The Devil’s in the Details Part I

Sam,

***This post took some time and — as it turns out — I couldn’t fit all the material I wanted to cover into one post. So I’ve decided to make my first ever two part posting! I’ll include a link at the end for “Part II” at the end.***

I recently read an article, recommended by a close friend of mine, about peer review sites online for aspiring writers seeking a broader AAEAAQAAAAAAAADrAAAAJGEzMWQ1YmMxLTAxYjktNDA4Yy05ZDc4LTg2YzE0ZGNiOGI3ZAreadership than their immediate friend group. I’ll put a link right here. And it got me thinking about two things: (1) all the times I’ve asked my friends to read some of my work; (2) and how differently I’d do creative writing courses at university (not so much middle or high school, even though it’s a critical time for a writer, much more any teenager. . .). This all has to do with how readers, or Muggles if you’re familiar with my post about Aquaman, treat the work we’ve entrusted with them to read, and how we approach them for the task in equal measures. If you even write for fun, like putting up Notes on Facebook or the like, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The first thing is that asking someone else to read your work — no matter the relationship — is scary. Putting yourself, your work, out there to be raked with the scalpel that is the red pen is not something to commit with reckless abandon. (I should mention that a writer’s own harshest editor is themselves.) A writer should be prepared to receive bad critics as much as the good. They should also know, and this is crucial, that what one person thinks about their story (be it style, voice, characterizations, or plot) is just that person’s opinion.

I will repeat: a writer should not weigh an aspect of a story against the opinion of one individual. Everyone reads things differently, especially fiction. Before you freak out about having to change something, take a moment to consider whether this is an objective suggestion or personal opinion. Ask the reader, which would help alleviate some of the uncertainty from your mind where there isn’t any more room for it in the first place.

This comes to the second of the two thoughts I had above. Having received a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing, I have plenty of experience of writing classes at the university level. I’m sorry to say most of those experiences were to my dissatisfaction. My main concern was class structure. We would read three stories a week, mark them up, and bring them for a discussion. Not much other instruction on how to find voice, attaining good grammar skills, how to project setting to the page, or how to craft likable characters. Now I used to think these things could not be taught in school. I was partly right, which is why I like writing. It’s such an individual-based art. Everyone attacks it from different angles. I was partly wrong too. My wrongness could not have been more evident than the aforementioned article and countless others I have read that give advice and pointers on the topics I just mentioned plus hundreds of others. If, then, I can learn all this stuff online, why the hell can’t it be taught more in the classroom?

“The classes are meant for us to write in them and how to read stories.” I came to this conclusion, not even bothering to ask the professor for all the good it would do, which isn’t very much if we don’t know how to give or take criticism. This presented a BIG problem for me. When our “scholarly, know-everything-about-writing” students would have their say about a story, I would think, “I hope the author knows they don’t have to adhere to every opinion they hear today.” Because I heard a lot of opinions, not objective observations about an aspect of the story. When writers (not just students) who don’t know how to address an aspect of story without asserting how they would have written it, we have a problem; you’re not the one who wrote the story, so stop trying to make it about you. If the author wanted to purposefully present something in a way you may not like, then offer them options of how to develop their choices while keeping the integrity of the work.

“But they need to learn how to give objective observations by reading other students’ work,” Professor would say. Not this way they don’t! It might as well be poison for the author, so many voices acting according to their agenda. When you listen to the comments given, you can tell who’s trying to help (objective) and who’s being an asshole (opinion). I will add that no one will be able to appeal to every reader. It’s impossible. Stop trying to. I need to tell myself that sometimes. Do I have a better way of going about teaching creative writing? It’s a work in progress (what isn’t?). I also don’t have time to get into that because I want to segway into my next point, the first of the two mentioned earlier.

To continue reading, click on “Part II” for the conclusion.

One Comment Add yours

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