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 going 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.