Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When No Criticism Is Bad News

by Annette Lyon

As I judged a writing contest this last week, several commonalities struck me about the entries.

A few things cropped up over and over again:
  • Point of View issues: No point of view. Or poor execution of point of view. Or some funky version of an omniscient narrator. None of which worked.
  • Telling instead of showing, which is especially weak when it’s during moments that should be tense or emotional.
  • Punctuation mistakes. Not only were sentences punctuated incorrectly (which editors hate), but a lot of the time the wrong punctuation made the text plain old hard to decipher. Good punctuation acts as sign posts so the reader knows what belongs where, who’s doing what, and where the pauses belong. It’s worth learning how to do it right.
  • Awkward or stilted dialogue.
  • “It was all a dream” cop-out endings.
  • Starting in a boring place—often way too early—and including lots of extra back story and other elements that didn’t belong to the core story.
  • Padding sentences with extra baggage, like the piece that used the term, “a forest of trees.” (As opposed to what, a forest of pretzels?)

As I made my way through the entries and jotted notes in the margins, I found a pattern: The worst entries had very little red ink, while best ones were covered with my scribbles.

At first that made no sense.

After a little reflection, the reason dawned on me: The best entries were ready for polishing. I could indicate redundancies, awkward sentences, or motivation issues. I could make concrete suggestions for improving a paragraph or a description. These authors knew enough to take such suggestions and run with them. They have the basics down and just need someone to point the way down the path and give them a nudge to get going.

What I’ll call the “non-winning” entries were on a different level altogether, and not in a good way. The majority had major problems—problems that went beyond what I could suggest or help with in a quick margin note. With these writers,“Show this,” “Begin with the moment of change,” or, “Be sure to keep a consistent point of view,” would be like speaking a foreign language to them.

So I had to sit and stare at those stories to figure out what to say to their creators. Where do you begin to point out a path to someone when they aren’t even on the map? To use a different metaphor, I can’t suggest how to decorate a house when the foundation isn’t even in place.

I tried to give some kind of constructive suggestions to everyone, but it was tough. The non-winning folks got a lot of “fun image”-type comments and have large sections with no red ink at all, while the winning entries almost look like I bled on them.

I feel bad about that; I hope the winners don’t get discouraged but instead see the feedback as a chance to grow and improve as writers.

Next time you enter a contest or get feedback from an agent or editor, keep this in mind: The more specific the criticism, chances are, the better writer you are. If you stunk, there would be no way to point out every weakness; the judge/editor/agent on the other end wouldn’t know where to start.

The moral of today’s post: Never look at feedback as merely cutting you down. Instead, open your arms and let it in. It only goes to show that you’re already good, and weighing the suggestions carefully will only make you better.


A. Riley said...

Good thing to keep in mind when I get to the point of submitting manuscripts. It's usually hard to hear that what you put your effort into isn't quite good enough...yet.

But really, aren't we always learning and growing? Very few things are done perfectly on the first try. I know I have a scene in my novel that I wrote, but ended up changing it and loved it so much better after the rewrite. So sometimes changes can be very good.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great points, Annette. I can see where you are coming from. I'm editing a book for my nephew who's 15. I told him that I would start with 30 pages, and the editing would take place in levels. We are now on level 2. The progress he has made is amazing. I can now get into the nitty gritty, whereas with level 1, it was about POV, Show Don't Tell, sentence variation, dialog tags--some very basic skills. With level 2 we moved to character motivation, internal dialog, pacing . . . Level three will be plot structure, overall hook, conflict, and climax.

Karlene said...

Can I just second what you just said. As a publisher going through a stack of manuscripts, you just don't have time to teach people to write well. If I spend the time to give you notes, it means you've got something good going on.

Shanna Blythe said...

That is something I have never considered before--but it is so true. I've never looked forward to 'bleeding manuscripts' before.

Hmm . . . perhaps I'll change that attitude!

Bec said...

As someone still learning the ins and outs of writing I have to say I've done all of your points. At first I didn't think I'd done the "forest of trees" thing and then I realized that, yes I have.

I also realized it's an interrelated problem. Up until recently I didn't understand "show don't tell" and to compensate for my lack of words I used extra words to bulk out my work.

Sad but true.

Rachelle said...

Being part of a writer's group has really helped me to realize that if we have an attitude of learning, we can take any comments and grow from them.
Hey Heather, can I be your surrogate niece? You did my first 30 pages with your editing deal and it was fabulous!

Heather B. Moore said...

Rachelle, it was a pleasure to read your pages. You're an excellent writer! It's only a matter of time before you're published.

so grateful to be Mormon! said...

wow annette, great post. much food for thought. i appreciate you taking the time to post this, kathleen :)

so grateful to be Mormon! said...

so glad you all created this blog. i am saving this one on my internet favorites. thanks, kathleen :)

KATE EVANS said...

I'm going to have my students read this entry. Thanks.

RockStories said...

What a great thing to write a post about. I often make this point to the writers who work for me and the ones in my writing workshops--if I send something back by email, it's often accompanied by a note that says something like, "Don't be alarmed by the volume of's all fine-tuning!" It never consciously occurred to me until I read this post that the red ink didn't always come along with that cushion, so thanks for getting the idea out there.