A newer three R’s for writing: Reject, revise, and repeat

Chicago World's Fair sky ride 2 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Sky ride, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933

Some literary magazines offer a few sentences of feedback if you pay a couple of dollars more for your submissions. A few sentences or a paragraph or two is what you get—not a full critique.

While a full critique can cost hundreds of dollars, a couple of dollars seems worthwhile to get something beyond the generic rejection of “doesn’t fit our needs,” “wasn’t right for us,” “unable to accept,” “not selected for publication,” and so on.

Note: On Submittable.com, you can search using the words feedback or comment to get a list of current submission opportunities that have a feedback option.

Nonetheless, feedback isn’t always easy to take. Here’s an excerpt from comments I received recently:

I liked this story, but a good amount happens here that doesn’t move the story forward. Some of it is in extraneous description; some of it is action. Reading these bits, I can see how they are good writing, but they don’t quite contribute to the story, which bogs down the reading experience overall.

This feedback applied to a short-short story of about 700 words. My first reaction was, “If you took out the description and the action, what would be left?” But then, the feedback only referred to “extraneous” description and “some” action. Where was it?

I reread the story and let it sit for a week. For me, time is an important revision tool. You come back to a piece with many assumptions forgotten, much like a new reader. More than once, I’ve reread a rejected manuscript and thought, “Rightly so.” Problems jumped out at me, but this short-short wasn’t one of those.

Having been taught to show not tell, I looked at elements in the story that were supposed to show. What I was showing didn’t seem to be coming across, if the feedback was any indication. I brought back a few of the story elements I had cut earlier. This also involved reordering some material to smooth progressions and connections. I had waffled over much of this earlier in the drafting process and had opted for a more streamlined piece, leaving much lurking but unsaid. Now, I was putting some of these things back in.

The story is resting again, like dough. We’ll see what rises with the next rereading, as well as the next steps in the submission/feedback process. Maybe these revisions have gone too far, and I’ll need to dial them back again. We’ll see.

Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

Postcard Florida lily pond 19_0924b - Copy

Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.

Worst Writing Group Ever

mine postcard2

Vintage postcard: Dumping ore into a pocket at a shaft station, Cliff Copper Mine near Phoenix

For the past decade or so my writing group has, on average, taken months to get back to me. In a couple cases it has taken them more than a year. Good turnaround is about six to eight weeks.

When they do respond it has usually been brief and vague. These may sound familiar:

  • “After careful consideration, we’re sorry to report…”
  • “We enjoyed reading it, and though it doesn’t quite…”
  • “We read your submission carefully and regret…”

Time

A benefit of continuing with this group has been time:

  • Time for my own work to become distant enough that I can read it like a laser-eyed stranger
  • Time for me to read other writers (both successful and less so)
  • Time to further develop the craft of revision, storytelling, structure, line, and so much more

Encouragement

Another benefit has been encouragement, especially when editors include personalized notes, more detailed rejections, or invitations to submit to them again.

Nonetheless, I still had a strong reaction when I read the following quote in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer:

“[G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, [said an assistant editor at The Missouri Review], when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.”

Friedman went on to describe the social media response to the original blog post, “Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good” by Michael Nye. “His post provoked a significant backlash from writers who felt tired of banging their heads against the wall—pursuing success within a system that never seemed to work that well in the first place,” Friedman wrote.

While rejections no longer sting as much as they used to, I connected to this conversation and not just because I have rejections from TMR dating back to 2002.

Paying for feedback

I’ve found a couple bright spots. One is the “in progress” designator in Submittable, which may indicate when my work has made it past the first readers.

A larger one is the feedback option offered by some publications, such as Tahoma Literary Review. Sometimes it’s a small fee for a few paragraphs of commentary. Other times it’s a lot more money for an in-depth critique. I’ve paid for an in-depth review on a project that was especially important to me through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Continuing Studies. Faculty member Christine DeSmet offered concrete feedback beyond what I’ve received from family readers and writer friends, who might have been concerned about hurting my feelings.

Persistence

One thing my continued participation in this “writing group” shows is persistence. In the face of years of rejection, I continue.

Review of ProWritingAid editing app: Calling in reinforcements

Royal Canadian Mounted Police 18_0828b

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

I’ve tested ProWritingAid, an online editing app, on nonfiction and fiction projects, and I’ve had positive results both times. I started out using the free version, which limited me to examining 500 words at a time. This meant one of my projects, at over 5,000 words, needed to be broken into 10-plus pieces.

Of the report options and filter criteria available, the following led to the most useful revision work for me:

Style—Flagged passive and hidden verbs, long subordinate clauses, and repeated sentence starts.

Overused—Noted my tendency to start sentences with –ing verbs, as in: cleaning, frowning, sitting, turning, panting, and so on. Also, reported that my writing was high on to-be verbs (was/were).

Readability—Designated paragraphs as “easy,” “slightly difficult,” or “very difficult.” I looked closely at sections underlined in red, meaning “very difficult.” As a result, I saw ways to break sentences and weed out extraneous material.

Diction—Highlighted vague and abstract words. For example, I used “would” and “about” in places calling for more precise wording.

Repeats—Underlined phrases that recur. For instance, how had I missed the repetition of the eight-word phrase “I got down on my hands and knees”? The report also identified repeats in shorter word groupings.

ProWritingAid isn’t a substitute for a human writer/editor. However, in the often solitary work of writing, revising, and editing, using the app felt like calling in reinforcements.

The app helped me focus on slow or awkward sections of my writing. The result: I trimmed several hundred words from my nonfiction project while making the language and sentences more precise. I had a similar experience when using the editing tool on a fiction project.

Note: Soon after trying the free version, I received a 50 percent discount offer from the Writer’s Digest free weekly enewsletter. I liked the app, especially with the discount, so I paid for premium access.

P.S. Just for grins, I ran a poem through ProWritingAid. The summary report gave me my first 100 percent score. Among the high points were that my vocabulary was more “dynamic” than 96 percent of the software’s users. At same time, my sentence variety was assessed as being “very low” because I used too many short sentences.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were:

 

The road to revision is paved with MP3 files

microphone (249x400)There’s nothing like reading a short story aloud, especially while recording it, to uncover repetitions, poor word choices, flat dialogue, and the inevitable paragraph- and sentence-level glitches.

However, the need to read aloud to create an MP3 file for an online literary magazine or podcast raises the stakes on this process. What had been a useful tool for revision—one I use and recommend to students—can become something people might actually hear.

My technical skills, my reading, and my story needed to develop. Fast.

Tech

  • Software—I had been directed to a download site for Audacity, the free open source audio recording/editing program from SourceForge. After some research, I found a link to a more up to date version of the Audacity program that was supposed to have addressed earlier concerns about malware.
  • Microphone—After a trial run, I discovered that the microphone in my laptop was not up to the task. What had worked for Skype calls and a YouTube video, now created audio files filled with fan noise and pops from the processor. Solutions included:
    • Switching to Airplane Mode to pause as many of my computer’s background functions as possible.
    • Investing in a USB microphone that was good enough but wasn’t professional level, which could easily top $200. (I found an Amazon bestseller for about $25.)
    • Realizing that, in addition to enabling the plug-and-play USB microphone, I needed to manually disable the internal microphone, which was still picking up processor noise.
  • MP3 conversion—While exporting my audacity project to a MP3 file, I found that I needed an extension called LAME, which involved more research to find a safe-ish download.

Reading

  • Use a tablet—To avoid recording the rustling of turning pages, I sent my story in a pdf file to my tablet to scroll quietly through as I read. (I also tried dual monitors, but the computer and tablet combo seemed to work more smoothly.)
  • Pause strategically—My story took about 25 minutes to read. I’d seen recommendations and tutorials about how to edit an audio file, but the terminology and controls were so new to me that the learning curve was steep and frustrating. Pausing the recording after a glitch, listening to and deleting the glitch, and then re-recording seemed to work best for me. Full sentences or paragraphs worked best for stopping and starting points.
  • Ditch the mouse—Mouse clicks can sound inordinately loud in an audio file. Using the laptop touch pad was quieter and easier, especially when moving back and forth between the manuscript scrolling on the tablet and the Audacity controls on the laptop.

Through this trial-and-error process, I read my short story aloud so many times, that I stopped seeing revisions to make…for now. The acting part of story narration still eludes me—painfully so. Nonetheless, now I have an audio file and a freshly revised story. On to the next chapter.