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Write, revise, repeat

May 31, 2009

An experimental post today, as the main body of it is audio, rather than text. To download the audio file directly, go to this link:

http://www.paulanderson.org.uk/podcasts/WAEp001.mp3

Or to subscribe in iTunes, go here:

http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=264970832

This is an experiment in the format for my Sunday column, so feedback will be appreciated. There is a post here, which should largely stand on it’s own (which will be cross-posted on my own site) and there will be a podcast post which will also stand alone, but hopefully they will complement each other. You are free to read the post here alone, listen to the audio alone, or do both. Let me know what you think of this idea, and if it proves popular, I’ll repeat it in future.

At the start of this year I entered the Kingston Readers Festival Micro Story Competition 2009. Sadly, my story was not shortlisted, so I present it today (in audio) as an example of redrafting and critique.

The competition sought entries of 500 words or less. This sounds easy, until you try to craft a complete story in under 500 words. My first full draft, which you’ll hear in the audio, came in at 554 words. The final entered story was 494 words.

I have had writing critiqued before. I have redrafted writing. But never before has any of my writing undergone such a focused and repeated draft, critique, revise cycle. Including the final version, there were six full drafts, and numerous intermediate stages. I showed the story to six different people, three of whom were providing full critiques. It was painful, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding.

Time and again I had to remind myself that any comments on the quality of the story were not slights against me personally. I knew this, yet each suggested revision, each instance of “this doesn’t work” cut me. And I could just about guarantee that for every change I made, for every two people that liked it, one would hate it. President Roosevelt said “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, and this was certainly the case here. Thankfully I could please two-thirds of the people most of the time, so took that as a win.

Putting your work out there for review and critique is something writers shy away from when they are starting out. They fear harsh words, the mean voices of jealousy which intone the dreaded but vague verdict – “I don’t like it”. Such a personal attack on your work, a cherished part of you, is intolerable. So the words go unread, the story sits in a drawer, and the writer never improves.

In truth, you will not grow as a writer unless you allow your work to be critiqued, otherwise you will never learn what works, what doesn’t, where your strengths and weaknesses are etc. If fear of criticism puts you off, then lock your pen and paper in the drawer and give up now, because nobody, be they just starting, or a New York Times bestseller, is immune from criticism. You will never please every ready. But the more you write, the more you work on your craft, allowing your work to be read, critiqued, then revised, the more people you will be able to please.

As you do this, you will learn to distinguish constructive criticism, fairly given, from petty insults and harsh words. Fair criticism must never be feared. It must be embraced, utilised, and owned. It strengthens your skills as a writer, and means that when you do encounter those mean voices, you can judge whether there is merit to their words.

Inevitably, you will find those words have no merit at all.

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Today’s post was brought to you, late, by Virgin Media, Britain’s slowest and least reliable internet service provider. When you need your connection to cut out at the most inconvenient moment, and if you want broadband speeds that are slower than dial-up, think Virgin Media…
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5 Comments
  1. May 31, 2009 9:35 pm

    Paul,

    We’ll get the obvious stuff out of the way first, myself and my fiancĂ©e (who was sitting next to me as I listened to your podcast) got a kick out of hearing you for the first time—and she got the giggles when you said “X-Y-Zed”.

    Now that that’s out of the way, I thought you did an excellent job of making both posts complimentary but not dependent on each other.

    Did you write the podcast separately and work from a script or was that off the cuff?

  2. May 31, 2009 9:58 pm

    I’m yet to listen to the podcasts … but having been part of your critiquing circle for this short story Paul … I know I grew as a writer through the process of scrutinising and providing feedback for your work.

    My admiration for you as a writer also grew – as you juggled differing demands and while you say that you only achieved the 2/3rds happy vote – I beg to differ. I actually believe you did a brilliant job of bringing the three differing opinions of your work together in a humble and patient manner. And I know Dave looking over the final draft really loved it.

    I remember a lady once telling me my truth was formed but had yet to be tempered … like crafting a sword but having yet to throw it into the fire to harden it. I think this short story really helped to harden you as a writer in all the right ways Paul. Now off to listen to the story :)

  3. May 31, 2009 11:06 pm

    I think the Virgin model is similar out here – my mobile phone doesn’t work in my house, and we cannot get Virgin internet connection ( despite living in the middle of Brisbane.)

    Thank you for posting this – I am sure regular readers will be delighted to hear your voice – its richness, coupled with your incredible storytelling ability will prove more than popular.

    I want to also thank you – truly, for opening yourself personally and professionally to not only myself, but to other writers and readers within this website.

    Critiques are very difficult to do – especially if the other writer is a good friend or one you have enormous respect for. The feelings of inadequacy of your own work, comparisons of talent and fear of personal attack or criticism is not limited the writer whose work is being critiqued – its a two way street. It takes a special professional and personal relationship with respect and openness to ‘get over yourself’ – for both writers in order for valuable feedback to be given and taken.

    thank you again for the opportunity to be part of your writing journey – and for posting this podcast.

  4. June 1, 2009 2:36 pm

    Paul,

    I love, love, LOVE the podcast!!! What an excellent idea! But then, I’m a big fan of video/audio.

    LOVE your accent! I’m looking forward to many, many more podcasts.

    Good job!

  5. June 1, 2009 3:02 pm

    Well, I think that was a succesful experiment!

    I usually work from a vague plan in my head of what I want to say, but mostly I wing it – I think this came in at 16 minutes or so, but the original was closer to 30 minutes – lots of stuff that needed cutting out, repetition, “ummms”, stumbling over words etc. The only things actually written down and read from this time were the story drafts.

    On the topic, I’m now on the other side of the story, having to critique the work of others, which is a daunting task. There are the odd doubts that arise and keep me thinking “how can I presume to judge the work of others?”

    It’s a steep learning curve, but one that I’m glad to be on.

    Oh, and thanks for handling the bookmarking code for me Dale!

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