Tag Archives: feedback

Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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Writing Coach Pickings

One of the most enjoyable paid jobs I’ve had was as a writing coach for university academics. And for more than a decade my job in the university also included helping students to express themselves in writing for their Masters or Doctoral degree. The bit I really enjoyed was when they began to see their writing taking shape. And although this was coaching in ‘academic’ writing the issues and challenges were much the same as for any writing. What follows are some pickings from the coaching.

Time

267 clockFinding adequate time to write is a very difficult issue for busy professionals. My students were writing up the research they had undertaken, for examination or publication. They frequently underestimated the time taken for the processes of planning and researching, analysis, working out what to say and how, and revision.

Students and colleagues frequently gave precedence to other aspects of their professional lives. They often said writing felt like an indulgence or selfish to focus on their writing. To help them reassess the place and role of writing in professional lives I often used this matrix developed from The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People by R. Stephen Covey. He called it a time management matrix (p151).

267 matrix

It is a quick and effective way to show that writing is important but frequently does not get done because it is not urgent, until that deadline looms. By setting the urgency alongside the importance of a task, it is easy to see why writing gets short shrift. But as Covey points out, in the cell * (not urgent but important) are many activities that are necessary for success, including professional development, planning, relationship building, recreation and writing.

In coaching sessions we would discuss how to carve out uninterrupted time to pay attention to the writing, or how to spending an hour or two every weekend on writing activities from the start of their university course.

The myths of academic writing

267 graduation

Students, and to a lesser extent university lecturers, approach what they called academic writing with all kinds of myths: you should use long words, complicated sentence structure, make frequent references to other people’s writing, and – above all – never refer to yourself in the first person. It seemed as though they did not read consciously, or never brought their critical faculties to bear on what they were reading. Clarity is the most important quality. But it is reached after a number of redrafts.

Starting

249 blank pages

If a writer is stuck about where to start, the advice is start where you feel most confident. Or start anywhere. If it’s a research paper then you will have a proposal, or outline that you have submitted, and this can be the framework for the report. You might tell the story of how you came to do the research. The word-processing function of all computers means that cutting and pasting is easy, as is adding bits and all revisions. Start!

The first draft

267 1st drAnother myth is that some people find writing easy and only need to do one draft. I think it helped writers to regard the first draft as a way to work out what they have to say. This first draft is the place to think about content, shape, the purpose and audience for the writing. The focus is on the writing. Later you can think about the reading.

 

Put the important bits first

Clarity in non-fiction often means putting the important bits up front: in the introduction, in the opening paragraph of each section and in the opening sentence of each paragraph. A useful strategy is to read through the first sentences to check if you get a good idea of what the paper or report is about.

Long sentences

Long sentences, with lots of subordinate clauses are usually not as clear as short ones. Consider writing two sentences.

There are cultural differences in writing. An Italian student had me quite confused when I read her drafts until she told me that in Italy she was encouraged to use very long sentences and to reveal the conclusions at the end of the paper.

71 Manuscript-Editing4

Feedback

There are different ways with feedback and this is what my fellow writer Eileen Carnell said about them in a post called Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016) 255. She was writing about feedback we sought when we were writing our next book, The New Age of Ageing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

I frequently used questions to help a novice writer think about their reader: What is the most important point in this section? Why are you telling us this? What else might cause the outcomes you are describing? And most often: SO WHAT? This last meant that the writer had implied the importance of what they were saying, but not yet shown how it connects to their main themes.

WIRMI

A very useful tool this, developed by my colleague and former co-author, Chris Watkins. WIRMI stands for What I Really Mean Is. It is used when the words are getting tangled, and it’s hard to sort out a sentence or a paragraph. You take your hands off the keyboard (or lay down your pen), sit back in your chair and say, ‘what I really mean is …’ and there they come: the words you need.

Taking Ownership

Many student writers feel apologetic, as though they should not really join the conversation with the elite. But I would encourage their confidence by reminding them that they knew more about their research focus than anyone else, they were in fact world experts. And I encouraged them to sit down and write a few sentences about why they are the best person to be writing this report.

Some pet hates

145 writing keyboard

Exclamation marks. These are often used to imply humour or irony, but without explanation.

Scare quotes. These are often used to imply a different voice, but can be misconstrued without the voice being named.

Capital letters for everything. British teachers often tend to give every school subject, the word school on all occasions, all roles within school and just about everything else a capital letter, as in The Senior Teacher from the Upper School was taking the History lesson.

Ending with a pithy quote from a respected writer instead of closing with their own voice.

Being asked how many references per page are required.

The best bit

On reflection I think there are two key aspects to being a writing coach:

  1. sitting next to the writer (figuratively perhaps) and helping them work out what they wanted to say and how,
  2. and acting as a reader, explaining my experience of reading their texts.

In practice these two aspects of the role are not distinguishable.

The best bit of being a writing coach was helping someone improve their writing and to see how to apply their learning to their future writing.

The next best thing was the learning I did, from figuring out how to help the writers. And I quite often sit back and say ‘What I really mean is …’

Related posts and books

Getting feedback to improve our writing on this blog in May 2016

10 things to do when you don’t know what to write in December 2013

Being a Writing Coach by Beth Miller on Women Writers, Women’s Books blog. She draws on the characteristics of coach in Cheers, is sympathetic and pragmatic and heading for the bar.

The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People (1992) by R. Stephen Covey, published by Simon & Schuster

Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge

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Getting feedback to improve our writing

Not all feedback helps to improve writing. Have you ever-experienced killer feedback? It’s the kind of feedback that makes you feel ashamed, humiliated and as if you wanted to put away the writing for ever. Everyone I know has received it at some stage. I remember the reviewer’s comment on an article I’d submitted to an academic journal. This was the sentence that did it: If the author aspires to an academic position they should learn how to reference. It was doubly killing as a) I was already a university lecturer and b) there was nothing wrong with the referencing. Nevertheless I abandoned the article on the spot.

Yet feedback can be very helpful. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing sought out readers to provide different types of feedback, and to learn from and improve our writing by taking their comments into account. Here are our reflections on our learning from this process.

243 New Age cover

Marianne Coleman says

We have asked for and received feedback throughout the writing of the book: right at the start on the proposal; on individual chapters and on the full draft.

It was really important to get feedback on the proposal. The publisher asked us to suggest suitable people to read our initial proposal so that they got a view on the viability of the book. That feedback was positive and constructive, and we took it into account when finalising the proposal, which was the initial skeleton of the book.

Throughout the course of the writing we were getting feedback from each other. For me the best thing about having co-authors has been the process of shaping the individual chapters and the book through the wonderful discussions we had each time we met. We also gave feedback to each other on draft chapters and that was incredibly useful. Obviously this can only work when you trust each other and can be honest, open and respectful of each other’s work and feelings.

In a wide-ranging book like ours, we covered areas where we were not necessarily fully expert and it was vital that we checked our facts with people who were. Their invaluable feedback enabled us to have confidence in what we were saying, but we found that we had to use our judgment about how much of their advice and how many of their suggestions to incorporate. Sometimes the sophistication and detail of their arguments were too much for the general nature of the book and more suitable for a thorough exploration of their particular area of expertise. This meant that sometimes after incorporating expert suggestions, they were trimmed back for the final draft.

A particularly useful feedback came from one of our readers at the point where we had a nearly complete draft. She came back with some vital over-arching comments including that we had not really established the standpoint from which we were speaking. This feedback made us think hard and helped us sharpen our thoughts and message for the final version.

The most recent feedback came in the form of editor’s queries. Although these tended to be mainly about consistency of spelling, punctuation and missing references, sometimes the editor has picked up a badly expressed thought that can be refined and improved for meaning.

But that is not the final feedback. That will come from our readers!

DSC00853.JPG

Eileen Carnell writes

What we know for sure is that feedback can help authors become much better writers. But asking for, writing and getting feedback can be a tricky business. The process can be emotional and needs to be done with care. Here are 7 important points about feedback.

  1. You have to trust the readers of your work.

You need to have a good relationship and be prepared for the experience to be reciprocal. You are asking people to be generous with their time and be encouraging while providing authentic critique. Providing effective feedback is a highly skilled process. It’s about providing information, not about giving advice.

  1. All information about your writing can be useful.

Information can vary from seemingly small technical suggestions to comments about the overarching themes, consistency of arguments, important missing elements and the value of the project.

  1. Information provided is for the writer to work with.

As one reader said: ‘… just things which would have made my own reading of it easier – for you to take or leave as you feel fit,’ indicating that he knew that the writers are decision makers, not passive recipients of the comments.

  1. It can be helpful to ask readers for specific information.

We were particularly keen to know whether the voices of the three different authors were knitted together across the book and were keen to know if male readers would feel included.

  1. Getting feedback can be an emotional process.

Constructive criticism from others may feel like a criticism of the person rather than a critique of the writing as Caroline suggests when talking about ‘killer’ feedback. This may be even more the case when writing fiction.

  1. It can be helpful to get feedback from people who don’t know much about the themes or who are not experienced writers themselves.

Non-experts may ask questions that indicate that further explanation is needed, whether the writing is clear and if the argument is consistent.

  1. There are different ways of relaying information about others’ writing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

255 Fbk for L cover

Caroline adds

On a writing course once, I was reminded that you cannot stand alongside everything you write and explain to the reader what they have not understood. In fact it is rare to receive comments directly about your writing. So when you get the chance, listen to the comments, take them into account and learn from them. You don’t have to agree or act on all of it. I try to remember this.

We would like to thanks the readers of the whole book who took on a huge, time-consuming task. We are very grateful for their generosity and expertise. We are also indebted to the many readers of individual chapters who made really helpful observations. Even though there were three of us writing this book getting feedback breaks the isolation of writing and it is really good to get a range of different perspectives.

Note: Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing a book. Earlier posts have included

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

A post focussing on relationships in the feedback process is Critique Etiquette: the Ultimate Guide for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman on Writers in the Storm blog in March 2015

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First Catch Your Publisher

One of the most stressful parts of writing for publication is finding a publisher. We have had good experiences such as being invited to write a book on a particular topic; and stressful ones, like having a first draft but no publisher.

243 New Age cover

I’m delighted to say that Policy Press took on The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, early in the writing process. Because of the tricky process we had been through – as Eileen explains – we were careful to target a publisher who would be interested in the book. They will be publishing it in September. We are very pleased that they have just been named the Independent Academic and Professional Publisher of the Year 2016.

I asked my two co-writers, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to say something about the process of finding a publisher.

Eileen begins with a ballad called

The long and winding road*

We’ve walked the road before

243 Retiring Lives coverAs experienced authors we set out on a new collaborative expedition. We knew we had a book that was prescient. Reviews of Retiring Lives, our work with retirees, our membership of a retiring group, all revealed a demand for a more in-depth account of the long and complex process of retiring.

We were confident, we knew how to write and knew how to submit proposals. We knew the terrain, we had the map and compass. We were excited about approaching publishers – starting with those who had published our work before. We studied their checklists and adapted every proposal. We analysed the competition, re-wrote the synopsis, submitted draft chapters and waited.

Don’t leave me standing here

We sent proposals to eight publishers. One problem is that you can only approach one at a time. We left an interval of a month between sending material and chasing up a response. ‘A wonderful idea for a book,’ they all agreed, ‘but not the sort of thing for us’.

After all these rejections, friends suggested approaching an agent. We contacted six. Same story: ‘Great idea, but not our area’.

During this 18-month period of contacting publishers and agents, we completed the first draft of the book and polished and burnished chapters.

And many times we’ve cried

To say we experienced ups and downs would be a massive understatement. But the good thing about writing collaboratively is that the highs and lows hit one or other of us at different times. After a rejection we soon felt hopeful and excited again when we approached someone new. We were convinced every time that this was going to be the one. Throughout this period of misery and elation we refined our chapters, found further research articles and redrafted.

Dead-ends and roundabouts

Then we thought of self-publishing and attended courses and workshops to help us down this avenue. While fascinating we were not convinced about this route.

The seventh agent said:

This book is so nearly finished why not send it directly to a publisher. Look for a different sort of publisher, one who had a good, changing list that appeals to the sort of readers you want to attract.

So we approached Guardian Books.

Your destination is on the left

The editor liked the book very much but said it needed EDGE! It would be a ‘trade book’, intended for general readership. So we rewrote the whole book to address the reader directly, became more informal and modified our referencing system. This was a major change for us. We submitted – with the required EDGE. But it still wasn’t edgy enough and we had to do it all over again.

Retiring with Attitude was published by Guardian Books in the summer of 2014 and was top of their best-selling chart for ten weeks.

What did we learn?

Never give up

Get a contract before doing so much writing

* with apologies to Lennon and McCartney

Marianne and Eileen in Caroline's kitchen in January 2015

Marianne and Eileen in Caroline’s kitchen in January 2015

And Marianne wrote this about the proposal for The New Age of Ageing we made to Policy Press:

Writing the proposal is the most important single step in writing a book

The time we spent talking about and polishing the proposal was time well spent. As we have moved ahead with the writing process we have checked back to the proposal many times. Looking at it now that the book is finished I think we remained true to the initial vision, although there has been quite a lot of re-arranging of chapters and their content. As one of the three authors, I have only been involved in writing non-fiction so what I have to say may not apply to fiction, but in my view, writing the proposal is the single most important step in producing a book.

When I look back on the notes that I took from our first meeting, the first word I wrote down is ‘purpose’. The notes that followed sketch out not only purpose, but also some of the key themes that have continued to dominate our thinking as we worked our way through the writing. The first draft of the proposal emerged from those notes. Although the key themes and purpose stayed largely the same, I lost count of the number of times the whole proposal was revised. At one of the early meetings we actually read the draft out loud, which turned out to be an excellent way of picking up half finished thoughts and unfortunate wording.

What does a proposal cover?

The suggestions of what to include vary a bit from one publisher to another but the main headings are pretty similar for all. In the case of Policy Press they are:

  • Title and sub-title (we will come back to this thorny issue in another post)
  • Synopsis and aims (250 words, five key factors in bullet points and five key words)
  • Background information (e.g. why did you want to write this book?)
  • Target audience
  • Competition

Trying to make our ideas fit those headings sharpened up the thinking wonderfully!

In addition publishers need some practical details including the estimated word count, an idea of the timetable to completion, names of referees and author CVs. Policy Press were also keen to have a sample chapter to send out to referees with the proposal.

It was great to get feedback after the proposal and chapters had been read by the referees and the editor. We revised the proposal in light of the comments and it was then sent on for a final decision about whether or not we got that vital contract.

While it is important to have a good, well though through proposal it doesn’t mean you have to stick to it rigidly when writing as other ideas may occur to you and through writing you may come to understand things differently. For example, we added the final chapter, which includes our vision.

Related posts

In March we posted about collaborative writing: One Book, Three Authors. This was reported on Policy Press’s blog.

In February we posted about a residential writing retreat: Writer’s Residential

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change is available to pre-order on the Policy Press website for £14.99 here.

In May we plan to write about getting and using feedback.

Over to you

What strategies can you recommend to find a publisher?

 

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How can writers learn from feedback?

It isn’t any old feedback on their texts that writers need. To be effective, to help the writer improve, feedback needs three qualities: first – to be timely (while the writer is still wrestling with the text); second, to be specific (vague comments lead nowhere) and third to address their needs. The writer can indicate where help is needed, such as description, or pace or even the dreaded ‘show not tell’.

59SteeringTheCraft

In a writing group the members have to agree practices and to be open about their beliefs or personal relationships will quickly deteriorate. In one group I belong to we do not allow each other to apologise for our writing. It’s not that we are unsympathetic to lack of time, or difficulty or the challenges of a novice, say. Rather, we have agreed that as readers of a text in normal circumstances we would not know about the circumstances in which it was written. It doesn’t help to know that the writer intended to give it another polish before they released it.

I offer the following guidelines based on discussion in a new group of writers, my own experiences and those of other writers (including in the books mentioned at the end of this post).

Guidelines for the writer receiving spoken feedback:

  1. You could specify in advance the aspects on which you want feedback.
  2. Be SILENT (ie don’t respond as you listen. This is very hard to do.)
  3. Make notes
  4. Respect the work done by your readers
  5. Review, revise and rewrite later, having considered all comments.

Points #1, 4 and 5 apply to feedback that is spoken or written.

Generally in the groups I belong to, we prefer to receive the extract in advance. The idea is that considered responses are likely to be more useful than those following a first reading, which is often out loud. Email, blogs and websites are a godsend for this.

Remember: You don’t have to take everything on board. The feedback is potentially very valuable because your writing eventually has to stand without you to defend or explain it, and you do not get many opportunities to discover how your writing has been received.

Guidelines for the writer giving feedback:

  1. Focus on the manuscript NOT the writer, but take care to be careful of writers’ feelings, for example of first time writers who may feel very vulnerable exposing their writing to others. This is a particular challenge with memoir or life writing.
  2. Be brief
  3. Nitpicks (spellings, typos, punctuations etc) should be written not spoken
  4. Tell the writer where you were confused, surprised, annoyed or delighted, which parts you liked, what worked for you and what didn’t. And why.
  5. Be wary of suggesting ways to fix problems. It’s not your writing.

One member of our new group has experience of an on-line critique group. It demanded of its participants that they commit to providing some feedback at least once a week. The site had some categories for structuring the feedback on novels and short stories:

Setting – providing a summary helps the writer see what made an impression, what was significant to readers.

Characters – comments on believability, depth, development and progress can be helpful.

Plot – is it moving forward?

Referencing – identifying the aspects that require previous reading of other parts of the text

Grammar and spelling

Personal opinion.

Remember: The task is not to judge the work, but to give the writer insight into the effects of their writing using words and phrases such as  ‘because’ or ‘I wonder…’ and ‘I notice that …’.

It sometimes seems to me that the giver of feedback learns more about writing than the receiver. It certainly requires more skill.

 

Some useful books:

Ursula K Le Guin, Steering the Craft (1998) The guidelines were adapted from this book.

Squaw Valley Community, Writers Workshop in a Book (2007)

Julia Bell & Paul Magrs, The Creative Writing Coursebook (2001)

Becky Levine, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (2010)

I originally got some notes together for the Totnes Library Writing Group. Thanks to the members for the discussion and for enhancing my understanding of feedback.

Do you agree with the guidelines? How is it possible to stay silent? How does it work in your writing group? Let us know in the comments box below.

 

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