Thursday, June 7, 2007

Should I let people review my work?

Question: I saw that several writers on writing said not to talk about what you’re writing to others because you will have already communicated your ideas and will lose the motivation to communicate. What about having people read your writing in progress?

Answer: Depends on how sensitive you are to criticism. I strongly advise that you tell your reviewers exactly what you want them to look for. If you want them to comment on your grammar and spelling, specify that that is what you want. If you want them to tell you when something is confusing, ask them to do so. If you can, ask them not to make any judgments about your writing, bad or good. I have a feeling that the reviewers will be happy not to have to make an adverse judgment. An open-ended question like, “What do you think?” is likely not to be helpful and could leave you wondering, “What did she mean when she said, ‘It’s okay.’ ”

Did you ever ask someone to read what you had written and the only comments were, “You misspelled [a certain word] or you have a [dangling modifier] in this sentence?” Never a comment about the ideas that you had tried so hard to express! Infuriating!

Before I submitted my first professional article, I asked my wife to read it over. She started to read. Then she turned the pages to see how many there were. Then she quickly skimmed the pages, obviously not reading them. Finally, she handed them back to me. The article was designed for elementary teachers and she was an elementary teacher. Her whole attitude told me she was bored by what I had written. “Why didn’t you read it?” I asked, storm clouds gathering on my brow. "You’re an elementary teacher.”

“It’s for people much smarter than I am,” she said.

“All right!” I said angrily. “I’m going to send it in in spite of your opinion.”

Of course, she was right. The article came back shredded. The editor did offer some advice and promised to look at it again after I had revised it. At the same time, I had to admit to my wife that her reaction to my writing was accurate. “I need to have you go over my writing,” I said, “but I bruise easily and we need to find some way to make your criticism more helpful.”

We finally agreed that she would make no judgments about whether she thought my articles were good or bad and would simply put question marks next to any ideas that confused her. The key was not to make judgments. When I saw the question marks, I rewrote in order to clarify my meaning.

Question marks. The tone was neutral. I rewrote and clarified. She never said a word about spelling or grammar because I had asked her not to. I was interested in meaning and that is what she read for. I would take care of the grammar and spelling when I wrote my final, publishable copy. My rewritten article was published.

So my wife and I had learned the following: don’t make judgments. Don’t point out grammar and spelling mistakes. She simply put question marks where she did not understand. Those question marks were crucial to my writing clearly.

My advice: tell your reviewers what you want them to look for.

All the best. RayS.

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