JOINING THE UNITY IN WRITING WRITERS’ CHAIN
WHY: the need for honest feedback
One of the blocks to getting great feedback is lack of honesty: people are rarely willing to share truly honest feedback face-to-face. This is natural and understandable.
Yet, ‘objective distance’ is what writers need. It’s the harsh reality of the real world. Untempered criticism is what you will get in the comments on articles, or reviews of books, or formal peer-review in the publishing world. If your writing needs improvement, best to dig out the rot as soon as possible.
Ideally, everyone loves and is inspired by your writing…but until you reach that point, what you need are honest opinions so you can hone your message and your craft.
Writers who are willing to give thoughtful, helpful and specific critiques on work are welcome to join the Unity in Writing WRITERS’ CHAIN. You can happily say you didn’t like something, but in the spirit of learning, you have to offer why as a path towards improvement. The more specific the better. Pointing out that you were confused, bored, frustrated or otherwise displeased is acceptable and can really help an author, as long as it’s done with a view to help.
Objective feedback is like holding up your work to the mirror: you want a true reflection. Distorted reflections are more often what we get from those we know. They mean well, but if you are serious about your writing, it’s better to find out if something is not working the way you hoped.
The writers’ chain is hopefully a good and varied source of realistic reflections. Each author will receive raw critiques and a summary to help with going forward. Those giving critiques will also be able to see these summaries.
Learning to give honest, detailed critiques
The main reason to improve your critiquing skills is to improve your self-editing abilities.
The ability to give specific comments on your reaction to the writing of others is an acquired skill. You can easily say what your ‘feelings’ were but can you formulate why in such a way that it gives concrete advice to the author?
If you like or dislike something, can you narrow down why? Is it just a feeling or can you triangulate the origin? The better you can nail down the exact reasons for your ‘feelings’ the more you come to know about what’s under the hood in writing. Is it the lack of voice? Is it the lack of strong noun-verb combinations? Is it the abundant typos? Is it a mismatch of tropes? Some weaknesses are easier to point to than others. When you have true difficulty figuring it out it’s likely the sum of many factors.
Learning from a set of honest critiques
Giving honest feedback is a great learning experience. The ability to be mind-numbingly honest brings a new freedom. You can focus on why you didn’t like something, rather than fussing over how to sugar-coat it or provide incomplete messages.
Getting anonymous feedback is also freeing. You might decide to ignore it. You might just learn that what you were trying to express flew right past the reader, and your job is not to change tack but to say what you originally meant — just better. When the feedback is anonymous you don’t even have to reply. You can just focus on getting back to your writing.
Because of the way the chain works, with many critiques for each piece, you’ll be critiquing more often than submitting. In fact, critiquing and seeing more than one critique for a piece should be your REASON for joining the WRITERS’ CHAIN.
If you’d like to join send a summary of your writing, what you like to read, and whether you are experienced in giving critiques. Also, indicate whether you are more interested in giving practice critiques (frequent) or gathering critiques for your own writing (less frequent).
See the examples, but feel free to respond in any way you feel might be most helpful. To aid in critiquing, ‘pearls of wisdom’ are extracted from each round. Everyone in the round sees all the critiques and the summary.
You can submit once you have given critiques. Short pieces get priority but parts of books are also welcome and will be circulated to others working on books.
EXAMPLE ROUND 1 CRITIQUE: “I see fairytales”
Here are 4 critiques and a summary that came from the CHAIN for a piece called “I see fairytales”. To keep the anonymity of the contributing author, the piece is not included but suffice it to say it was a ‘spark’ of literary fiction of about 1000 words that started with the line “I see fairytales around me all the time.”
The premise is very good. Possibly too good for something this short.
What’s wrong (I may not be able to name 10):
The opening paragraph needs to get rid of the “should be”s. Fairy tales have people that are Princes in disguise, Kings that no one believes are Kings, Queens that don’t even know they are Queens, but they are always the thing they are. “The criminal that is a Civil Rights Activist, the poor child that will grow up to be president, the homeless man that is a King, even if he is only a King among his peers.” Something like that.
The Man should be The Prince. Make that his name. “So there’s this man, The Prince. I catch glimpses of his true self when he…”
Draw direct analogies to other fairy tales. His mother, wife, and daughter are like Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, maybe you can find a good thing to do with his anger with Rumpelstiltskin.
The transition to yourself needs more fairytale too. You are in the tower like Rapunzel, or maybe if you don’t want to be the damsel in distress you can be in the tower with Rapunzel, looking at how she wishes to leave, but you chose to come here because you like towers.
Then finally hang on to that analogy through the end. Who will (metaphorically, very metaphorically) slay his stepmother and sisters? Will he do it, will you.
And you need to refer to “Happily Ever After”.
So I guess it’s just one note, really, hit the metaphor harder. It’s a great premise.
(I hope this doesn’t come across as harsh. It’s a really good piece, I just like metaphors a lot)
Well if I’m going to be harsh it reads like a free write. The thoughts are not organized well. When “You” asks “Can I really see the fairy tale in someone I’ve never met?” It is unclear if the person she never met is The Prince or his wife.
I was trying to stay away from those kinds of notes, as it read like an early draft that the writer would want notes on how to steer it going forward. The little things would get fixed in subsequent drafts, I assumed.
What is the writer’s intent? I feel a bit out of place in the reading chain because I don’t know why this was written, or where the writer wants to go with it. There are good things here: use of language, driving rhythm, but with an unsure arc or storyline. As a “short-short” I think it works, leaving the reader still connected when the narrative ends, but without a clear target or ending implied or even hinted at.
Overall, I congratulate the writer for creating a narrative that doesn’t let up until the very last line or three. There is drive, pulse, but no discernible end point; a closed loop, if you will. Again, nothing wrong with writing such a piece, especially if it is part for something larger/longer/directed. Is it?
I’m not a critic, or a reviewer; I’m a writer/reader. Analyzing my own work is difficult enough.
Still, I’m drawn to the piece, didn’t stop to wonder or question until I had read to the end. That, I think, says something about the writing
Of course, you can use my comments. I assume it would be an example of a good but not helpful critique. As for being helpful: remember that I’m a writer, not an editor or critic by profession. Looking at it again, I’d have to say that the writer seems to have run out of steam towards the end. There is a rhythm in the early paragraphs that, to me, is abandoned toward the end. I would characterize it as a steam engine running out of steam: chug/chug/chug/chub chug chug chu ch . . . Also: it is somewhat obscure as to intent, purpose, use (as in something larger/longer. But I don’t think any of it is unfixable or unusable, unless it is simply what it is, all there is and nothing to give it a body.
Why should the reader care? What might make us curious about the narrator? Is she trustworthy as a narrator, or should we mistrust her? Should we believe her only to find out at the close that she’s gone over the edge? Is her being underground the best image to convey she’s not where the rest of us are? If this is to be taken literally, might it be better at the end?
What does the story turn on – what makes us feel it has landed – or has left us hanging so that we have to take a breath?
“But a maelstrom feeds off that golden soul.” This is probably the most significant observation she makes about the man and you need to build her language around it. Is this image given in her voice?
Now that you, the writer, have an image of the man, can you shorten his description? Should his confused/selfish/misogynist/,etc attitude toward women matter to her? Should you take the reader’s eye away from her as long as you do?
Short stories are hard. You have so little room to work things out, before it wants to become a novel.
Usually I don’t comment on minor things like punctuation and usage (I learned that from you), however, for this story, incorrect or lack of punctuation hampered reading it. In some cases, it changed the writer’s meaning. (ex. “The marginalized-kid-doing-poorly..)
(misplaced modifying clause, ex. “doctor who should be president.”
grammar Ex. “Who doesn’t let their begging wife…”)
Inconsistent verb tense ex. “He is a life ready to break free; I was bottled and corked.”
No.1 Criticism: the “promise” of the wonderful title and first sentence is not fulfilled. Every sentence should be as strong as the title and first sentence.
At times the writing approaches abstraction, but doesn’t quite get there.
- “The worst agony in the world is a fairytale unlived (great line)..I can’t take them all with me.”
The writer’s style is indirect and may lend itself to poetry. I found myself wanting cohesive sentences and more direct, clear meaning (a primary goal of fiction).
- “His perfectionist mother…
Too much “guessing” and “trying to find the subject and verb” for cohesive sentences and ultimately a story that flows.
This story has some lines that are pearls! The reader has to work too hard to find them.
This kind of feedback is indicative of any time an author seeks reactions. Some key things to note:
- How varied the reactions are
- How varied the suggestions are
- It’s hard to craft helpful feedback
- Writers are not always editors, the value of an editor – 3 critiques offer specific advice, one didn’t. This writer admits to not being ‘an editor’. This highlights the benefit of working with those who expressly are there to provide constructive ideas for improvement.
- Each reader comes with their own interests … and it shows hugely. This is only evident to ‘the moderator’ who knows all the participants.
- What people really want to know when they read is the ‘why’
- People read because they want to be made to care about something
Thus, some pearls of writing wisdom:
Here is a list of sage advice abstracted from the above:
- Get as much feedback as you can to help you ‘see in the dark’ how your work is impacting people – but understand it’ll be a range of opinions, not an ‘absolute truth’.
- While feedback from anyone can be helpful, feedback from experienced writers is likely to be based on collective writing wisdom
- Feedback is likely to include many things you never thoughts about, or would never think about, with respect to your piece – use it to hone your purpose and intent
- All writers can benefit from getting feedback from a professional editor
- Make sure you give readers a reason to care about your piece – give readers the ‘why’ and make them care
More Sage writing advice from the critiques
Because the critiques were written by people with substantial writing experience, they contain ‘pearls of wisdom’ widely taught in writing and intuitively understood by talented writers:
- All pieces of writing need a strong premise
- The premise must match the format
- Build what you start (finish what you start, make it all nest together) – in this case the metaphor (premise)
- Organize your thoughts, so it’s easy for the reader to consume
- Make sure there are no ‘unclear antecedents’ (what does ‘that’refer to?)
- Highlights: some sentences will stand out (great if you have them!)
- Short stories are difficult as one needs to pack so much into a small space (it’s so easy to end up with gaps, and ‘mist’and head shaking confusion)
- When giving feedback leave out the ‘grammar’ comments until ‘it’s time’ (i.e. focus on structure and content first, polish last)
- Clarity is in the correct usage of language: this includes key aspects of craft like using strong noun verbs
- Fully imagined writing is the goal, whether it’s to include the abstract or the details – lack of detail lessens the impact
- Never make the reader ‘work too hard’ (connecting the dots, searching for the true meaning, falling into gaps – put all the logical bridges in place to make reading pleasurable – it’s about taking in the landscape)
Synthetic Feedback for the Author
It’s fascinating that none of the critiques overlapped in detail. This is a classic outcome when asking for feedback. Everyone will have a different response if there are no glaring problems. Glaring problems will often draw shared responses.
So, what can the author take away from this? It seems that the feedback in general points to needing to take the piece a big step further: the piece has potential but wasn’t sufficiently imagined. This is one of the great pieces of writing advice from one of history’s greatest writers, John Gardner. When a piece of writing is not sufficiently imagined, the reader has to do too much work. They don’t care about the story. If they are forced to read it, they fill in the details – but in their own way. As such, the writer has broken the rule of making reading enjoyable for the readers. Readers should be trying to ‘connect the dots’ or fill in missing pieces. Readers should be left to cognitive reveries of their own making.
So, in summary, the feedback suggests this piece just has ‘more work left to do’ and how that is done is up to the author.
This is a fundamental fact about writing. No one can tell you exactly how to do it. It’s something you need to find out for yourself. If you’ve got the basics covered, you are now on your own. You can only get hints and be told when you aren’t there yet.