Ways to Help a Fellow Writer with His/Her Work
I’m a big fan of writing workshops, whether formal ones with a teacher/instructor/leader or informal ones with just a group of writers who respect each other sharing work. The even simpler format is of course just trading work with a fellow writer one-on-one. In all cases, we’re reading as readers and as writers, hoping to offer the author a glimpse of what an outsider might experience on reading the story/poem/book, as well as some insider technical suggestions of what might improve it.
I took my first workshop in high school, the Writer’s Craft most people (in Ontario) took. And I’ve been workshopping one way or another ever since, in university and college classes, with friends and colleagues, and with the writer who is so conveniently located in my house (my husband).
It’s occurred to me that I’ve learned a lot about how to help another writer, both from trying to do so and from being helped by a lot of brilliant people. I’ve also given my share of useless advice—and been called on it—and spent a lot of time trying to decide why I perceive advice I’d been given to be useless.
Here is the result of that 18 years of struggle—tips for when you read a fellow wordsmith’s work and want help them make it better.
1. Give it your best reading time. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume most writers read a lot. If you’re like me, you squeeze it in whenever you can with the result that you read in a lot of different scenarios, some more or less conducive to deep and careful consideration of the text. I can got a lot read on the treadmill, but probably not give you a careful and considered analysis of it—on the other hand, on the subway I totally immerse myself. Who knows why, but I’m self-aware enough to realize there’s a difference in the quality of my attention in these scenarios, and when I’m trying to genuinely help someone, I schedule them into my best slot.
Even into grad school, there were still a couple workshoppers sitting on the floor outside the classroom frantically flipping pages. Once in a while, those folks had something relevant to say, but most of the time it was pretty inane and superficial (I love this character! This scene makes me sad.) I try to keep in mind that my colleague has trusted me with something very important to them, and that makes it important to me, too.
2. Understand the parameters of the work. It would be horribly embarrassing if you critiqued a friend’s poem as a sloppy sonnet but it was actually a perfect pantoum. Embarrassing but also unlikely—poets are pretty good about understanding each other’s formal goals. I feel like the ground is murkier in prose, and we end up critiquing a chapter of a novel because it doesn’t stand alone (but it was never meant to) or a work of genre fiction because it isn’t literary enough (so common). It’s important to get the author’s generic and formal goals up front and also to respect them—if someone wants to write Christian-space-ghost mystery, that is their prerogative, though if you feel you can’t support it you should probably shouldn’t be working with them. Some people are only comfortable critiquing within forms and genres they personally work in; some (me) are willing to try a more limited form of criticism (eg., “This is how I feel while reading this; this is what I think you mean”) on just about anything. It’s your call—but everybody gets to write whatever they want, no matter what. No fair telling the author they need to write a different book.
3. Read with a pen and note everything you feel/notice/consider as you read. Some people do not do this—they read as they would for pleasure, take no notes, but offer the author a general impression of how the book flowed and how they felt about it. This is valuable—indeed, it’s replication of what a real actual member-of-the-public reader would do—but it’s actually also something that a member of the public, or the author’s own family, can provide. I know a limited number of writers who are willing and able to detail why a sentence or a paragraph or a scene is not working, and how I might improve it. I want those insights myself, and as with most gift-giving, I try to offer what I want. I mark up everything from typos to big structural ideas (eg., You mention the theme of water at the end of the first two sections but not the third. Or I think the closing paragraph would work as an opening better than what you have now.)
4. Read for length and suggest cuts if needed, or even if just possible. This is one of the things they really do not teach in school/university writing workshops—everything is always about expanding upon, opening up, explaining, contextualizing, fleshing out. Which is valuable, especially with a lot of young and not-so-young writers (me) who have trouble distinguishing between what they know of the characters/situation and what is actually on the page. However, a lot us older, more experience writers can (sometimes) work a lot (but not all, never all) out for ourselves, but at the expense of writing that is a bit over-bloated. We are also more likely to be writing for publication and we want to hit certain word counts or limits. More importantly—most importantly—we do not want to bore readers. Writing workshops teach students to evaluate work on a sentence-by-sentence basis, which sneakily implies if a sentence is good—well-written, clear, interesting—it gets to stay. The problem is with multiple sentences that say the same or similar things, or say things that the reader doesn’t need to hear. Something I’ve learned through hard experience is that prose isn’t good if it is not tight, even if there’s not a bad sentence in the bunch. So I mark out the good sentences that can be spared, should the author wish.
5. Remember it’s all suggestions. Everyone has a different way of doing this, and when you know the author pretty well, you can dispense with some of the cushioning. I’ll often use question marks, or qualifying words, not to undercut my suggestions but to remind the writer that even if the problem I’ve identified strikes them too, there’s always more than one way to solve it. I take this, again, from my own weakness, in that I often see page markup as orders, and obey it blindly—or else feel overwhelmed if it it’s too much. Peppering the page with question marks and maybes is my way of trying to remind other writers that they don’t have to do anything I say. Of course, maybe most writers are stronger souls than I and you won’t have to do this much, but always wise to start gently.