Sunday, January 30, 2005

Writers as Editors

I belong to a group of about fifteen aspiring writers, only one of whom has actually been published. We write across genres and we range widely in our levels of commitment. A couple of us really, really want to get published. Others write only for fun or have even shelved their writing for other “hobbies” and are now just readers. We cover the globe, coming from places as varied as Australia, Scotland, and Italy. It’s a great group, and I’m glad and proud to be a part of it.

Recently we established a place where we can post bits of our various WIPS and offer each other critiques. (Kind of hard to find a Starbucks within driving distance of all of us, not to mention the time differences. *g*) It’s taken a bit of egg-shell walking to determine how this is going to work. Are we all open to honest opinion and suggestion, given constructively, of course? Or were we hoping for some easy support, a bunch of “Great job, keep up the good work!” responses to simply give us inspiration to keep on plugging away?

When the first brave soul posted the first chapter of her current WIP, the initial responses were tentative. No one knew quite what to say – how deep she wanted us to look or how open she was to suggestions – so everyone limited themselves to a lot of “very intriguing, can’t wait to read more” responses. Each post pointed out the good in a broad sense but no-one dug her teeth into it to offer specifics, either good or bad. Finally, another brave soul sat down and wrote up a very thorough and honest critique. Her suggestions were valid, and the writer was pleased to have the input. The flood gates had been opened, and we were officially a real critique group.

Since writing in a vacuum leads to, usually, poorer writing, critique groups such as mine seem to be a critical element on the road to being published. The thing is, exactly what kind of critiques are useful, life-saving tools that help a writer become better versus those that are frustrating at best and downright irritating at worst?

I ask this because I’m afraid I might fall into the latter category when it comes to the types of critiques I offer.

I find it amazing how easy it is for me to see problems in another person’s writing when I myself engage in the same mistakes time and time again. Basic no-nos like using too many adjectives or trying to shove funky dialogue tags into my dialogue. And bigger things too, like including scenes that don’t seem to add anything to the story at hand. These things jump out and grab me by the throat when I wear my editor hat while reading someone else’s story. But when it comes to my own work, that kind of stuff slips by me like oil on Teflon.

I suppose it’s due in large part to distance, and I suppose that’s why having others look at your work is so crucial. Fresh eyes pick up so much, and having several pairs point out the hiccups is a service to be treasured. And because of that, I feel obligated – honored – to return the favor and offer my own unspoiled eyes.

And honestly, other than the time it takes away from my own writing, I don’t find offering critiques a sacrifice. I actually love to edit other peoples’ work because it’s easy. It’s so nice, for a change, to be able to see how something can be fixed to make it better instead of pulling my hair out over my own stuff wondering why I just.can’ In fact, I told my husband the other night that maybe I’ve completely misunderstood my calling. Maybe I’m not meant to be a writer but rather am really a repressed editor at heart. Except I have stories I want to tell, and I want to tell them my way…

Besides, despite my willingness and enthusiasm, I’m not sure I’d make a very good editor.

My problem is I don’t know how to offer advice the right way – the way that gently steers a writer into making changes that will improve her story.

What I do when I see something I think could be written better? I rewrite the sentence/dialogue/paragraph/scene. From scratch. I pull in stuff that the writer has written and convey the same information. But I do it in a way that makes sense to me or that I think reads better.

How annoying is that?

I suppose some writers might not mind it. After all, there is nothing more frustrating than someone telling you something is wrong and that you need to fix it but then giving you no idea how to go about doing just that. If you knew how to fix it, you wouldn’t have done it wrong in the first place.

But there’s a big difference in saying “You’ve used six adjectives in this sentence. You might want to choose one or two and get rid of the rest.” to actually lining out all the superfluous adjectives.

Or telling a writer that paragraphs A and B are too wordy and could be combined into one tighter paragraph instead of just taking it upon yourself to write the new and improved paragraph C.

I just can’t resist. Yes, I admit to being a borderline control freak. And I imagine that I have to confess to a shameful amount of arrogance to even assume that my way is even remotely better. My human flaws contribute to this need to take over. That along with the fact that I’m a writer – I write – and my poor friends are doomed to suffer critiques that propose to erase their unique voices and style and replace them with…well, mine.

Maybe it’s laziness. Instead of taking the time to explain what I think is wrong – which quite often is very hard to do because maybe I don’t exactly know what it is I have a problem with, just that it could be better – it’s a lot easier to show what I mean. Kind of takes that showing instead of telling thing to a whole different level.

One benefit in doing it my way – the obnoxious rewriting way – is that I get practice. In seeing problems in another person’s work and attempting to fix them, it opens my eyes to where I’ve committed the same sins. If you recognize an adverb habit from twenty paces in another person’s story, then surely seeing the same problem in your own work becomes easier. And after working the kinks out on someone else’s story, you can roll up your sleeves and perfect your own like a seasoned pro. Sounds good in theory, anyway.

But I don’t have the time for that kind of practice, right? Instead of spending three hours rewriting my friend’s Great American/UK/European/Australian Novel, I should spend the time working on my own. I just have to keep telling myself that when my fingers itch to open a new Word document.

I suppose I need to practice keeping my fingers shut. Just like writing is a craft that can be improved with practice, practice, practice, critiquing is an art. I want to offer my friends something they can really use.

I also want to avoid earning the reputation of being the Overbearing One in the group.


Eileen said...

A good editor first catches the vision that drives the writer whose work is being critiqued. Then she makes suggestions that would strengthen the piece of work wherein the vision lies rather than attempting to impose her own vision. That, I believe, is the major difference between the person who slashes another's work and the person who helps. In a word, it's all about ego.

As for your critique group, you might try letting people request the type of critique they want. Some people, in the process of creation, simply want to share their work. Any attempt to deconstruct their plot or characters comes across to them like the Titanic and the iceberg. Others, though, are able to take a deep critique from the beginning. We did that in my on-line critique group and it worked wonders.

ma said...

What I do when I see something I think could be written better? I rewrite the sentence/dialogue/paragraph/scene. From scratch. I pull in stuff that the writer has written and convey the same information. But I do it in a way that makes sense to me or that I think reads better.

How annoying is that?
I think it depends on your relationship with your cp. I rewrite, too, because I often think showing what I mean is more effective than telling. But if I don't know the person well I make it clear this is just a means of conveying information, I don't mean them to use what I've rewritten, etc. etc.

And I had one cp who rewrote my stuff to great effect. I even used some of it.

Otoh, I'm not a suitable cp for everyone, I don't think.

Yvonne said...

Speaking as one of The Fifteen, I'd say keep doing what you're doing, Lynn. Showing is very often better than telling, and any writer worth their salt will be capable of taking your example and turning it into a passage written in their own voice.

PS - See, I *am* reading your blog.

Bethy said...

Speaking as another of the Fifteen ( the one of the Fifteen who hasn't posted any comments at all yet {blush} -- see? It could be worse. {g}), I'd like to echo Yvonne in saying 'keep doing what you've been doing.'

Sometimes it can be *very* helpful to see something re-written, to have a concrete idea of what the critiquer is trying to convey. And sometimes that will spark something in the author, and she'll re-write it yet again. But she wouldn't have found those words without having seen the suggested version. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

And speaking as another of the fifteen, in fact the one of the fifteen who's had the privilege of having you critique, edit and rewrite my chapter, I say keep doing it! What you did was extremely helpful. The rewritten sentences/paras did far more for me than an explanation of what you thought needed to be done would have done. I now see clearly what you mean. And, while I won't take all your suggestions, I'll be taking plenty of them. And your words too, if you don't mind! ;)

Now, as I progress, I might welcome a little more explanations and fewer rewritings - but that's only because if I know you're going to rewrite what doesn't work each time I'll get lazy and not try hard enough to write it well in the first place!