On Writing Critique: Know Your Writer

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

I made a big mistake a few weeks ago in my approach to a piece of writing critique. I am always honored when asked to read something and offer my thoughts. My goal is not only to help the writer say what they want in the best way, but to leave them feeling encouraged. In this instance, the result was opposite of what I intended and it’s because I didn’t consider closely enough the situation of the person asking for my input.

I’ve been involved in creative writing groups for a couple of decades, both giving and receiving critique. The groups I’m in now consist of members who really do root for each other and offer great support. But that support is underpinned by certain mutual understandings, including the fact that we all realize your creative baby is your baby. When I return a piece of writing with a bevy of comments, I’m in no way saying I believe the author should adopt every one of them. It’s much more in the spirit of, “Here are some things to consider. Based on your own intention and creative vision, I’m sure you’ll know which of my suggestions will work for you and which to ignore.”

Here’s a common request from my creative writing buddies: “I’m way over the word count limit I need to meet. Please help me find places I can trim.” I’ve sent this plea out myself. When given this focus, I look for every possible opportunity to discard words and offer up my list as a sort of restaurant menu. Here are options I can offer. Choose what you want.

When a friend who doesn’t do a lot of creative writing, much less participate in critique groups, asked me to look over a speech she needed to give because it was longer than allowed, I took my usual approach, giving her as many options as possible so she could figure out which ones worked best for her. It turns out I needed someone to critique my critique method. I should have thought more about her lack of experience with receiving this kind of feedback. I hurt her feelings because she took the large number of comments as an indication that I thought her writing was truly terrible. In fact, I thought it was a great speech and wished she could give the whole thing. I was only trying to help her fit it into the allotted time.

I missed the most important element of constructive criticism, which is a close look at the person on the receiving end. In hindsight, I see I could have taken the time to explain beforehand what I’ve said here, that my suggestion were for changes I thought she could make, not necessarily changes she should make. Saying it right up front would have given her a lens with which to view my comments the way I intended them. Trying to deliver this information later wasn’t the same. It sounded like backpedaling. She couldn’t unsee what had already imprinted itself on her mind.

Hurting feelings is my least favorite thing in the world to do. I will fret over this longer than she will, I’m sure. But I learned an important lesson that I hope will help the next person who asks for my feedback on their writing.

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Two Accomplishments: Union! and The Count of Monte Cristo

Star Trek DS9 characters
Quark’s workers unionize on Star Trek, Deep Space 9

I see I haven’t checked in here for a while. I’ve been a little busy helping to organize a union and reading The Count of Monte Cristo, both of which turned out to be huge time commitments. The two efforts came to fruition within a couple of days of each other. Saturday I finished Alexandre Dumas’ 117-chapter epic tale, and on Monday the state of Missouri announced the results of our union election, which we won with 65% yes votes.

Both efforts held surprises for me. Union organizing — gaining big new insights into people I thought I knew. I saw aspects and layers previously hidden to me, most of them good and inspiring, with a small handful of disappointments. The number of hours spent looking at spreadsheets was not something I had anticipated. And I didn’t do nearly as much of the work as some of my colleagues, bless them. Count of Monte Cristo — a lot more drug use than I expected. The psychedelic 1970s had nothing on the 1800s, it seems. There were some truly trippy scenes. Ease up on the hashish, there. Also, a young, early nineteenth century female character who wished to avoid marriage and live independently.

Of course, I was also working both of my paying jobs during this time. So all of this labor movement activity and classics reading led to late nights, with Zoom meetings followed by just another chapter or two. I honestly don’t know how anyone ever runs for office. The stress of campaign-type activities nearly did this introvert in. Often, after yet another meeting, followed by phone calls (shudder) I’d promised to make, or an elaborately-arranged meeting with someone who wanted to sign a union card without being seen to do so, I found myself with an actual need to lose myself in the drama and tension of a fictional character’s story. It was somehow cathartic to transfer the intensity of my feelings into the life and perils and plots of Edmond Dantes, wrongly imprisoned, losing everyone and everything he loved, seeking revenge but unexpectedly finding his heart warring with itself in his resolve.

I’m a different person than I was at the beginning of 2022. This has been the year I determined to pursue some long overdue goals – getting a seat at the table in my workplace and finally pulling The Count from it’s decades-long spot on my to-be-read list. I’m a union woman now, and someone who can speak with knowledge about a Dumas classic.

We’ve won our election, but there’s still organizing to do around electing officers, contract negotiations, etc. And there are enough literary gaps in my world to spend a lifetime filling them. But I might take a breath or two and enjoy some lighter pursuits before plunging myself into the next intense adventure.

On Today’s Walk: Portent for the Days Ahead

Spotted on my walk home from work. Umm…that’s my street. I should be okay on foot, though. Right?

Digital Road Work Sign

I checked our city’s website after seeing this and determined it is, in fact, my very block that is slated to be under construction. Maybe someone could have told us in a more direct way? At least we know now. And it will be nice when the potholes are gone!

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On Today’s Walk: Wildflower Challenge Complete

The goal is to find and identify ten varieties of flowers…

Seek badge for iNaturalist wildflower challenge.
I’m a winner!

My son accompanied me on today’s walk. We’d just received a good amount of rain, so we didn’t seek out any trails, but simply stuck to ambling about the neighborhood. I was able to hear how his work is going and also find enough flowers in bloom to complete the iNaturalist Wildflower Challenge on the Seek app.

The goal is to find and identify ten varieties of flowers, and I had already done seven before setting out. On our stroll, I found three more.

Challenge complete.

Completed: wildflower challenge. Seek, April 2022
Completion.

Woohoo!

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On Today’s Walks, Plural

The last time I posted, I’d been looking at some fake skeletons. This morning, I found a real one. Some work colleagues and I participated in a city-wide cleanup effort. We were picking up trash along a busy roadway that had a line of brush a few yards back. In the midst of blown plastic grocery bags and other debris caught in the scrub, I stumbled upon some bones.

Animal bones, possibly possum, in brown leaves.
Fake skeletons last week, a real one this week.

I sent the photo to my oldest son, who knows quite a bit about wildlife. He believes this was an opossum once upon a time. I’ll go with that, as on first glance, I thought it was someone’s little family dog that had probably been missing for a long time. I left the bones in place. It seemed like the natural order of things.

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My second walk took place this evening right before sunset and was dedicated to enjoyment rather than civic improvement. How about these magnolia blossoms creating a perfect frame for the moon?

Half moon framed by magnolia flowers
Magnolia moon: photographic alliteration

My little phone camera always shows the moon a little blurry, but I like the shot anyway.

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On Today’s Walk: Kindred Baseball Spirits

I often walk over a few blocks to see what these skeletons are up to, as their activities and costumes change frequently:

Fake skeletons in Royals baseball garb
A skeleton crew of kindred spirits

They’re as ready for baseball as I am, and we root for the same team.

A Royals baseball emblem -- "KC" -- on blue hoodie
Spirit Day!


The weather was windy and slightly cool, exactly right for wearing a Kansas City Royals hoodie.

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On Today’s Walk: Photos and Verse

I haven’t been taking many walks due to days of cold, drizzly rain and a hurt back. All has improved now, though. The son and I went out for a two-mile stroll on this fine spring day, and I was so revivified I wrote a little poem about it.

First the photos:


Late Spring Walk

Forsythia and daffodil
Hellebores, Siberian squill,
Yellow, yellow, pink, and azure
After winter, winter, and winter
White and gray and gray
Spring returns one day
As we have faith it always will.
    

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On Today’s Walk: I Have Questions

Door in asphalt. What?
This wasn’t here a few days ago.

I was on this stretch of road a few days ago and all looked pretty normal. But sometime since then a door has been installed in the street. Question mark. Where does it lead? An alternate dimension? The fairy realm? Does a troll live under it? Why is it there? Why is there a metal ring handle in the middle?

I guess the handle would be for easy lifting when it needs to be removed, except…

Door in street? What?
My boot for size comparison.

…you’d have to be a giant.

So many questions.

On Today’s Walk: Visitor to the Neighborhood

I nearly didn’t take a walk today. It’s cold and I had to work yesterday, meaning I’m behind on weekend household stuff. But see what I would have missed. This is the reward for my effort.

Great blue heron
First time seeing a great blue heron in this park

I went to the park near my house, the one I’ve walked through hundreds of times. As I approached the footbridge over the creek, something with an enormous wingspan flew down to the water. I’ve seen a variety of birds around here over the years, but never before a great blue heron.

I watched it for a long time as it waded down the length of the creek, bobbing its head into the water occasionally, once coming up with food it swallowed. The Audubon Society website says this is its normal mode of feeding. After a while, I moved off the bridge and, using all my stealth, made my way down the path wending by the water. I stalked that heron like I was David Attenborough.

Eventually, a couple of other walkers came by, one with a dog and the other playing an audio book out loud. The heron decided to take its leave. Ah well. It was time for me to go home and do something about dinner, anyway.

I’d like to thank the world for the fun surprise today.

On Today’s Walk: Rowing Out of My Rut

Park path
For anyone wondering what filter I used, it’s called Smudge on Lens

Well, I’ve gone and done another 2022 goal. I explored a path I don’t usually traverse on my walks. It’s not brand new to me. In fact, it’s in my old neighborhood, where I used to live twenty years ago. But I haven’t walked over there in a minute or two.

For some bonus exercise I got a bit of rowing in.

I’m not sure if I followed all advisories. ???

Instructions
Not suitable for people with general health conditions.

I only have specific health conditions, so I’m probably okay.

I survived to continue my journey, and encountered a majestic tree.

Leafless tree

Oh, I can never resist a wooden pedestrian bridge! I wonder what’s around the curve on the other side.

pedestrian bridge

Uh oh!

Into every life path, a little ice must appear.

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