later I got out and found myself in the same place as when I went in, so I figured I should try to get a college education (yes, even as dumb as I am!), so I worked as a bartender at night and singed up for some classes during the day. One class was Creative Writing (it sounded fun and filled the English requirement for that first semester). I really enjoyed the class and liked writing the assignments. I thought I was doing well until the last week where the teacher pulled me aside and told me there was no way possible I actually wrote any of the work myself (I did). She said she knew me (she did not) and a person like me could never have written these assignments. She flat out called me a plagiarizer (I wasn’t). She failed me and I never went back to that class or school in general. That was 1985. I then took a job at a large power utility and worked there for the next thirty one years. Upon retirement I decided to give writing another try and wrote some short stories, thinking that might be a good way to practice before trying to write a book. I joined a few writing groups on facebook (didn’t work out well, apparently I anger people!) and now I’m here. So that’s all why I’m a little stand-offish when it comes to having others (editors, peer groups etc…) judge me or my work. Thanks for listening!
Scott, I feel your pain. I took a class in college and spent a few paragraphs writing about a lady not wanting to run into another person at the post office so she paced inside her house watching till the person had come and gone, she could see the post office from inside. The teacher crossed it all out and wrote, “at exactly 9:00.” I cried in the hallway.
Here at Carrot Ranch, we do our best to be positive and helpful. Keep hanging out with us.
Thank you for serving. I was an Air Force wife from ’72 till ’79.
Ouch! That must’ve hurt pretty bad, having the teacher do that. hopefully you made the right corrections and then later, slashed his tires! JK. Kinda. (yes, I steal stuff)
I like the vibe here at Carrot Ranch but I wonder if we could have a section where we pick out our own favorite 99 word story and explain it to the group, like what our angle is and why we wrote it a certain way and then maybe invite critique.
Scott, your suggestion sounds like The Author’s Chair we were running for a while at the Saddle Up Saloon. Check it out. Wouldn’t surprise me if somehow we revamp that, bring it back now and again. It is pretty much as you say, the author presents a piece and then is “ready for questions and comments” as we used to say in elementary school.
Go for it, D, and reserve a place for me in the queue (right behind Scott). 🙂
Scott, your story stabbed my heart. I work with so many students who are so scared to write from their own voice. It’s better to be mediocre than to be doubted. Not on my watch. I do my best to get to know my students but would never claim to “know” them better than they know themselves. I don’t believe people are dumb. We don’t have the same skills. Or experiences. You volunteered to serve in the Air Force fully understanding that you could die or be injured for life. You did that so your teacher didn’t have to. People who don’t serve really need to get sacrifice of those who do. I did not serve and I am grateful to others who stood up in my place. Editing, peer critique, and literary groups like ours have no room for judgment. I’m so sorry you were wounded by an unjust accusation. Use that pain to inform your stories. Use your voice (which I can clearly see in your writing, what a blind bat she was, okay now I’m judging…). Use your experiences, thoughts, and ideas. And write. You are a writer.
Ha! I still don’t have an answer yet for your editing reflection and questions. But now I’m fired up to get my week’s lesson plans finished.
You know Charli, that teacher and her opinion of me didn’t really bother me too much. I mean it was a tough pill to swallow at the time, but I was in my early twenties and had a lot more important things to think about so I didn’t dwell on it. But maybe certain things leave a mark on a person even if we don’t know it. Maybe I’m trying to be a writer just to prove something to myself. Maybe to prove something to some long dead teacher. Maybe I just like to create. One things for sure, the list of things I don’t know far out-weighs the list of things I do know. And for the answers to the things that fall in between those two lists, well I’ll just make something up to fill in the blanks. I guess I like creating!
Keep creating, Scott!
Dare I say ‘that teacher had a lot to learn, Scott’. Keep writing!
I put off looking at this offering. Because I’ve only had mostly negative experience with editors. Dealing with small writing like poetry – you change one word or idea and the flavor of the voice of the piece can change – even with formatting the verse.
I do have longer stuff in the works. But I have no one to offer feedback. And I just really don’t like it if someone were to say ‘this baby is ugly’ even if it were true. I am a serious writer/poet but not serious to publish yet. I did learn quite a bit at the Carrot Ranch retreat. I’ve also read some of the great comments within this post. And I admire those brave enough to follow through with delivering their dreams of publishing. I’ve had some things published in small collections. I’ve even set up an account to get paid. Pennies are pennies that add up 😉 I can’t say I’m not a professional anymore. But I can say I’m scared, confused and baffled mostly because I didn’t have a good English background. I wish I had mentor. But just the word ‘Editor’ rankles me. I don’t really have a good writers group locally. I do however get positive feedback from blogging… and that is a big plus.
My hubby is retired too – and with that I have less time for me. Though I still make time to write everyday. One of these days I’ll find the confidence, courage and boldness to move my writing to another level. Until that time I wish all those who are also working on those same goals all the success they are ready for.