July 25th, 2011
“Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill,” writes children’s author and teacher Kate Messner (Real Revision) in this week’s Blogstitute entry. Kate shares a real letter she received from her editor as she was working on her book The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., and walks through specific steps of what feedback should look like.
Next week’s Blogstitute post will come from Julie D. Ramsay, author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?” Remember to leave comments and questions to be entered to win a package of five writing books!
How to critique writing
As a middle school English teacher and a published author, I find myself on all sides of the critique fence—giving critiques myself, teaching kids how to critique one another’s work, and receiving constructive critiques from my writing group members and my editors.
Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill. You want to be supportive, but not so supportive that there’s no real constructive criticism. You want to be critical, but not so critical that the writer is plunged into fits of despair. You want to offer feedback while still leaving ownership of the piece and the responsibility for improving it squarely in the hands of the writer.
I’m an extremely fortunate writer; the editors with whom I’ve worked have turned constructive criticism into an art, and I think writers of all ages can learn a lot from studying an editor’s strategies for nudging an author to revise. Here are some quotes from the editorial letter that Bloomsbury/Walker editor Mary Kate Castellani sent me when we were beginning to work together on my middle-grades novel The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., along with some lessons on critiquing I’ve pulled from her model.
Four pencil nubbins and half a Pink Pearl eraser later, I’m finally returning your revision. I so enjoyed re-immersing myself in this story. In fact I got so into the story that any time someone approached my desk I jumped out of my chair because I forgot there was an outside world (or in this case . . . office). The changes you’ve made are just right and I am loving the funny parts of Gee’s voice. It’s been so much fun to reread and work on.
Lesson #1: Say something positive first.
Simple advice, but this paragraph puts me in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mary Kate’s suggestions and to believe in myself as a writer so that I’m ready to tackle the revision.
First, I want to make sure that the project’s obstacles evolve clearly and don’t feel episodic. I’ve sort of outlined them as I see them:
1. At first Gianna is her own worst enemy by being a slightly disorganized procrastinator, better at the creative side of things and not very good at minding deadlines.
2. Then Bianca proves to be an even worse enemy as she tries to ruin Gianna’s chances of completing her project.
3. Then things out of her control, such as Nonna’s doctor’s visit and disappearance, take up her precious free time, really and truly making it impossible for her to finish her project.
Lesson #2: Tell the reader what you’re taking away from your reading of the manuscript.
If what Mary Kate read here isn’t what I intended, then I know I have some work to do in terms of getting my ideas across.
Gianna is foiled at almost every turn, but I wonder if her reactions at times seem a bit too mild. Her brand of stoicism and her ability to roll with things are part of her personality, but I wished she had stronger reactions when she suffers the most serious of setbacks: a) when all her leaves get thrown away (page 90) and b) when Bianca ruins all her identification cards in a super mean act of sabotage (page 105). I wonder, if Gee’s reactions are stronger, whether it will be easier to understand why she isn’t making any progress, and then later when it’s all put in perspective by Nonna’s illness it will all be even more complete. Does that make sense?
Lesson #3: Be specific in your feedback.
Here, Mary Kate doesn’t simply say that Gianna’s character needs to be developed. (If she had, I may have struggled with where to start on that momentous and vague task.) Instead, she points out very specific instances where there are opportunities for me to make Gianna’s reactions to her situation feel more authentic.
I’m wondering if it is possible to inject more Vermont/New England. It’s sort of funny when you think of how most people romantically associate New England in the fall with mountains and the turning of the leaves and the gorgeous colors—when they are actually the bane of our main character’s existence. The scenes are there, but I found myself wishing for more of the region’s flavor.
Lesson #4: Note places where the writer may want to add sensory details.
This request from Mary Kate led to some of my favorite descriptions in the book, and students often write to me about the setting of this novel, telling me they really felt like they were experiencing autumn in Vermont. Sensory details—including those that go beyond sight—make a huge difference.
And lastly, I feel like Zig and Gianna’s “relationship” still needs just a bit of finessing. Nonna’s “prediction” emerges at an odd time when they are crouched in the classroom during a drill. I’d rather have it come right from Nonna with Zig and Gee present so that they can be thoroughly embarrassed and have that make them both realize that something might be changing between them. Then all the awkward little moments alluding to this will make sense to the reader (and to Gee as she narrates). As this situation goes from being confusing and weird for Zig and Gee to clear feelings of affection, I think it would be a more satisfying evolution. Does that make sense?
Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to point out where things don’t make sense.
This explanation of one of the situations that didn’t feel natural to Mary Kate helped me to look at that particular relationship in the book through a wider lens and see how it could be better developed throughout. Before all was said and done during the revision of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., the book lost its first three chapters; got a new first chapter, two new middle chapters, and a new last chapter; and underwent many smaller changes.
I think just a bit more finessing will make an already strong story even better. I’ve been having the best time working on this book, and poor Stacy has had to listen to me stop and read parts out loud so that I can share my favorite moments with someone else. She’s been very patient with me.
Lesson #6: Wrap up on a positive note.
Again, this puts the writer in the right frame of mind to get back to work. And finally . . .
After you’ve had a chance to look this over, let me know if you think these suggestions make sense, and we can go from there.
Lesson #7: Follow up written comments with a conversation when possible.
After I receive an editorial letter, Mary Kate and I often chat on the phone so that I can ask questions and she can clarify her suggestions. Sometimes, that conversation leads to a brainstorming session that produces more out-of-the-box ideas than I might have come up with on my own. This works with students, too. Whenever possible, try to follow up a critique-writing session with a personal conference, leaving ample time for questions and brainstorming.
Remember, real revision takes time, and it can be messy, but the results are well worth the long trail of marked-up manuscripts and sticky notes they leave behind!
Entry Filed under: Writing