It Was All About Me

Post Date: June 4th, 2009

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 121, 469. 3781 words added.

Page Count for the novel: 443

You know you’re in the presence of a great teacher when she cares more about your work than she does herself.

A local author and teacher, Ruth Moose, just returned a manuscript to me, and her comments were all about my story. You’d think it would be an obvious of the profession, giving full attention to the student’s work, but as proven through various cry-tiques I’ve received before, this approach is not as common as one would like. In fact, I’ve seen too many egos drive critiques, where the critic makes it all about them, almost like a bodybuilder’s display of obscene muscle, as in, “How big am I?” Not so helpful when your work needs serious revision.

What did Ruth do that made her critique so helpful and effective? I’ve made a list of what we should all expect from an editor and what we should give if we dare to take up the editorial business:

She was glad to be doing her job. Joyful, even. Her comments celebrated my work’s victories, whether it was a spontaneous comment in the margin, “I love this!” to a celebration of the story’s effective ending.

She gave specific feedback. She pinpointed the structural areas of the story (exposition, climax) where work was needed and challenged my characterization (back story, names, choices). The specific feedback took the form of both line edits and a summative letter. Her line edits rewrote sections or inserted suggestions and questions, working in concert with the letter where she waxed philosophical. “Opening has so much to do in a short space. Reader has to get comfortable where they are, who is telling this story, etc. (An aside. John Gardner said the writer has to build a nest for the reader to come live in for a little while.)” The test of such feedback is seeing how the writer responds, and my response was to study my exposition and annotate with “BUILD A NEST” and keep asking myself how I’m doing or not doing that.

She inspired me. If after a critique you find yourself paraphrasing, translating, and applying your critic’s suggestions, then you are inspired. The sleeves are rolling up, the hands are getting dirty again, and the story is coming alive for you again. Obviously, the writer must be the one to bring a full dose of motivation — have none, and no matter how brilliant the editor, nothing shall get done — but great feedback does fan the flames of motivation. I am back at this manuscript again, having taken it through another draft since she looked at it and probably at least one or two more before I submit again.

She put her hands in the clay and helped wrestle with the problem of sculpting. An intentional metaphor, as a lot of editors refuse to get their hands dirty with the true challenge of editorial work. Take her feedback on the climax of my story: “We (the reader) really need more of an impact when R. overhears D.’s phone conversation. (Such a modern-day Hardy device as in the misplaced or lost letter that appears at the opportune time.) I wish there was another way to let her discover this affair. Some original way. I just don’t know what. But…I do know R. needs to react more when she learns this. Stops stock still. Leans against he wall, thinks Lord this can’t be true. My best friend?” This is only part of a long paragraph I received regarding the climax, and you see how the editor digs in and admits there’s a problem and some unresolved issues, one that only I can solve. Even as I reread this feedback, I’m getting an idea of how to rewrite that scene.

She made her suggestions from a place of excitement, not niggardly, jealous hunting for pecadilloes. Believe me, I’m often the subject of someone’s critique, coming from a soul who is darkened by a lack of creative effort. (If you know Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, then you know what a shadow artist is — a person who isn’t following an artistic path and souring because of that every minute. If she sees someone else creating, she hates it and plays the Destroyer.) Each time this person sees my work, she hunts hard for something wrong. Any celebration is couched with, “Well, you know, you missed a spot.” It’s never helpful feedback, inspiring thoughtful dialogue, but rather, “You thought you were good, but let me take you down a peg since I am busy not creating.” (Ironically, this person can’t see just how jealous she is, and perceives that she is tremendously helpful, but every time she deals with others, she leaves them feeling robbed of joy.)

My novel’s critic came from the same place of unhelpful competition. This sensibility and approach is all felt rather than seen. It may be evidenced in wording or focus, but overall, you know when you are in the presence of someone who truly appreciates your effort and offers suggestions in the spirit of joy.

She knew her stuff. This author had not only taught for years but was trained by some of the best. She could talk Gardner and Hardy. She had enough expertise in educating that she knew when to admit “I don’t know” and step back without defensiveness to let me solve the story’s problems. It’s important that we know some things about an editor before we sign on: college degree, teaching experience, and body of work. This editor had all of the above and more. A reference doesn’t hurt, either. I had testimony of how inspired and encouraged someone else was by her teaching.

And I do mean teaching. In my view, editing is teaching. Assuming a writer wants to improve, the editor should act like the coach on the sidelines, shouting the edits when the player screws up but with caring and concern. The editor is not the writer or the rewriter, but the one who has the view of the whole field and the various strategies for executing the plays. Sometimes she has to shout to get the player’s attention.

In the midst of a narcissism epidemic, this culture suffering from a plethora of all-about-me’ers, perhaps I should hesitate from saying “It Was All About Me.” but as a long-time teacher, I always tried to remember that I was coach, facilitator, and background to the students on my stage. I was not the hero or the protagonist. When this editor critiqued my work, she did not “hold forth” but instead held my work up under the hot lamp and gave a fair, clean, sunlit response.

It’s not often that post-critique one feels content and inspired all at once. I’m ready to face the lions of rejection that await this story. I know it’s growing into something great, and that’s because I’ve had some real help along the way.

Writing Goal: My ultimate aim: 150,000 – 170,000 words and a complete fourth draft ready for hard-copy editing by the time of an August retreat. At that point I’ll consider the novel in a few days, as if I were a first-time reader, and hopefully get a glimpse of it as a whole. I am also revising a short story, the one Ruth edited.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Prompt for All Ages:

What makes a great teacher? Describe a great teacher you know or have known. Tell this person specifically what makes her teaching great.

Write this person a thank you letter.


  1. bobmust says:

    I”m right with you regarding the “shadow artist.” Even in writing classes in which the participants are supposed to know their way around the written word and storytelling, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen these people rave on about totally inconsequential matters: minor punctuation, an adverb or adjective used, pronouns in general. And on and on.
    And regarding the narcissism of writing, participants I’ve observed invariably want to project their preferences and stylistic quirks on one another. Rarely do I see these “writers” look at a manuscript as a piece of art unique to the author.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Bob,

    That’s why I’m a bit loathe to step into an MFA program right now. Not because there aren’t great teachers and classmates awaiting me, but it does take a special teacher to direct the negativity that spews from competitive participants who don’t think of craft but like you say, from their own picayune preferences. I think everyone should be forced to read Gardner’s, Baxter’s, and L’Engle’s meditations on the craft before entering a writing workshop, and then should take an exam in “how to critique.” There should be a whole list of “don’t say this in a critique” tips.

    So much about a person’s attitude and spirit comes through in a critique. Is the person excited to see all his/her fellow authors succeed? It shows in a response to writing. If a person is jealous, or feels his/her work is superior, or hopes others fail, that comes through. It takes a master teacher to stop the avalanche of “attitude” from fellow writers that undermines so many workshops.

    — Lyn

  3. bobmust says:

    All of which begs the question: When are we able to get by without even the best of master teachers and skilled classmates? Is it by publication? Seeing your own concerns and solutions to your work in your critique classmates? Just knowing…?