Creative Differences: the Truth about Cats and Dogs
Really, need I say more? One of the greatest challenges of any kind of editing process, whether it be a in classroom workshop or an editor’s office at The New Yorker, is subjectivity. In large-group writing workshops in particular, or in peer editing models that use a succession of different editors for a single piece, those whose pieces are being workshopped often come away with a boatload of competing, and sometimes contradictory, suggestions. It’s no wonder that those students then find it difficult to sit down and revise the piece with all of this “helpful” advice in mind.
On the other hand, realizing that a big part of making criticism constructive is to make it useful is an invaluable lesson for students to learn. By participating in the workshop process in both roles—as both critiquer and critiqued—students can learn first-hand how to tailor and streamline their comments to make them of practical and possible use to the person being critiqued. An important part of being a good editor is learning to edit yourself. In my own practise as a book editor, I spend at least as much time revising and refining my own comments and queries as I do formulating them in the first place.
Then there’s what peer editing can teach students about learning to appreciate and constructively criticize work that is outside of their own interests, style, or world view. Even when a reviewer fundamentally disagrees with the main point a piece of writing is making, or when a critiquer actively dislikes a writer’s style or approach, learning to edit a piece based on its own exigencies rather than the reader’s personal preferences is one of the most important, practical skills a student can take away.
Still, any teacher who invites peer feedback among students is going to have to navigate a few irreconcilable differences. That’s part of the power of writing—it provokes thought, discussion, and dissension. To keep the discussion productive and practical, however, the instructor should guide critiques with clear modelling and well-defined criteria. And, at the most basic but fundamental level, students should be encouraged to make their comments as specific as possible. When they are struggling with this, it’s time for the teacher to step in with suggestions for more effective editing of the piece. Identifying a focused editing task, for example, can break a student editor out of on overly vague, subjective, or negative critique and make her reconnect with the specifics on the page. “Identify all comma splices” or “Are there any tautologies?” are examples of specific tasks that can get a student editor back on track. Even the “fresh eyes” of the editor sometimes needs fresh eyes. What about students of different abilities? Is this something you should be thinking of when you assign peer-editing partners and groups?
I like what the Gary Chadwell has to say about this:
I’m often asked about how to determine student partners. Should students work only with peers who have a similar skill level? Should it be student choice? Random?
A thoughtful case can be made for any of those approaches. My recommendation is to ensure that over the course of the year, students work with a variety of classmates, not just those of similar ability or those they choose. Having done peer editing in hundreds of classrooms, I know that the conversations between students can be rich and meaningful — and beneficial to both the author and partner. Exposing students to as many partners as possible over time should be your goal.
Don’t forget, too, that the process of editing and critiquing is challenging in itself. Apart from the obvious boon of developing listening and communications skills, a less acknowledged plus of the peer editing process is that it can provide enrichment for students who are already gifted writers. These students are often underchallenged during lessons that focus on writing in the classroom and sometimes even feel like their time is being wasted. Being required to figure out precise reasons why something is or isn’t “working” in a piece of writing is very likely to improve on their own knowledge and teach them how to articulate it.
As for the “weaker” writers … I often tell teachers that the best way for them to empathize with the difficulties their students have with writing is get their own pens out and join the party. When we think of students in terms of innately differing writing abilities we may be employing a hierarchical mode of thinking that stems from our belief in our own superiority as writers. Nothing is more eye-opening, and humbling, to someone who hasn’t written themselves in a while than actually sitting down and doing it. Participating in in-class writing activities alongside students not only shows them that you, too, are willing to make yourself vulnerable to exposure and critique; it can remind you of just how hard writing is. And, for the truly brave, subjecting your own work to the critiques of students can be eye- and mind-opening, as well.
Elements of an Ideal Critique or Review of a Piece of Writing
- It identifies what’s working in the piece of writing.
- It asks questions rather than dictates answers.
- It is specific. (“comma splice” vs. “Watch your grammar!”)
- It focuses on concrete elements vs. subjective assessments.
- It identifies areas where points are unclear or logic is faulty.
- It identifies repetitions or, conversely, logical leaps. The critique maintains a dialogue with itself, staying aware of previous comments and keeping the whole piece in mind (unless only a portion has been identified for critique).
- It is thorough without being exhaustive (or exhausting!).
- It is respectful and professional. (“I may be missing something here, but…” or “Nice use of humour” vs. “????” or “LOL.”)
- It follows a rubric of responsibility that has been agreed upon beforehand. If the review is not anonymous, the critiquer identifies themselves by full name. If it is anonymous, then that anonymity is maintained even after the exercise, and privacy is preserved.
- It uses positive language at all times, and makes a concerted effort to identify what is working well in the piece.
- It avoids accusation or judgement, sticking to specifics in the writing. “The examples given didn’t support the hypothesis” vs “You can do better”; “Grammatical errors interfered with reading clarity” vs. “Did you even proofread this?”
- Comments do not obscure the text (and are themselves legible). (This may seem like a comparatively minor point, but a document markup that is clearly readable makes for a much more productive discussion!)
Suggestions for Creative and Effective Use of Peer Editing in the Classroom
- Even while allowing for creativity across assignments, establish clear guidelines for each critiquing practise.
- Establish and practise good critiquing techniques as a group before embarking on smaller-group or one-on-one peer editing.
- Involve students in the creation of checklists, rubrics, and other materials.
- Realize that editing/critiquing is also a creative process, and one that involves courage and risk-taking.
- Be honest with yourself about time constraints when you’re planning peer editing units, and encourage your students to be honest about the time the process takes as well. Engaging written with work, word by word, can be slow.
- Encourage good reading practises—again, by allotting the necessary time for in-class reading, but also through modelling reading techniques such as reading aloud, re-reading, and note-taking while reading.
- Experiment with different approaches to peer editing, both to keep things dynamic and to see which methods work best for you and your students. Try different kinds of checklists. Experiment with anonymous peer reviewing; while I don’t favour this technique because to my mind it decreases the benefits of peer editing and the fostering of community, it can be a good way to set students’ minds at ease about the process in the early stages of their experience of it.
- Don’t make your students critique in a vacuum. Read and review their critiques as well as the pieces they’re critiquing. Acknowledge excellence in critiquing and provide the class with examples of particularly effective wording choices, suggestions, etc.
- Don’t let feedback be a one-way street (and yes, “no mixed metaphors” is on my creative writing revision checklist, thank you!). Don’t shy away from receiving feedback on your own comments and edits of your students’ work, and take note of the kind of feedback that yields positive results in their revisions.
- Have the students reflect on editing and critiquing as a process through discussions and written feedback.
- Allow for diverse match-ups by rotating peer editors.
- Use the various areas of expertise and life experience of the students in the class.
- Find ways to make critiquers responsible and accountable for their work editing.
- Make the classroom physically dynamic and conducive to creative and comfortable critiquing. Find ways to foster both privacy and dynamism.
- Motivate the students to work together to bring their writing, as a group, to its best possible form. End-of-term goals like putting together a photocopied or online chapbook or holding a class reading are excellent motivators and build both confidence and community.
What About Right Now?
A typical image of productive peer editing is of two students side by side, chairs pulled close together, shoulders touching. Is it possible to employ peer editing in the midst of these challenging times?
A resounding yes—though I fully understand that each of you will have established protocols and solutions for your current classes by now. However, going forward, incorporating online strategies for peer review into your teaching practise is looking like a better and better idea every day, no? And platforms like Blackboard are wonderfully suited to a creative peer-editing workshop model.
In my creative writing classes at Dalhousie University, I used Blackboard as a platform onto which students could upload their work, access the work of others, share their critiques, and post questions, queries, and comments about their reading and about the writing process in general. Though I broke the class into small peer workshopping groups of four students for each assignment, thereby giving them time to not only read their peers’ work carefully but to carefully formulate and craft their critiques, I encouraged them to read the revised stories or poems posted by class members outside of their group on a voluntary basis, and to post positive comments on the class messaging board about the stories they’d read. To be honest, when I suggested this, I didn’t expect too many of the students to take me up on the “voluntary” reading of their classmates’ work. But I was taken aback by how many did, and by the informed, encouraging comments they posted as a result. By reading the workshopped and revised stories in a more polished form than they’d been in the writer’s first draft, the students gained a real appreciation for their classmates’ work, and for the diversity of voices and stories in the class. At the end of the term the class had grown into a supportive, tight-knit community of writers, many of whom are still writing creatively today, ten years later. And that community was formed, I would say, at least as much by their interaction online as in the classroom.
Using Peer Editing for Your Own Writing
Remember what I said about how the making of the peer editing checklist itself can be creative process? You can certainly apply this to your own practise, composing a checklist for your peer editors to work from that will be tailored to your individual needs and of optimum help to your practise.
Be honest with yourself when making such a list, however—make sure you’re not favouring categories in which you know your writing excels!
And recognize this, too: “Will you read my story/paper/lesson plan?” can be words of dread to colleagues who have a yen for writing and editing. Such people tend to be called upon very often to give a “quick eye” to their colleagues’ opuses, often at expense to their own time and work. Realize that the more attentive a reader is—and their attentiveness is probably the reason you’ve thought to ask this person in the first place—the harder it will be for them to review anything “quickly.”
Establishing clear protocols for peer editing with colleagues—even in the case of close friends and family members—can not only be helpful in defining the expectations and parameters of the review, but it shows that you are respectful and appreciative of their time, as well. And if the request includes reciprocal work that you will perform for them, all the better.
Some Final Thoughts
Here’s a mini-case study. A young writer comes to see me in my capacity as writer-in-residence, sharing with me ten pages of his recent work. Throughout the course of the conversation, I learn that this writer has not only had the piece workshopped by his university creative writing class and, subsequently, marked (with suggested edits) by the instructor, but he has also shown it, for critique, to several friends and a family member. And yet everything from typos and glaring errors, such as confusion between “its” and “it’s,” to blatant logical inconsistencies remain. And when I ask the writer very specific questions about the piece, it seems as though I am, in this moment, more familiar with it than he is. It’s as if he hasn’t been able to bear re-reading it in some time.
Why, I’ve asked myself, do I keep seeing unrevised, even uncorrected versions of pieces that have already been extensively workshopped, critiqued, and in some cases even marked, with specific corrections and revision suggestions, by colleagues and professors?
Let’s say you’ve managed to break down the resistance to peer editing, and to revision in general, in your classes. That’s the crucial first step. But just as crucial is instilling in the writer the practise of using this exercise of revision in her work. Of making revision as much a part of her practise as drafting.
With the case study above, too, there are likely psychological barriers that are keeping the student from revisiting that piece of writing and truly engaging with it. Staring at one’s own mistakes can be a dispiriting process no matter how diplomatically they’ve been pointed out.
How do we break through those barriers? Well, for one thing, by making the process and products of writing less precious, less occult.
Remember, the more time you spend on writing—and the reading of and response to writing—in the classroom, the stronger the signal you send that writing is an activity that is valued, and that students’ voices and words have significant value, too.
Get your students, your colleagues, and your own darn self into the habit of thinking of writing as a daily practise, not an occasional chore. While most of us probably don’t actually do yoga or go for a jog every single day, we think of those as perfectly reasonable goals in terms of our well-being. Most of us know how good writing is for the sprightliness of our minds, for honing (or even discovering) the clarity and bent of our thoughts, and for sharing our points of view with others. Yet we wouldn’t consider it a reasonable goal to write (and I’m not counting emails and texts here) in a non-work or non-academic context every day. Why not?
Take a look at the free writing prompts for students offered by the New York Times. These are a great resource for educators, with almost irresistibly relatable topics from “Is social media making us more narcissistic?” to “How much do you curse?” And remember what Natalie Davis says: “Keep your hand moving.” Editing is great, but it can’t be done without the raw material.
All the best with your teaching, writing, and health.
March 20, 2020
- Barsotti, Charles. “Perhaps we’re overthinking the situation.” The New Yorker, May 6, 2013.
- Bliss, Harry. “Lose the Cat.” The New Yorker, November 26, 2018.
- Cullum, Leo. “First of all, this meeting never happened.” The New Yorker, July 27, 1998.
- Hafeez, Kaamran. “It’ll never work. You’re a dog person and I’m a cat person.” The New Yorker, October 21, 2013.
- Twohy, Mike. “I can see it going even a little more feline.” The New Yorker, June 18, 2001.
- Twohy, Mike. “I was a dog in a previous life, but I came back as a god.” The New Yorker, June 7, 1999.
 Chadwell, Gary. “Peer editing: shoulder-to-shoulder work.” https://collinsed.com/2019/01/18/peer-editing-part-1/. Accessed February 15, 2020.
Melanie Little is an award-winning author and editor of fiction and non-fiction. As the inaugural editor of Calgary’s Freehand Books, she was awarded the Book Publishers’ Association of Alberta’s Lois Hole Award for Editorial Excellence, and under her direction Freehand was named BPAA’s Publisher of the Year and was a finalist for Small Press Publisher of the Year at the Canadian Booksellers’ Association Libris Awards. Subsequently she was the Senior Editor of Canadian Fiction at House of Anansi Press, where she edited authors including Lisa Moore, Rawi Hage, Sheila Heti, Pasha Malla, Patrick deWitt, and Lynn Coady. Books she has edited have won the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Quebec Writers’ Federation Prize for Fiction, and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and have twice been finalists for Canada Reads. She is currently a freelance editor in Toronto, editing fiction and non-fiction for clients including Coach House Books, McClelland and Stewart, Doubleday Canada, and House of Anansi Press.
Melanie has taught creative writing at Dalhousie University, the University of Alberta, and at workshops across Canada. Her debut collection of stories, Confidence, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and selected as a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book. Her novel-in-verse for young adults, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece, was a Canadian Library Association Honour Book, a gold medalist at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and a White Raven selection for the International Youth Library in Munich. She is currently writing a novel for which she has received funding support from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council. She holds an Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and a Master of Arts in English literature from the University of Toronto.