Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2: The Writer’s Role

“We all end up needing thick skin, to an extent, but also need to be able to trade work with peers whose advice we know will push us, in an environment of trust!” —from Elissa Field: comment on Read It and Weep (Not)June 21, 2012

“If you’re like most writers, no single thing will help your writing more than learning to use feedback well.” —Jack Rawlins, The Writer’s Way (emphasis mine)

Today’s post is a follow-up to yesterday’s Read It and Weep (Not) which addressed the role of the reader in sharing writing. We older or more experienced birds who have participated in workshops or swapped our work for a while may have the thicker skin Elissa Field refers to above. I say may have, because I still feel vulnerable when I put my work “out there.”

Journal with mark-up
http://www.microsoft.com

Let’s assume, though, that the readers of our stories have given their all, and now we, the writers—isn’t it fun to say that?—get to receive comments. Sometimes we receive them in a writers’ workshop where not only do we hear comments, but we may also hear a discussion of the work as though we’re invisible (because in many workshops, that’s our job as writers during the discussion of our work: to be all eyes and ears but remain silent). Most workshop leaders set the tone and establish guidelines for feedback, so generally, it’s a pretty safe place to be, or at least I’ve found it so. Not everyone is so lucky; see my story in the earlier Read It and Weep (Not) post about the poet who left the building.

Squirming in the Spotlight

These days, writers also participate in writing partnerships or groups online where it’s possible to gather in chat rooms, forums, or “Skype” and experience some of the same connections a “live” group has. Whether you’re in a real group or a virtual one, the first order of business for the writer receiving feedback is to be as focused as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Listen. Jot down key words or phrases, just enough to remind you later what was said. Why? Because if you’re absorbed in writing down every word, you’ll miss something important. A comment stings? Note it, move on. Don’t let it distract you. Your purpose is to learn as much as you can about what your trusted readers believe is working, what isn’t, and why.
  • Bite your tongue! Many workshop leaders will ask writers to be silent until the comments end. Then you can ask questions or re-visit comments if you need clarification. The writer’s instinct is to jump in: “But wait! That’s not what I meant!” Or “You’re completely missing the point. Didn’t you read . . .?” Bite your tongue!

Trendy, Timely Reads

Others exchange work by email, which takes away the face-to-face element but can still be productive. I swap work with a couple of writer-friends I met at workshops whose writing and work ethic I respect.

Let’s say I get a story back, marked up using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature (which I personally like; it allows the reader to mark passages and insert comments) and/or with a summary comment of her impressions of the story. I read through it and skim the comments. I try not to “talk back”! I read it again, making my own notes. If I have more than one reader (and I advise you to, if at all possible; it’s helpful), I look for trends. If different readers point out the same issues, then I’d better have a closer look.

Whether you’re working “live” or by email, avoid the pitfalls Jack Rawlins describes in his book, The Writer’s Way. 

Don’t be defensive about your work. Deep down, don’t we want to be told the story’s wonderful, don’t change a thing? We need to ask ourselves what we want: to get the pat on the back that’s almost a dismissal, or to make our work the best it can be. We have to be open to honest feedback, or we won’t learn a thing. If additional explanation seems necessary, the story may not be clear. Often, stories are much clearer in our heads than they are on the page. There may be holes we aren’t even aware of.

Come to the writing partnership with questions. What are your issues with the work? Where are you stuck? Where do you have a gut feeling something’s not working?  Each writer will have her own issues, and those issues will change from one project to another. Get them out front.

It isn’t the reader’s job to tell you what to do (although with specific problems, she might offer suggestions); the reader’s job is to ask questions of the text and to respond to it with honest insight and knowledge of craft.

Don’t be submissiveThe submissive writer wants her readers to “fix it,” or she thinks she has to take advice that goes against her better instincts. Before deciding to follow someone’s advice, put the story away for a while. Then pull it out and ask yourself, “Do I want to do this? Would the story be better for it?” Drop your defenses, but don’t roll over and play dead. Ultimately, the work belongs to you. After careful consideration, decide for yourself which advice to heed and which to ignore.

And finally, a note about your manuscript: make it as clean and error-free as possible. You want your readers to concentrate on substance. It’s not their job to do your proofreading, and a messy manuscript distracts from the main purpose.

Reading and sharing each other’s work is indeed a partnership. At its best, it’s a collaborative effort that makes the work stronger. So be brave. Be open to the possibility for change. Put your work out there!

What are your feelings about receiving feedback? What have you learned that you’d like to pass on to writers who may not have had as much experience as you? Please add your “feedback” in the comments. Let’s continue the conversation!

Read It and Weep (Not)

I’ve been thinking about critiques—how to give and receive them. An online group I belong to, an offshoot of the My Name Is Not Bob Platform Challenge (April 2012), has bonded as an active, online community, and now we’re looking for ways we might support each other. One way is through “reading and responding” to each other’s work. I actually prefer that term to critique; critique sounds so clinical.

So how do we offer honest, valuable feedback? How do we go about responding to someone else’s writing without falsely patting the writer on the back and praising the work—without offering anything substantial that might help the writer improve the piece—or going to the opposite extreme with a “slash and burn” technique that leaves the writer in ruins and makes her want to rip the story up—literally—and never write again? I exaggerate, but you get my point.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

I actually witnessed the latter once at a prestigious writers’ conference where someone I knew was so crushed by the critique of her poems by a craggy, handsome older poet, every bit as prestigious as the conference itself, that she packed up and went home. Overly sensitive, you might say. If she couldn’t take the heat she should have stayed out of the kitchen. Maybe so, but any criticism that is not delivered in a positive context, with integrity and compassion, is not worth its salt.

I know many of you are already practiced readers. You could teach me a thing or two, and I actually hope you will by leaving comments. Let’s get a dialogue going here! For those who might not be as familiar with the process, I’d like to offer some suggestions. None of these ideas are original with me. They’re common practice among many writing groups.

Cottage ruins, Cumberland Island, Georgia

Disaster-proof!

I taught creative writing to high school students for more than twenty years. Talk about potential for disaster—a room full of teenagers let loose to “critique” each other’s writing! We had to have guidelines, and I believe they apply as well to adults in a similar situation. So here goes:

  • Read the piece once, all the way through, without stopping to ponder too much or make notes. Then read it again, more closely this time, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Consider the elements of craft (I’m thinking fiction here)—plot, characterization, language, setting, opening/ending, etc.—particularly anything the writer has expressed concern about.
  • Always, always start by commenting on strengths: identify what the writer has done well. No generalizations allowed: no “I really liked it,” or “I think it’s good,” or “Great job!” Those statements may be true; you may feel them, but they don’t help the writer in concrete ways. Say specifically what you thought worked well and why: “The dialogue sounds real; I could hear those characters speaking.” “I was intrigued by the plot turn when  . . . [something happened].” “Your setting details really establish the mood of the story.”
  • Make your constructive comments specific. Notice I don’t say critical comments, but constructive, which means, hopefully, that the comments will be useful to the writer. Try couching your negatives as questions or “I” statements: “Could you clarify what happens here?” instead of “That’s so confusing.” Or “I didn’t understand the time shift when . . .” instead of “Wow, you really lost me!” or even worse, “This makes absolutely no sense!”

Tough Story-Love

Some of you may consider this a “touchy-feely” approach to critique. I’m not saying you can’t offer tough love for a story. It’s what most of us need. If all we want is vapid praise, we aren’t really serious about this writing business, and we aren’t willing to do the work necessary to succeed. But being a good reader also requires skill, hard work, and thoughtfulness. It’s a gift you offer to another writer.

Remember: as a reader of someone else’s priceless work, be respectful, be honest, be specific, be constructive! 

Tomorrow, I’ll address the other side of the critique desk (or more likely, these days, the computer screen). How should the writer receive feedback? Stay tuned. 

Meanwhile, please leave a comment about your own experiences as a reader of others’ work or as a recipient of “feedback.” Or leave a reader-tip to add to the above! I’d love to hear from you.

The Rigors of Revision

Over the past month or so, I have revised my first novel Whatever House for the umpteenth time. Seriously, I’ve lost count. I had put it away nearly a year ago, having given up on the agent search (Who has time? Who wants to deal with the rejections?) to move on to other—I thought, I hoped—better work.

Back in the spring, my husband and I were at Hambidge (a wonderful artists’ retreat center in the mountains of north Georgia; if you don’t know about it, check it out) for a couple of weeks. One night after dinner with the other artists in residence, he called me out: “You talk about writing the second book and having ‘one in the drawer.’ Wouldn’t it feel a whole lot better to say that the first book is ‘out there’ instead?” He was right, of course. That first novel, like a Cinderella stepchild, was languishing, wanting attention.

So I got back to work on it. I cut some of my “beauties,” the words and paragraphs, even whole scenes sometimes, that it’s hardest to let go of, especially the metaphors that seemed brilliant when I first wrote them but make me cringe now.  I added: details, narrative, dialogue, scenes. I increased the emotional stakes for the main character. I tried to make the opening “sing” to draw the reader in. My husband read it. Again. For the umpteenth time. A writer-friend I met at Writers in Paradise is also reading it. We’re reading for each other, and that’s a very good thing. Other minds, other sets of eyes, are essential to this process. No holds barred. Tell it like it is. (I’m venting  my cliches here!)

Whatever House is now a svelte 91,000 words. It was a whopping 114,000 when I began this revision. We won’t talk about how long the original draft was. That’s a LOT of stuff on the cutting room floor. But the book is tighter and richer, the main character is stronger, and maybe, just maybe, it’s more appealing to readers.

Whatever happens, I learned much in the process. Thank you, my kind and diligent critique buddies. I owe you. Big time.