9/19/2016

How Do You Know Your Writing Is Good?

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were at a local restaurant catching up with two of our friends. Over our various fried foods and beer, we started asking each other what we were working on. I shared I was investing time each day to practice writing, which piqued my friend's interest.

“How do you know if your writing is good?” he asked.

I paused. “You don’t know.”

The question stayed with me and perhaps it’s something you’ve wondered too.

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The following guest post comes to us from writer and entrepreneur Dan Murphy. To read more of his articles, check out his blog at DanMurphy.me

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When you’re writing, there’s no instant feedback mechanism. It’s not like Super Mario Brothers, where you make it to the castle or not. In school, you handed in your writing to a teacher. In real life, there are no grades.

Even if you do give your writing to someone, there is no universal standard of quality. An English professor and a friend writing for a craft beer blog will have very different opinions.

“Good” writing is relative. Even the greatest literary works of our time have bad reviews on Amazon.

For a beginner like me, it’s even tougher. After writing, editing, re-reading, and editing again, I compare my work to the articles and books I enjoy. Most of the time, I feel I miss the mark.

So, what can I do to improve?

I can take time each day to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be. Anyone can.

The Importance of Feedback


The only way to close this gap is to get feedback on your work. The biggest challenge is allowing yourself to be open to it. 

Feedback isn’t always easy to receive. I’ve invested time writing and revising my work, and I’d like it to be viewed as perfect.

Then a friend or colleague emails me saying my writing is far from perfect. I made huge mistakes. The advice is good, but my ego takes a hit.

All of this is perfectly fine. These temporary letdowns and stings are how the gap is closed.

I’ve learned that temporary stings are just that: Temporary. It’s important that I put my ego aside and focus on how the feedback will help hone my writing. The sting is just my ego getting in the way.

If someone takes the time to correct you and offer suggestions, pay attention. Feedback, when offered in a pleasant and helpful manner, is a gift. Be grateful. Look to apply it. Ignore it at your own peril. This is how you improve.

One thing to keep in mind: A thing needs to be bad before it becomes okay, okay before it becomes good, and good before it becomes great.

Where can you get feedback? Here are a few places:

1) Feedback from friends


Feedback from friends is valuable, but can be tricky to get.

Friends may fear that if they’re brutally honest it will destroy the relationship. To receive useful feedback, you need friends that will be 100% honest.

A few of my friends and I have relationships based on complete honesty. We both understand being honest may be a temporary pain, but there’s no malice behind it. If you can find friends open to giving you honest feedback, do it.

Feedback like “It’s good” or “I liked it” isn’t helpful. If they say “it sucked,” ask them what sucked about it. You may have to dig a little. If they don’t feel comfortable, don’t ask them to do it.

It is possible that friends don’t know good writing from bad, and that means their feedback would be limited, or not very helpful. If they tear through a book a week, they could be helpful. Someone who stopped reading a book because it was terrible may be a great candidate.

Another sad reality: Many people won’t—or simply can’t—take the time to help. Even if they try, their feedback may be far from helpful. This is part of the process. Continue to look for the person that will provide the feedback you need.

2) Ask someone whose writing you admire


When my friend Christy writes an email or a blog post, it has style and grace to it. She produces colorful sentences that flow. Her word choice and sentence structure are diverse. When comparing her writing to mine, I feel like mine falls short.

I want to write more like her, so I reluctantly asked her for help. She obliged, and has been amazing in pointing out where I could improve.

She checks three boxes: she’s a great friend, honest with her feedback, and a great writer.

When reaching out to someone, make sure it’s someone accessible. You may admire the writing of Stephen King, but he’s not available to give you feedback now. Or ever.

A writer with a lightly-trafficked blog [Like me!], a journalist writing for a local news publication, or an author beginning his or her career could be accessible. Ask to review their articles before they are published, help them gain exposure, or offer to proof their unpublished book. Give before you can receive.

3) Trade services or goods


If you don’t have money to pay someone, there’s always the option to trade goods or services. See what a potential reviewer needs help with, and offer to do that task for them in exchange for some critiquing time.

A little tip: Before you do this, make sure to determine the scope of the trade before you begin. What will you do? How much will you do? When you complete the task, how much proofreading time will you receive?

People value services differently. If you agreed to paint a ceiling for someone in exchange for critiquing time, you may value the task at $1,000, and the other person may value it at $300. Hammer that out first so neither party feels it was an uneven trade.

4) Pay someone


Editors all over the world offer critiquing services at a reasonable cost. Check out services like UpWork, Guru, and Freelancer. Post a job on one of these sites asking for help with your writing.

These sites allow you to explain the scope of the job and what you’ll pay. The job description could contain something as simple as, “I’ll pay $X per hour/article/page to receive assistance with my writing.” Compared with trading goods or services, the scope of the job is clearer, so no one feels like they’re shorted in the end.

Before engaging anyone, view the rankings and reviews of the potential hires to determine who is a good fit. Of course, the most important part is finding a person you can communicate with, and who understands your writing goals.

If you think someone is a good fit, hire them short-term and see how the relationship works. Don’t be afraid to switch editors if one isn’t working out.

5) Join a group, online or off


There are plenty of writing groups. If you're interested in an online group, a quick search on Facebook will show a few to check out. Some are public (anyone can join) and some are private (you need to request access).

A tip for Facebook groups: Before or after joining, look at the size of the group. Some groups are too large to be effective. Feel free to lurk a bit and see if the group is a good fit and contains other supportive writers.

Search Facebook for events that cater to writers. You can also use Google to look up “writing groups near [city]” and see what turns up. Another resource is Meetup.com, which lists thousands of in-person events, including writing groups. Check if your local library hosts workshops or events.

There are a ton of ways to find these events. Start digging and see what you uncover.

6) Start your own group


Almost a year ago, I started my own group for writers on Medium. The idea was to motivate myself to write more and help others when I could.

I started with a post on Facebook stating I was forming a writers group. At the time, I had no idea how it would be run. Only after people showed interest did I figure out the rest. Now it has a nice membership and is growing a few members at a time.

Anyone can do the same. Put something on Facebook, Twitter, a forum, or wherever you find other writers. Even if you get just one other interested person, that’s a start.

I didn’t plan how my group would work, but you might want to plan yours before you start. People will expect the group to have structure and will look to you to provide it.

Even if you plan thoroughly, be open to adjustment as the group evolves. When I started, I received article submissions via email. After almost losing a few, I moved to a submission form. I’ve also changed the format of the emails to tighten things up, reduce clutter, and make things clearer.

7) Read books on writing


Books on writing cost less than a large pizza (and have fewer calories, I assume) and can help you determine if your writing is on the right track.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott covers a vast number of topics in an entertaining way. Her section on putting perfectionism aside was a huge help in completing my drafts. She covers how to overcome mental hurdles like jealousy and writer's block, a topic other books omit. She also has a section on how to get help from others, and decreasing your learning curve.

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is filled with methods to refine your writing. His first section focuses on writing principles and how to keep things simple. The chapter “Words” shows how caring about words helps you select better ones while avoiding clich├ęs. If you’re stuck on how to start or end an article—both cause me difficulty—there’s a chapter on this.

Apply What You’re Learning


Learning how to write is easy, but writing is hard. Focus more effort on the hard part. Writing and revising will show you where your struggles are. Once you start understanding your struggles, you’ll learn what you don’t know and know what you need to learn.

These are the sources of feedback that I have found most effective. Of course, there are other ways that you may discover on your own. See what works and discard what doesn’t.

No matter which methods you decide to use, always experiment with new ways to obtain feedback. This is the fastest way to improve as a writer.

9/12/2016

Positive Critique Group Stereotypes

Last week, we looked at some of the negative stereotypes that pop up in critique groups. This week, we'll be talking about the flip side: the good guys that help us grow as writers. If you saw a little of yourself in last week's post, this list might help you curb some of your less helpful behaviors.

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The following post comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.


Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in Coming Around Again, an anthology by my local crit group!

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The Listener 


How to identify: Comes to the meeting prepared, having read the piece at least once and is ready to give constructive feedback, whether positive or negative.

How to encourage them: Take their advice. Be an active listener yourself. Ask questions about their feedback and apply it to your writing.


The Disagreer

How to identify: They don’t always go with the consensus of opinion. They might disagree with the dozen other people at the table and are brave enough to voice those opinions. This input is invaluable whether you take it or not. It gives you insight into the different reader. If they disagree continually with everyone, they might be a negative stereotype.

How to encourage them: Thank them for their input. If they are continually disagreeable, point that out to them. Remind them of the sandwich critique technique of saying something positive, something negative, and then something positive again.


The Filler-Inner


How to identify: This stereotype is almost superpowered. If they mention things that aren’t in the story or come up with motivations and backstory to explain things, they may be the most helpful member of your crit group. By filling things in, they are instinctively filling plot holes or gaps in your story-telling. Don’t explain the missing pieces orally. Ensure they are in the story. Analyze why the Filler Inner feels the need to provide additional information. That’s your job.

How to encourage them: Like all constructive criticism, make a note of places where they are making stuff up and rewrite it to make your story complete. Bring them chocolates or cookies and request they keep finding – and filling – these gaps.


The Grammar Nazi


How to identify: Every crit group needs a Grammar Nazi, someone who knows all the rules of punctuation and grammar. They perform a very helpful role in every group. They can be a positive or negative influence on your crit group. If they are only grammarians, encourage them to look for plot, voice, and style irregularities, too. A good Grammar Naxi does both.

How to encourage them: For those grammar guys and gals who only line edit, point out the difference between technique and substance. If they can line edit as well as they critique, a homemade pie occasionally might be encouragement enough.


The Published Writer


How to identify: This is someone with a few sales under their belts who is willing to share the experience. Not to be confused with the negative stereotype of The Authority, this person realizes there is no “what editors want” as each of them want something different. These writers should be willing to help every writer in the crit group sell and market their best work.

How to encourage them: Be one of them. Write, critique, and rewrite until you start selling. Don’t become The Authority overnight, but do listen to them when they say how important dialogue punctuation, Standard Manuscript Format, and realizing “alright” is not a word are.


The New Writer 


How to identify: A new writer can be very beneficial to the crit group. They bring new enthusiasm and a renewed energy to the group. Welcome them and try to keep your Authority persona firmly in hand.

How to encourage them: Give them lots of positive feedback. Do serious line edits to help them with the grammar and punctuation. Keep them writing. Never use the word “draftitis.” Give them suggestions and time. Don’t pressure them with deadlines or “you shoulds.”


The Useful Occupation 


How to identify: This stereotype is more of a perk than a label. Everyone in the crit group has a day job and these can be very helpful when determining how bail is set or how many bullets are fired during a robbery. Scientists, policemen, lawyers, and nurses can make a mediocre story really sparkle with some real-life details. Listen to the experts and rewrite accordingly.

How to encourage them: Know who is a teacher in your group, find out about the young woman in the military, and seek out medical professionals. You might be surprised at the expertise sitting around your table. Listen and use it.


Fortunately…


You can wear as many of these labels as you want. Try to be kind, helpful, and involved in the story. Don’t race to read it at the last minute. Don’t respond emotionally to a piece. Your crit group should know the ground rules for how to behave. Listen, suggest, question, and inform. That’s why we form crit groups. It’s hard to do it on your own.

Below are some helpful guidelines to make your group a productive one (with thanks to the Dorsal Fin Crit Group in Oklahoma City).


Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group (CASFWG) Guidelines:


  1. Don't make it your story.
  2. Be kind (no offensive terms).
  3. Use constructive criticism and positive feedback in sandwich technique.
  4. Be brief with your critique (written and verbal), 10 minute critique, 10 minute rebuttal.
  5. Use concrete examples of problems (and how to fix them without rewriting).
  6. Correct any grammar or spelling (if you can determine trends, write them down in a summary page), but do not discuss each line item.
  7. Read the entire piece.
  8. Look for continuity and missing action.
  9. You can always opt out! If you cannot or will not be able to critique this piece, you may do so with no explanation required.

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See anyone you recognize? Know anyone who could learn from these role models? Share this post on Facebook and tag them!

9/05/2016

Negative Critique Group Sterotypes

Critique groups are among a writer's most important resources. Whether online or in person, whether you're a fresh-faced newbie or a seasoned veteran, there is always something to learn from fellow writers. Getting feedback on our writing is the main way we improve as authors. Some of us are lucky enough to work with professional editors. Others go to classes, or pay freelancers to help hone their skills. But for most of us, the tit-for-tat simplicity of a good crit group is the way to go.

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The following post comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.


Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in Coming Around Again, an anthology by my local crit group!

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If you've been in a few crit groups, you've probably noticed that members seem to come in a handful of recognizable flavors. Even if you just joined your first group, you're probably already starting to see a few predictable dynamics. Contrary and complementary personalities are what make crit groups so fun and useful. Every point of view contains a nugget of knowledge that can help you improve your writing--even if it's not always delivered with the purest intentions or the kindest of words.

Crit groups are not for the faint of heart. Writers join because they want to receive and provide honest feedback. Sometimes, though, members can take the idea of "not pulling punches" a little far. Below, we look at some of the more unfriendly characters you may meet.

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The Authority



How to identify: This member of the crit group knows everything about punctuation, plot, and style, and some of it may even be true. The problem with Authorities is that even the things they don’t know are said with such conviction that the beginning writer believes them. Beware of terms such as “you should,” “you must,” and “this couldn’t happen.” And the most damaging, toxic, and untrue term: “What editors want.”

How to handle: Make them aware of the way they present themselves and the damage “I know the only correct way” can do, especially with beginning writers. Look at their credentials. How much have they published? Don’t try to contradict the information presented by The Authority. They don’t see anything wrong with their worldview. Hit them in the empathy department, and tell them they are hurting people.


The Literalist


How to identify: Literalists don’t understand humor or metaphor. They don’t include them in their own writing and don’t understand it when used by others. They question each action taken by characters, especially if any symbolism is present. Look for statements such as “But a woman isn’t like a summer’s day,” “Lantern jawed? Lanterns can come in many shapes.” A Literalist must have things explained to them. Because they’ve never experienced something from someone else’s writing, it can’t happen.

How to handle: Try discussing with the critiquer but don’t expect them to change. Their life experiences have not prepared them for odd, unusual, and creative events. Simply listen to their confusion and take what little input you can use. 


The Corrector


How to identify: Like The Authority, The Corrector knows it all; however, they are rarely correct. They insist that bad grammar, poor punctuation, and shaky science are absolutely sound and their egos are dependent on other people agreeing with them. They enter the group to fix it, even though they don’t have the talent or knowledge to actually help the group. They are quick to tell you about the craft but it’s rarely reflected in their own writing. The Corrector goes to all the workshops, knows all the latest writing fads, and is on a first-name basis with Stephen King and Lois McMaster Bujold.

How to handle: The Correctors will quickly depart if they discover no one is listening to them or if other writers question their credentials. Again, a private discussion may help if potential damage is brought up.


The Grammar Nazi 


How to identify: Every crit group needs a Grammar Nazi, someone who knows all the rules of punctuation and grammar. They perform a very helpful role in every group. The problem is that a writer/reviewer who is only a Grammar Nazi is no real help to other writers. Finding a comma splice but missing a giant plot hole doesn’t improve the writing. In fact, the writer may believe problems are taken care of when blessed by the Grammar Nazi although that may be far from the truth.

How to handle: For this one, pointing out the difference between technique and substance may help. Steer the reviewer away from ONLY pointing out grammar and punctuation. Ask him or her about the plot, characters, and flow. Suggest a worksheet with non-grammar items on it.


The Cheerleader


How to identify: Every group needs a Cheerleader, too, but when it’s all over, they aren’t helpful at all. They are enthusiastic and positive, but, like the Grammar Nazi, they miss plot holes and character inconsistencies. They enjoy everything they read, all the time. Cheerleaders are good for the ego but really bad for finding ways to improve a story.

How to handle: During a crit review, ask them what caused them problems in the story, what slowed them down, what confused them. If you focus on the negative, sometimes a Cheerleader will admit they had trouble with this or that. That feedback can be very helpful if the Cheerleader can be interrogated effectively.


The Librarian


How to identify: This individual is very well read and is happy to tell everyone what story this work reminds them of. While it’s nice to fit in a specific genre, comparing a writer to Norton or Asimov doesn’t help the writer to a great extent. Like with The Cheerleader, it builds the writer’s ego (and maybe the critiquer) but doesn’t solve story problems.

How to handle: It’s easier in person because of the time limit on critique groups, but for online critiques with retelling of some masterwork, ignore the feedback. Ask for specifics on what reminded them of the other story or ways to make it more like Bradbury (or less like Bradbury).


The Orator


How to identify: The Orator likes to talk. Not so much a problem in online crit groups, but for in-person reviews, a time limit is the only thing that helps slow this beast down. Not only does an Orator like to expound on the story, he or she also likes to comment on what other reviewers have said, often repeating critiques. These people do not come to the group prepared so they meander through wispy topics they’ve heard at the table and waste people’s time.

How to handle: Use the time limit rule vigorously. If they go over, cut them off. Remind the speaker of the story in front of them. If they are unprepared to discuss the story, perhaps they’ll be more concise next time if they time out repeatedly. Require a written summary sheet be passed to the writer at the meeting. For online feedback, skim over the wandering thoughts and pick out what helps improve your story. 


The Rewriter


How to identify: The Rewriter, closely related to The Corrector and The Authority, can’t stop themselves from rewriting other people’s works. Instead of stopping at “This is an awkward sentence,” they provide you with an entire newly rewritten piece in their style and their own voice. They are fond of “a better word would be” or “this would sound better written this way.” If the author wanted the critiquer to rewrite the piece, they’d have asked for it. Rewriting is not critiquing.

How to handle: Rewriters react one of two ways if told rewriting isn’t critiquing: they either curb their enthusiasm or leave when they realize no one is listening to them.


Half a Writer


How to identify: the Half a Writer truly believes that their words, not the grammar and punctuation, constitute writing. They think some editor somewhere is going to get the commas right and punctuate the dialogue as necessary. They don’t need to learn that stuff. They only have to write and not worry about details like readability and grammar.

How to handle: Point out that writers need to know all the tools of their craft, including spelling, typo elimination, grammar, and punctuation. Editors are looking for ANY excuse not to accept a story, and a poorly written one will go right in the circular filing cabinet. Make line edit changes to the punctuation and grammar, pointing out that you do not expect to see this error again. Results can vary, but Half a Writers are not real writers and others waste a lot of time and energy trying to teach them English 101.


Unfortunately…


The bad news about these negative critique group stereotypes is we all fall into these categories occasionally. The trick is to recognize which stereotype label you are currently wearing and think of ways to turn the negative into a positive. Stop being The Authority. Find something to improve in every story. Don’t mention other writers unless it’s helpful in some direct way. We’re all creative in this business or we wouldn’t be writers. Be flexible and adaptive in your critiquing and try not to be one of the negative stereotypes.

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See anybody you recognize? Share this post on Facebook and tag them!

Next week, we'll look into some of the positive stereotypes you see in crit groups, so don't miss it!