Tuesday, 28 July 2009

EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. THEN EDIT AGAIN.

I just came across this very interesting piece by Jenny Diski in the Guardian.

In short, she was asked to guest edit a student literary magazine, and then the student editors disagreed with her editorial judgement. They didn't like the fact that she didn't effuse when she didn't think the pieces deserved to be effused over. They appear to have found her attitude of honesty to be at odds with their aim to make the magazine "an encouraging platform for new and developing student writers".

Those of us who want to be good writers, as good as we can possibly be, must be strong enough to allow (in fact welcome) professionals to judge our work. If we don't open ourselves to the notion that our work is not perfect, or is not even as good*** as it could be, then we don't deserve to improve. Or be published. Taking criticism is not easy, and I'm not saying we should always agree with it,. but we have to be open to it.

(*** corrected thanks to BuffyS's superior editing skills - but I'm not paying you BuffyS!!)

In primary school you might expect to be told you're doing brilliantly when you're not (though I question whether that's a good idea either ...) but by the time we're adults we have to face up to our short-comings.

Critique groups and writing groups are also often guilty of over-effusing and under-criticising; partly because when someone delivers negative crits, all hell breaks lose and the fall-out from deflated egos can be ugly to watch. So, if you can't take criticism in public, don't be published, because you'll sure as hell get it once you are. Instead, either find a trusted person and listen to that person's opinions or learn to edit your own work to within an inch of perfection. That inch is as close as any of us can expect to get, but we have to try.

If you remember only one bit of Diski's excellent piece, remember this:
"What surprised me most was how many of the stories felt unfinished, as if I were reading a early draft. Problems with structure, sentences that need to be worked on, far too many easy clich├ęs not rejected - all of this normal for a first draft, even a second. For me writing is the editing. It's where the you make the story your own. Draft, redraft, let the thing sit, and then consider it again, read closely, carefully, cut away everything that you haven't properly thought through, and some things that you have."

It just about sums it up. Accept nothing less from yourself than intended perfection, even if perfection is rarely actually achievable.

26 comments:

catdownunder said...

But students know 'everything'! The older I get, the less I know. I find it very, very hard to 'know my writing'. It is excellent advice - but how many of us like to be criticised?

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh, I agree - none of us likes to be criticised negatively. And when we get panned by someone whose view we don't respect, that's damned irritating. But if we're going to put our work "out there" we have to learn whose opinion we do respect, and go with it. Otherwise, we either won't be published or we'll be published to public panning from those whose view we respect. Which would be horrible!

vicariousrising said...

This is interesting because I just came out of a writers workshop in which the students were very critical, many in an unconstructive way. The teachers, who included Margot Livesey, Jim Sheperd and Amy Hempel, all gave criticism, but it was done in a manner that, I felt, aided in improving the stories. I do know that some of my classmates felt differently about how the instructors handled critiquing, however, and thought that things got out of hand in class with negativity.

My point is that sometimes people like to strike out with criticism for the sake of being negative. Sometimes the feedback is subjective and the reader might not truly have a better grasp of what should be done to fix the story. Writers need to be able to hear criticism and take a step back to evaluate it, but not panic and rip their own work to shreds based on a few nasty words from another critic.

Devan said...

I was asked to review a teen's book that had been written by an elderly gentleman and pretty clearly self-published. I got a girl within the book's target audience to help review it, as she was a more forgiving reader - but even so, the editor of my article (it was for an older people's writing group newsletter) asked me to take out any criticism, such as 'was let down by poor copy-editing' or that the girl had found the front cover unappealing. It felt cheap and dishonest to give that book a bland, positive review. I realise the group is more for mutual encouragement, but surely even those who write for a hobby would wish to improve?

Nicola Morgan said...

Vicariousrising - very good points. I think the art of good criticism is in trying to be as objective as possible (bearing in mind that it's never entirely so). And I quite agree about not panicking and ripping our work up after one negative crit. (As someone who's just seen an Amazon "reviewer" call my last book the worst book he/she had ever read, I especially agree!)

HelenMHunt said...

I'm about to embark on the major edit/rewrite of my novel, so this is timely advice for me. In a strange way I am looking forward to picking it all apart and identifying what's wrong with it so that, hopefully, I can put it right.

Nicola Morgan said...

Devan - very awkward, yes. I used to review for the Guardian but it tangled me up in all sorts of stresses about what was ok to say or not. I turned down reviewing a particular book that I thought was awful - I'd rather say nothing about a book I don't like, as I kind of assume I wasn't the target reader. The theoretical exception (for me) would be if a book was hyped and won loads of prizes and I thought there were much better books within the genre. But even then, i think I'd rather just stay quiet. Call me a wimp! As a published writer, you can also be accused of back-biting - which would be really annoying and something I'd never ever do. (I'd just quietly fume!)

BuffySquirrel said...

'..as could as could be...'? Yes, sorry, it's the editor in me! I've lost count of how many times I've typed the word I was thinking of instead of the word that was meant.

They actually sacked her after she'd done the work? wow! the nerve!

I would love someone to take my writing apart and tell me what I'm doing wrong, as I seem to have reached a plateau in what I can learn myself. But la :).

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks BuffyS - duly corrected!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good stuff, Nicola. I suppose the goal is to arrive at a point where you can be sufficiently self-critical when editing work. You need to become a strong enough writer to know how to improve your work. Getting to this stage isn't easy - a long apprenticeship should be expected (and welcomed).

You also learn (whether as part of a writing group or on a CW MA) whose criticism to trust and who is perhaps picking your piece apart for some ulterior motive. This (and reading) is the only way I know to become self-critical. I remember handing in peices of work to my tutor thinking, Ha, I've nailed this; it's gonna blow him away...only to be brought back down to earth, to learn that the voice slipped here and here, the ending lacked verisimilitude, the tension waned et al...

I like to think I'm a stronger writer as a result of years of criticism and learning to be hard on myself.

Sandra Patterson said...

Good post, Nicola. How many drafts do your books go through, by the way?
I'm currently doing a major revision after some editorial input which helped me see it in a whole new light. It is hard at first not to take criticism personally but it gets easier. Either that or I'm getting numb with old age. :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Sandra - how many drafts? Not sure if I can count that far! If you mean full scale drafts, as in a rewrite after my editor has ripped it up, then maybe only one. But the usual system for me would be: my first draft and my own personal second draft before showing her, then one more redraft after she's got back to me with suggested changes, then the redraft after she's gone over my changes, at which point we might call it copy-editing. Then there's my constant self-inflicted minor revisions. Then there's proof-reading.

But redrafts after editorial input that I relate to are a joy and every version is cleaner and better. Having to redraft something not know why would be horrible and likely to lead to disaster.

BuffySquirrel said...

Ah, we sqrls are used to being paid in compliments!

Weronika said...

Her experience is not at all unique, I don't think -- I've struggled with helping fellow writers and editors on student-type publications understand the meaning of good writing, and sometimes the message doesn't go through.

Thank you for the wise words, Nicola. Cheers!

Sally Zigmond said...

I've always been a huge fan of Jenny Diski's writing and am even more of a fan now. Her remark about some people's idea of finished work reading to her like a first draft is what I used to bang on about when I was an editor. (And still do.) Thanks for this, Nicola. One day the message might get through.

Alex said...

I found this piece really enlightening Nicola. I run a writers group (5 meetings in...) and there is a little difficulty in differentiating between genuine criticism, given with a view to improving a piece, and barbs from those who are a lot more pedantic and who pick away at faulty grammar, typos and occasional clunky prose.

All of the writers in the group are at different stages, and no two of us write similar things. Some are pretty close to submitting their work, some are writing just for their own pleasure while others are engaging in things for various reasons, be they therapeutic, cathartic or even just in curiosity about the urge to write.

We had a discussion tonight for example, where someone wrote a very moving and tender piece about their experience as a mental health professional, the essence of it being absolutely beautiful and which they wrote very quickly and without revisions, only for the grammar police to start destroying them for the grand total of two mistakes in a 2500 word piece.

A few group members have mentioned that they are now unsure about submitting their own work for critique as a public mauling may be a little tough to bear, particularly for the less experienced.

Tips on maintaning a happy medium would be most welcome.

Dreamstate said...

We shouldn't forget how revitalising criticism/editing can be!

After working on my novel to varying degrees for a decade and completing three edits, I was burnt out. I could no longer look at my sentences objectively. I sent 8 copies to friends/family/colleagues. As I waited for the verdict, I couldn't have felt more exposed than if I was walking down Princes Street naked.

But now the feedback is in. Every comment, whether I agree with it or not, has given me back that energy that started to flag with familiarity. I am back in that wonderful place of saying 'Oh, I could do this and then THIS happens! Perfect!'

The critique stage was harder than writing, but infinitely more rewarding because I was connecting both to the readers and my own creativity.

Nicola Morgan said...

Alex - I will definitely do a post about this in a few days. I've got some views and tips myself, but I also know someone who is very experienced in and positive about critique groups, and is a member of a v long-standing one, so i'll get some expert tips from her too.

Dreamstate - very inspiring and wise! Can I quote you in the blog post? I don't really need permission, but I'm asking anyway out of courtesy!

Tom - ditto.

This is clearly an important subject and one which we all identify with. Finding, trusting, taking and then adapting to criticism/feedback ... Holy grail?

Jane Eagland said...

I read Jenny Diski's piece and thought yes, YES!

But, as a newly published writer working on my second full-length novel, I have been shocked by how quickly the publisher wanted the new book. Last week I finished the first draft.It's taken eight months ( I know I'm slow) but I now have until next Friday ie two weeks to revise it... I'll have some time to rewrite it after the editor's comments ( two weeks she said, at first, but I've managed to get more time) but even so - this all seems horribly rushed to me and I fear it won't be as good as I'd like it to be. Frankly, I was naive about the commercial pressure of getting published.

I'm awed at how you produce a brilliant novel a year, Nicola!

BuffySquirrel said...

Probably the most important thing any writer can do is to say up front what kind of critique they're looking for.

While I was still active on various online workshops, I used to specify that I didn't want any grammar nits. Not every critiquer pays attention of course--some seem set in a groove where they do 'their' kind of critique regardless--but most will try to accommodate the writer's wishes.

Dreamstate said...

Nicola,of course you can quote me.

Tom, in one of my writers' groups, we put together some 'rules of constructive criticism' on hard copy and distributed them on occasion (particularly if someone new joined) so that the expectations were clear. Sometimes people need the obvious spelled out for them.

Sophie Playle said...

Here, here! Well said! I'll tweet this.

As a graduate fresh from a creative writing degree, I can say that I was very suprised at how much work was submitted to our seminars which read like first-drafts. I think most of them were. And about HALF of what was submitted didn't even have an ENDING. The writer asked the group to come up with ideas on how to finish the story. I did not partake in those discussions - the objective was to workshop work, not co-write it!

Nicola Morgan said...

jane, I do think it's unwise to be rushed. Do you know why this has come about? I assume they had a pub date in mind and had to work back from this. But ... this "deadline" - exactly how far away from pub date is it? My lovely publishers have developed a new unpleasant habit of wanting final delivery 16 months before publication. I think this is ridiculous. Has this happened to you too?

How do I write one novel a year? Anxiety, desperation and severe nagging!

All - this critique subject seems very thorny. I will get to work on the topic very soon!

Alex said...

Nicola - Many thanks in advance. That would be enormously helpful

BuffySquirrel & Dreamstate - the idea that writers could set out a series of requests for specific types of crit is so blndingly brilliant it should and will energise our entire group. In fact, it's so brilliant and obvious I'm ashamed I never thought of it myself.

God, I love this blog...

miriamruthross said...

I think all the points about editing and accepting criticism are very fair and in line with what should take place in the writing process.
At the same time, to play devil's advocate, I can completely understand why the students 'sacked' Diski. They should not have questioned her judgement over the pieces she wanted included but they had every right not to publish the introduction she had written. Why would anyone publish a foreword that is negative? If Diski felt that the writing was not up to scratch then she should have passed this criticism on to the students so that they could make improvements but she should not have expected the criticism to be published publicly. If she could not find positive comments for the writing she should have politely declined to write the foreword as the foreword in these circumstances is NOT a review but a chance to engage the reader positively with what they are about to read. Sadly, I think there has been some confusion between the roles of guest editor and reviewer, two very different things in my mind.

Nicola Morgan said...

miriamruthross - I do take your point. But wasn't talking about that aspect of the piece - I was only interested in how we take criticsm and how we improve. As far as the breakdown between JD and the student editors is concerned, yes, there's been some misunderstanding between them as to what was expected and needed.