Bossy Advice on Writing Well

Increasingly, newish writers are surfacing in my in-box asking me to read their work and give them some feedback. This flatters my ego to no end — “HA! You think I have something to teach you about writing! HA! That’s HILARIOUS!” A-hem. Hey, anyone who has the nerve to ask me for feedback is probably genuinely striving to be better — I like to encourage that, there’s more than enough crappy writing out there. In an attempt to keep yet another awful piece of writing out of the public eye, I’m happy* (with sufficient bribery) to read something over, hand out a couple of general pointers, and then, send a bludgeoned hopeful back to their keyboard with a head full of not very sugar coated feedback.

I am a brutal critic. I learned to write under the sharp red pens of a handful of professional meanies, harsh types who wouldn’t let me off the hook when I made sloppy mistakes with grammar or didn’t follow my arguments through to their proper conclusion. As a result of the tutelage of those hard, hard editors — and of sitting through hour after hour after hour of critique when I was in school — I have learned not only to take criticism, but to dish it out. It’s un-fun to hang out with me as I read the travel magazines that clutter the coffee table. “Boring. Generalizations. Anyone could have written this. Transparent shilling for the host company. Tell me something I don’t know. Seriously? You went to this compelling destination and you deliver this colorless tripe? What the hell?” Yeah, I’m a monster.

Unfortunately, not a lot of people are educated in how to take criticism and they mistake “I don’t like this work and/or idea” for “I don’t like you.” Not so, not so! In fact, if I agreed to read your work and give you feedback on it or I’ve bothered to comment on something you published, I probably like you rather a lot. In fact, I might like you so much that I expect awesome work from you as a standard. With that in mind, I’m goingΒ  to share a few things that keep coming up in the work I’m asked to review.

  • Too many damn words. This isn’t because I’m a fan of short form, in fact, another writer just turned me on to Long Form and it’s full of great stuff that’s well more than 400 words. I LIKE long form, a lot. But I also like every single word to be doing something useful. I don’t want to wade through a lot of decoration to get to the point — unless that decoration is totally critical to the story line. All those words. What are they there for? Be brutal, cut everything that isn’t essential. Side note: I like editing in MS Word with rev marks on. That way, I can see what happens when I delete sections. If I’ve gone overboard with the editing, I can recover the work I deleted.
  • Weird placement in space or time. Wait. We were on a bus, now we’re in an Italian restaurant, oh, we’re on the bus again… wait, what? Where are we? I think an abrupt shift of setting is fine, but sometimes, I’m confused about where I am. It’s easy to forget, when all that going between things is so transparent to you, the writer, that the reader needs to get from place to place with you. Be aware of place and time and how you got there.
  • Overly complicated verb tenses and passive voice. I’ll be honest. It took me a long time to understand passive voice, and I still have a hard time explaining it. It’s like porn — I know it when I see it. Here’s my best attempt at explaining passive voice: Get in the damn action, already. There’s a good read about passive voice on Grammar Girl — check it out. As for those verb tenses, they all have names and uses and contexts in which they make sense, but I prefer simplicity. And hey, be consistent, okay? Don’t jump around between the present and the past unless you’re actually jumping around between the present and the past. Are you or were you? Which is it?
  • Whopping great generalizations. You want to aggravate me? Tell me what “people” or “everyone” should do. Or what a place is “always” like. To wind me up even more, combine those — “everyone always says that…” This makes me crazy. Don’t do it. It’s lazy, it’s overly simplistic, and it makes me want to run you over with my car. (I kid, I kid. I’d want a tractor. I don’t want to wreck my car.)
  • Mistaking opinions or preference for arguments. It’s fine to not like chocolate. It’s fine to think that morning people are dull. Whatever. Those are personal preferences. A-okay, you’ll miss the sunrise and what I think is the best part of the day. Thing is, there’s a significant difference between saying “I like night owls” and “Night owls are better.” The first one is a clear statement of preference on your part. The second is a declaration that you’d best be prepared to back up. Another example — I’m not a red meat eater. Never liked it much. There’s a world of difference between “I don’t like to eat red meat,” and “Red meat is bad.” The first one is about me and my opinion. The second one is asking for an argument. Think about those declarative statements. Hard. Don’t present matters of opinion as fact. That annoys me almost as much as generalizations.
  • Loss of focus. Guilty as charged. Rambling can be oh so appealing. Let’s just write our way over here in to this peaceful flowery meadow of stuff that has nothing to do with the ideas we were originally exploring! Nice! It’s so quiet and look at those pretty white blossoms! What were we talking about, anyway? Oh, that’s right! Focus! I recently started a story with a lot of irrelevant historical background. Oops. Whack. Three paragraphs, gone. It seems I needed to write that stuff to get where I was going, but when I read it back, I couldn’t believe I wasted so much energy on facts that were totally unrelated to my story. It hurt me to cut it, but it was the right thing to do.
  • Issues of prosody. Yeah, that’s some fancy ass terminology. It has to do with the meter, the structure, the rhythm of how your story sounds. This is a new one to me. A writer friend who agreed to read one of my pieces told me I was having “prosody issues. Read it out loud,” she said, and I did, and then, I understood what she meant. My piece was clunky and weird, it wasn’t flowing right. Reading work out loud can smoke out a lot of problems — you find mistakes in grammar, missed or mistyped words, and you get a good sense of how the entire piece hangs together.

Before you’re tempted to ask me if I’ll read your piece, make sure you’ve nailed down the things I’ve listed above. Honestly, most of the folks who have asked me to read their work needed to attend to these exact issues. And know this: I struggle with all of this — and more. If I slow down, read my work out loud, and have someone I trust review it, I create much better work than had I just hammered something out, and sent it off into the world.

Just because we can publish instantaneously, doesn’t mean we should. I write better when I’ve taken the time to really think a piece through or had the painful oversight of a hardass editor. People who want to be take seriously as writers should do the same. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go run myself over with my car.

*NOTE: This isn’t an invitation for you to send me your work! Good lord, no! I’m busy! Things to do! Places to go! Cake to eat! I might say yes if I have time, but now, I’ll probably just say, “Did you read that post?” and send you right back here.

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46 thoughts on “Bossy Advice on Writing Well

  1. I’m a hardass critiquer too and love the red pen and the delete button. I think a critique class is something that everyone should have to take in college to get a degree in their field. Make it a general ed requirement. It would make life out in the real world so much easier.

    All of your points are excellent – and I’m also guilty of all of them πŸ™‚ I think all writers are. The trick is learning how to critique yourself.

  2. Like.

    (Wait. Too brief? Hm, ok).

    Prosody is new to me too. So *that’s* what that feeling of unease and vague self-disgust during editing is all about. Think I have some reading to do.

    Also, I’m very much guilty of long-winded rambling, a real issue of mine.

    What shocks me a little is that the opposite seems just as common: short-winded sprinting, let’s say. A lack of description manifesting as too many facts. I hate that. That’s not what writing should be. I want to be taken there, not CIA Factbooked out of my mind. Even functionalist, meant-to-be-used writing has room for the experience of it.

  3. I have saved myself approximately 274,836 epic embarrassments by simply writing a post and then ignoring it for 24 hours, though 48 hours is better, and then giving it a fresh edit. The marinating process lets your brain see all those idiotic typos and structure laughers that, no really, weren’t there during the last read-through.

    Also, this interval is when all my ‘meh’ jokes inevitably improve. I’m pretty sure my brain is funnier while I’m asleep than while I’m awake. Some people have nightmares. I rewrite jokes.

    No need to rush to publish. The internet isn’t going to break tomorrow. Hopefully.

  4. If your husband doesn’t object, I’d like to marry you. I find your harsh critiques somehow soothing. Probably because I’m a virgo.

    Once, during a particularly awful burn-out stage in in teaching career in Istanbul I was offered a job as a copy editor for a British developing-nations-centric economic journal. After editing a few dozen probationary articles about Romanian farm subsidies and Egyptian tourism numbers to show them I knew my abbreviations and could fact check and whatnot, I ran away screaming because my entire purpose with them was counterintuitive to how I like to see writing. Prosody? No use for that there. Functional and grammatically impeccable? Aye. Succinct? Certainly! But tedious. Awful. Bland. Prosody is what makes it worth reading after everything else has been sharpened.

    Am back to teaching, saving the words for my own blog where I can control the rhythm and beauty.

    PS I’d ask you to critique my writing but I might cry. Am still not ready for that. Baby steps.

      • Why, you’re in luck! I’m not only Canadian but also 3rd generation Vancouver Islander- a short ferry ride away from marital bliss! PS your current husband can, of course, have full access. I just want to marry you for the uke, the nerdiness and the hilarity.

  5. When I write in my briefs I go for long form, but in my long johns I keep it snappy.
    When I’m in my PJs I tend to avoid acronyms and when I’m in my Y Fronts I often go back and X stuff out.
    Presently I am in my dungarees, so I am mostly not done agreeing with you.
    I am sorry for that troubling set of imagery, but it does say ‘Say Anything’ above.

  6. I’m guilty of most of the things you mentioned. And likely also too timid to face your red pen.

    In a post that I really care about, want to be literary, hope will change someone’s life, I’ll be careful about these things.

    When I’m trying to tell another mom why she might like to take her kids to see the world’s largest buffalo, I’m not paying attention quite as closely.

    Perhaps I should be, but I fear that my blogging is often mediocre at best, functional yet uninspiring.

    And at this point in my life, I’m ok with that.

    Go ahead, run me over–I’ll even loan you my tractor. It’s a big one.

    • I saw that buffalo, it was silly and awesome at the same time. I’m really glad I went. Which I why I think you shouldn’t dismiss writing about that kind of stuff as not worth attention. If it’s worth seeing, it’s worth writing well about.

      And… I continue to be bossy. Oh yeah.

  7. I can overlook a number of these things (okay, so the tense thing really confuses me), if I feel that the writer is trying to communicate in a true sense. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate literary writing, but honestly, sometimes I don’t want to get bogged down in it all, I just want facts fast.

    However — fail to be authentic or write judgmentally or insultingly — even with the most literary of styles, and you’re toast in my RSS feed.

  8. I’m sorry, but those yayhoos sending you their writing seem rather rude and presumptuous. Copyeditors should get PAID, dammit.

    Especially really good ones, which you are.

    Also, even though I think that the “are” above is some forbidden hanging thing that’s bad, I don’t really give a fat rat’s ass….

    ( * runs from roaring tractor * )

    • Yeah, you’re right, of course, I should charge for it. Thing is, I have a network of people who I trust enough to read for me, solid critics, and I like to return the favor to the universe now and then. When I do read, I don’t do a line edit or a true copy edit of any kind — I just point out the top level issues and ask a couple of sharp questions. I don’t have the time or inclination to do a “real” copy edit for free — though again, there is one writer friend that I trade time with and we get right into it.

  9. Pam, what I love about this post is that it taught me about how I could improve my writing in a succint but entertaining way. I took a grammar course recently, but had never known about prosody. These are great tips and will help me when the blog is revamped. I can’t wait for you to get out the proverbial red pen!

  10. As a teacher and super-critical reader and former creative writing major, I always say I’m open to criticism. But, alas, it’s hard. I get ever so attached to my words and my anecdotes and some analogy that I was trying to make work (REALLY, really trying). I think I’ve gotten better at editing out the crap I don’t need, but I still have a long way to go (as evidenced in the length of the blog posts I crank out… and, more often than not, don’t crank out because it just takes so dang long). With the New Year, I’m resolving to cut back on my words. I’m hoping I have better success with this resolution than I have had with other resolutions to cut back on stuff like cookies and tequila. We will see.

    • I don’t think that cutting words is always required, only cutting, as you say, “the crap I don’t need.”

      Though one of my first writing gigs was writing 400 word full stories. Man. That’s a painful learning exercise. You might consider setting yourself a word count to see if you can write to that.

  11. When I first scanned this post and saw prosody I thought WTF is that – I think I may be using cadence in its place.

    I love harsh criticism. Maybe I should be sending work your way…

  12. Rambling and passive voice: guilty as charged. I’m well aware of making these mistakes and have to try really hard to minimize them. Though, the rambling is still difficult for me. Excellent post! Definitely bookmarking it to go back and reference.

  13. Nice article – EXCEPT FOR THE GLARING GRAMMATICAL ERROR, third paragraph from the end. “Before your tempted to ask me” should read “Before YOU’RE.” GRRR! Until then, you had me!

  14. As an editor, I find myself banging my head against the wall repeatedly over the same issues. I also find that I suck at editing my own work unless I wait a good 24-48 hours to do it. And I am quite certain that if I gave you any of my work to edit, you would make me cry.

  15. Love it! I agree with you on all accounts! And yet, I still do each of these things at times. We all do. I might have to borrow your tractor.

    I find the past/present issue to be particularly sticky when writing travel pieces. This is what I did and saw. But the hotel still offers this and you should go try that. Ya dig?

    I did find a typo in this post, which I am not proud to say I found quite ironic and entertaining. See if you can find it! πŸ™‚

  16. I think giving yourself a word limit really helps. When I had to write reviews, we had to do it in 200 words or less. It helped me retained the most important aspects of the scene I was trying to establish.

  17. I can see this from both ways. I worked as a writing tutor for years and there are only so many comma splices a person can take. I think texts and limiting formats (ahem, twitter….) are killing language. A part of my soul dies every time I see someone shorten “you” to “u”. Good writing is hard to find and a pure pleasure to read.

    On the other hand, writing is such a personal activity, particularly when you’re writing about something that happened to YOU. I think the blog format particularly encourages this, as they have a somewhat narcissistic focus.

    I had a thesis advisor who marked up my drafts until they literally looked like they were bleeding red ink. I drank a margarita and got over it, reminding myself she was trying to make me better. It can be difficult to separate the subject matter from the writing issues, but I think real learning and growth (as a writer) occurs when one can make that distinction.

    • One of the things I like about Twitter is that it forces you to select exactly the words you need to express a compact idea. I don’t like the netspeak of U/You either, but I’m forgiving of it in context. I like writers like Andrew Evans who are using Twitter as a way to share a place in tiny bites, and Andrew is rarely sloppy about grammar or word choice.

      As for bloggers being “somewhat narcissist,” that’s generalizing. Some bloggers are that way, absolutely. But Chris Elliott uses his blog to solve the problems of other travelers. ProBlogger is really a teaching blog. Passports with Purpose is a blogger driven philanthropic initiative. Some blogs are purely photographic, others are associated with a business and there to drive sales and search… There are other bloggers I can list who are sincerely passionate about sharing information that helps others and others who are simply frustrated writers.

      I still remember the first marked up document I got from an editor. It was excruciating. But she made my work better. I still gasp a little when confronted with a lot of red ink, but now I know, especially if I’m working with an editor I trust, that I need to either fix it or defend it. This has been a good thing for me as a writer and I’m sorry more writers don’t get to experience it.

      • I just wanted to backpedal for a second. There are some phenomenal blogs and bloggers who undoubtedly do good (#PwP is a perfect example) and I didn’t mean to unfairly label bloggers as “narcissistic”. I actually meant more that the format of a blog feels more personal: we choose the pictures (and often take them ourselves), we upload and publish ourselves, etc. The more connected I feel to a piece of my writing, the harder it is for me to take criticism and blogs are incredibly personal.

        Thanks for the names of people to follow….I’m always looking for interesting and good sites!

        Perhaps my resistance to twitter’s limited characters is that I’m more verbose when it comes to describing a situation. I’m not one of those who believe that complex situations can be captured in a quick snapshot of 140 characters. Still, it’s always good to be stretched…

        Happy Thursday!

  18. I’m learning as I’m reading this post!
    wait.. was it supposed be “I was learning as I was reading this post”..?

    Thanks for the free brief lesson!

  19. Love all of this. Glad I found your site.
    A fellow wielder of the red pen

    PS I realize this sounds generic enough to be just this side of compliment spam. Sorry. It’s sincere. Coffee just hasn’t kicked in yet.

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