Critique Circle, drafting, Editing, revising, Style, two-page view, Writing

Write Better: Get Another View

Another view.  We must have other eyes on our manuscripts no matter how painful the corrections and comments.  It’s too easy to write alone, get lost in our own words, not see ambiguity, sentence weaknesses, lack of clarity.  We have to seek constructive criticism.  Without it, we can’t possibly get better.

I hope someone reading this post is a high school or college student who’s angry or disillusioned by a harsh review of a beloved composition.  Maybe even a middle-aged new writer who has submitted a story to a publisher or a writing group like CritiqueCircle.com and been disappointed by a lack of enthusiastic response.  It’s always a shock to discover our words did not reach a reader as we intended.

Get help.  Like other people devoted to their craft, writers all over the world willingly help each other. CritiqueCircle.com is a terrific (and free) mutual-help community.  Members can also learn by seeing mistakes and problems in the writing of others.

Don’t accept every critique as golden.  There are as many different reading tastes as food preferences and varieties of dogs.  Take a look at the writing style and reading habits of the person critiquing you (found on the site in CC member profiles).  See what that person said about stories you also critiqued.  Critiques on a story often vary widely–many readers sense something wrong but don’t know what it is or how to fix it.  Realize that the best they’ve told you may be that something doesn’t quite work. Occasionally someone does not know how to give opinions in a kind or helpful manner, but I think those instances on Critique Circle are rare. Members on the site gain experience in critiquing.  In most cases writers can find the reactions they need (though not always what they want), often by knowledgeable people.  

Before you show your manuscript to someone else, give yourself a different perspective.   Look at it in a different format. Widen the margins so the page looks like the page of a book. Don’t rely on the grammar and spelling checker–PRINT a proof copy. Mistakes jump out–typos, unnecessary repetitions, poor transitions, and so on. To save paper, look at the document in your word processor’s two-page view. This view allows you to see across paragraphs and pages and spot all kinds of weaknesses. (After I edit in normal screen view, I go to the two-page view and spend time tweaking.  I love the two-page view.)

Finally, if you’re going to show the manuscript to anyone–a friend or someone online–never say “I haven’t had time to edit this but I just wanted to get your opinion.”  I hope you see the problem in that.

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Drafts, Style, Voice, Writing

Finding a true voice

Usually I read blogs for information, but I’m drawn to several by the conversational style of the blogger.  The writers sound like fun people with keen minds.  I think I’d like to read something by them.  But when I read a sample of their fiction, I’m disappointed.  It’s not the voice I expected.
I’ve also read critiques with more snap and personality than the characters in the critiquer’s stories.
I’m sure it’s not necessary to write fiction in our own voices, whatever that means.  Stories don’t have to be about ourselves.  But some writers have a conversational style that’s more interesting, fresh, and honest than their fictional creations.  
Why is this?  Possible answers:  self-imposed controls, inexperience, imitating models we like.  Writing instructors talk about the need to set the subconscious free and to turn off the internal editor, in the first draft, anyway. 
What can we do to find our personal style and carry it into a story?  How can we get from here to there?  I think it helps to begin with heartfelt emotion and characters who share some trait or experience we can identify with, including antagonists.  It helps to think about issues, places, personalities and events and distill them to conviction (point of view!).  In any story worth reading, the writer shares lot of herself, not necessarily personality or experiences, but those convictions.
I’ll never forget a paragraph written by a student who avoided F’s only because he was always present and attentive and bravely struggled through homework.  The assignment (based on Robert Frost’s Mending Wall) was to write about a personal wall.  His wall, he wrote, was his inability to achieve more than a “D,” no matter how hard he tried.  His words were heartfelt, his voice true, and his paragraph, a stellar creation.  Everybody else wrote what they thought the teacher wanted.
As writers (and maybe in real life), we must not be afraid to show ourselves as naïve, ignorant, or even worse–boring–at least not in the first drafts.  We should not adopt styles we think everyone wants to read.  Sometimes they’re not as good as our own.