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Peer editing in the classroom: A creative approach (Q&A)

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Man climbs mountain to seek answers from dog

Q: I’ve heard that in some group-workshop settings the writer being workshopped is not allowed to speak while their story or essay is being discussed. That sounds a little authoritarian/inhumane to me. Is this a technique you recommend, and if so, why?

A: Having our writing discussed, dissected, and sometimes even dissed by others is among the most uncomfortable experiences a human being can undergo. In a workshop that is not caringly and responsibly run by the facilitator, an “around-the-table” workshop like this can easily degenerate into a massive piling-on of criticism that may seem individually reasonable to each critiquer, but which collectively amasses into something akin to a stoning for the hapless, speechless author subjected to it. I’ve seen writers reduced to tears by the experience, either during the class or later, and several have told me that a workshop like that shut them down as writers for many months thereafter.

BUT—there are sound and in some cases even necessary reasons for the “writer-doesn’t-speak” model of workshopping. Having something as personal as a piece of writing critiqued naturally puts the writer on the defensive. If they are encouraged to speak from this place of defensiveness, to “explain themselves” in the face of even the most constructive criticism, they will not be listening to what’s being said, not absorbing it. Conversely, the students who are providing their critiques—and make no mistake, critiquing itself, when done thoroughly and honestly, is a difficult, demanding, and unnerving process—are likely to feel shut down or themselves attacked by the writer’s defensiveness.

The solution to this problem is twofold. First, the group must fully understand—and agree—that the critiques and even praise on offer are subjective, and should be taken as such. (And no one speaker should be allowed to go on too long—see next point.) Second, the workshop leader—usually, but not necessarily, the instructor—shouldguide and, if necessary, re-steer the conversation to places that are consistently productive, supportive, and compassionate. This is not to say that student critiquers shouldn’t be permitted to be critical in their comments. However, the leader must use her experience and judgement—as well as some knowledge of each individual student, gleaned from reading their work, one-on-one consultations, and the like—to know which avenues of critique are potentially helpful, and which are potentially harmful. (Ideally, and I know this can be a big “ask,” the instructor has had a chance to get to know the students in these ways before the workshopping process begins.) The leader should also be aware of when reiteration of the same criticism is beginning to feel confrontational and unproductive, and, inversely, when the amassing of too many different points of criticism is apt to overwhelm the writer rather than chart a useful course for revision.

Many experienced workshop leaders, such as those of the Amherst school (more on that later), recommend “starting with a positive.” I couldn’t agree with the principle of this more—though I don’t think we need to be programmatic about when or how often to give praise. But the truth is, and I’m speaking from the experience of having my own writing workshopped here, singling out a passage or an image, a stretch of dialogue or a salient example or point, for honest praise can have a more useful lasting effect than criticism. When writers revise, they often don’t know what’s working and what isn’t, and alas, they often cut the good stuff in desperation to just do something. An honest bit of praise from a peer reader can resonate across the weeks, months, and even years of the revising process.

So I’d encourage teachers to experiment with the “writer doesn’t immediately respond” model, but to be active in the discussion and not hesitate to steer it to more useful directions. And the writer herself, I feel, should always be given a chance to speak and respond at the end of the discussion (and also be given the option to decline to do so).

The “stoning-circle” danger is one of the reasons I advocate trying one-on-one peer editing, by the way. If you can incorporate it, or even smaller peer-editing groups of three or four, into your classes, the writer is less apt to feel “ganged up” on. At the same time, if a writer is receiving similar feedback in completely different contexts (both the class as a whole and her one-on-one editor have pointed out her propensity to, say, shift around in tense), she becomes more apt to gain an understanding of the most consistent characteristics of her writing, both the positive and the negative.

Q: How would an editor explain when language is resonating with or eliciting emotion and, most important,  “why” and “how” it works? Would it be acceptable, for example, to say, “the name Pierre evokes in me a sense of patriotism—is that what you want in a character who is a convict?” For all I know, the name Pierre may evoke violence to many people.

A: This question relates to one of the most important parts of being an effective editor, no matter the context—realizing, and communicating, that your “take” on a piece of writing is exactly that—just one person’s take. Reading is highly subjective, and yes, one reader’s reaction to a character’s name, to use your example, might well be diametrically opposed to that of another reader. That said, one careful reader’s full and honest take on a piece of writing is possibly the most valuable thing a writer can receive. For that reason, I believe an editor should absolutely share her subjective reaction to something (within reason, of course—again, criticism should avoid being personal, judgemental, or overly negative). I often find myself telling writers how a passage resonated personally for me—saying things like “The narrator says Frankie has ‘edgy’ taste in music but then we see her putting on a record by Huey Lewis and the News, whom I personally associate with being pretty mainstream!” or “When the character checks out his appearance in the storefront’s reflection, I first read that as being superficial, though I think what you’re really trying to show in that scene is his vulnerability….” I also often find myself prefacing such remarks with the phrase “It may be just me, but….” Another of the editor’s most important skills is the ability to risk being wrong.

In sum, to my mind, the kind of phrasing you suggest above—“evokes in me”; “is that what you want…?” is exactly the kind of sensitive probing that’s effective in getting a writer to see her work as others might see it. She doesn’t always have to agree with you or take your suggestions.

Q: Clichés: I never understand why we shouldn’t say, “as red as a rose,” or “blood red,” when it really tells the reader how red you mean. 

A: This a brave question to ask and I’m glad you’ve asked it. There’s no doubt that what have become known as “clichés” have become so verboten in the literary world that simply writing the word cliché in the margin of someone’s work is enough to send them into creative paralysis or at least a paroxysm of shame. Which is too bad, because often clichés are a sign that the writer is on the right track, is thinking in terms of analogy and comparison, and simply needs to be encouraged to “dig deeper” and describe the thing at hand in a fresh new way.

In rare cases, though, the so-called “clichéd” way of describing something is in fact the best possible way of describing it. I defy you to tell me that Angelina Jolie, as the character Maleficent, does not have lips that are “blood-red.” Instructors and peer editors should be careful about too-quick dismissals of something as a “clichéd”—it might actually working better than they think.

Still, one of the reasons we read the work of creative writers is indeed that they help us see the world in a new way, or describe it in such fresh, specific terms that their words make us see a familiar scene all over again. So, for example, when John Updike’s narrator in the story “The Sense of Shelter” says, describing a schoolboy as feeling the “snug sense of his work done, of the snow falling, of the long minutes that walked through their shelter so slowly,” it’s so much more powerful and memorable and evocative than if Updike had simply said, “the time seemed to stand still in that place.”

Using overly familiar comparisons (or, as they’re sometimes referred to, “dead metaphors,” can seem like lazy writing, even when that’s not a fair assessment, and they often make readers inclined to laziness as well. Such clichés are so familiar that they give the reader an excuse to glaze over for a moment, even skim—and then you’ve lost them, or at least the most critical, engaged part of them. The best writers make their readers work a little bit by offering them ways of seeing and thinking they’ve never experienced before. (Note thatthis isn’t necessarily a recipe for blockbuster success. Many of the most financially successful writers out there joyously overpopulate their books with clichés—perhaps when we read their books, not having to work is precisely the point…?)

Worse than the overly familiar, though, are the kinds of clichés that have lost all meaning through sheer repetition, and so have become mere verbiage, rhetorical padding—the radio static of our writing, and the enemy of clear communication. I’m thinking of expressions like “the long and short of it is…” and “For all intents and purposes…” You shouldn’t hesitate to counsel your students to pull these weeds from their writing systematically and without remorse.

Usually, though, I see a cliché as a symptom of a larger problem in the text. The formidable critic Frank Kermode has said that “clichés are an infallible sign of used thinking,” and often I’ve found this to be true. A cliché is often a footprint in a piece of writing that leads to a situation, a character, or a conflict that the writer hasn’t sufficiently thought through yet, has not yet made her own. Because the situation/character/conflict isn’t actually, fully real to her yet, she is, consciously or not, falling back on language that she’s read elsewhere as a kind of shortcut. So I’d encourage peer editors to be particularly sensitive to clichés, and to try to ferret out whether they’re pointing to some larger or underlying narrative problem that’s there.

Q: What do you say or recommend to a student who wants to be a writer but whose writing is not strong and never seems to improve?

A: This is a tough one. And it brings to mind a related question, one that writing mentors often seriously ask ourselves: Should I ever just tell someone very honestly that they’ll never be a writer, so as not to let them waste their time?

This might sound like a criminally harsh thought to entertain, but wait. Writing is a hard and often thankless and even bankruptcy-inducing pursuit, and there are far more excellent writers out there than there are opportunities for publishing. Encouraging someone who is unlikely to find a publisher, for example, to devote years of their life improving a novel can often feel problematic and even unethical.

BUT—there are all kinds of reasons to write, and all kinds of writers. And audiences. A writer whose work doesn’t particularly impress you or even, to throw my own words back at myself, “make you see things in a new way,” might find many appreciative readers among people of different tastes and biases from your own. Good editors, like good teachers, are first and foremost (sorry, that was certainly a cliché!) humble—it’s imperative that we know that we aren’t always right, and that we aren’t always adept at deciding what is “good.”

I have been tremendously moved and, recently, influenced, by what some refer to as the “Amherst school” of teaching writing, exemplified by the UMass Amherst professor Peter Elbow and explicated stirringly in a book I encourage all writing teachers to read, Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. This school of thought contends that we are all born creators, and as such we are all born writers. To quote from Peter Elbow’s introduction to the book:

Not to be able to write is a learned disability, taught to us in school and at home, imprinted on us in letters: “F,” “D,” “C-minus.” Those whose language skills are impaired nevertheless have a story, and if it can be told in the unique and idiosyncratic form of the author’s own way with words, it can be brilliant. If we valued the voices of those who have been denied a voice, we would have a canon of literature so much more diverse, interesting, and humane than the canon we do have. All people are writers who can, if they so desire, claim their writing as a personal (and perhaps public) art form.

Let’s take it back to the original question above. You would never tell a student not to waste his time trying to write an academic paper that was due, right? You’d do everything you could to try to address the problems in his writing. To break those perceived problems down to their individual components. To focus on one issue at a time. To encourage him to seek additional help that might be available (campus writing centres, writing tutors, and the like). But you would still require him to complete the assignment. You would recognize that what he had to say about the topic or text up for analysis had merit; you would feel that an attempt to explicate this point of view through writing was an important component of his learning process.

Creative writing should not be considered in a different light. Every person has experiences, ideas, that are not only worthy of being communicated, but vital—and unique to that person. As such, every person is a writer. Helping that writer get down words in the fashion that is most representative of and communicative of that writer’s truth is the hard work of every good writing teacher.

On a side note, I also, when I teach, like to include a teensy bit of grammar instruction in my courses whenever possible. I know, I know: what a perfect way to make yourself unpopular, possibly not least with yourself! But here’s the thing: when you introduce grammar as a topic for the whole class, a student doesn’t feel nearly as singled out when you refer them back to those grammatical principles you touched on in, say, week two. A student who just can’t seem to grasp what a comma splice is no matter how many times you or their peers circle it on their manuscripts needs and deserves a chance to find out the fundamentals of what a comma splice is—which depends on knowing the fundamentals of what an independent clause is. Which depends on being instructed in those fundamentals. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on grammar or wait for some mythical point at which all the students in the class will have absorbed what you want to impart about it before you move on. But if you have established some shared point of reference—a particular textbook or resource, perhaps—it will be so much easier and less personal to refer your students back to this reference when they can really use it.

Q: In the context of relaxed or daily dialogue, would an editor change “Sarah’s right” to “Sarah is right”—since the latter could be read as possessive, i.e. “it is Sarah’s right”? Would it all be based on context? I guess the question comes down to: How much responsibility do we expect the reader to take? 

A: I like to say that a good book teaches its reader how to read it. So in a well-written and well-edited book or piece, the relaxed dialogue (to address that example) will be established to a great enough extent that it won’t stop the reader by seeming like an error—it will be obvious what interpretation is intended.

Now, for the editor or peer editor to know that context is sufficiently established, she has to be familiar with the work as a whole—which is why I encourage editors not to put red pen to paper until they’ve done a full read-through first. As well, both the writer and the editor should ensure that the piece is mindful of its readers throughout, and so ensure that the style is clear and consistent enough that the reader isn’t straining mightily (a little work never hurt a reader; see “clichés,” above) for understanding. I often find myself, as an editor, writing comments that begin with, “The reader might misread this as…” In almost all contexts, writing that is clear, that communicates, is writing that has the best chance of making an impact on its reader.

Q: Is there any room for discussing how to respond to language (both positively and negatively) in a piece that uses propaganda? Here I use the term “propaganda”’ in a wide sense, e.g. the Bell commercial for Carlton Cards that makes me cry. 

A: I think it’s hugely important for the editor or peer editor to understand the full context of the piece she’s being asked to comment upon—primarily, Who and what is this piece intended for? I will edit an article intended for a company’s internal newsletter or annual shareholder’s report differently than I would an objective investigative article about the same company for, say, Report on Business Magazine. (To give a very minor example, I would allow capital letters for job titles in the internal newsletter, e.g. “the company’s Vice-President of Marketing,” since executives often favour capitals as making things look more impressive; but for the objective article in a major publication, I would insist on the stylistically correct “the company’s vice-president of marketing.”)

Similarly, writing that heavily employs rhetoric to create a certain effect—propaganda being at the extreme end of this—should be approached with its context in mind. (Let’s consider the question in the spirit in which it was asked and assume that the piece of writing contains nothing that is offensive or false.) Writers of marketing material, of course, are doing their jobs successfully when their work elicits an emotional response—a peer reviewer of such a project who wasn’t emotionally impacted by the piece should definitely include that lack as part of her critique. Writers of academic works and essays must always aim for persuasion, though that relies more on the power of logic and argument than of emotion.

In more creative writing‒focused situations, on the other hand, the goal is most often for the writer to produce art—which, by one simple definition, is work that can be interpreted in more than one way. If a piece of writing makes every reader arrive at the same inevitable conclusion and reaction, many would decline to consider it art. That said, great art certainly does move the reader—though not in a predictable or programmatic way.

The peer reviewer, in short, shouldn’t hesitate to share with the writer the emotional impact, or lack thereof, the piece in question had on her as a particular reader. If the piece felt flat and didn’t evoke any kind or emotion for her, that needs to be addressed—ideally, in diplomatic language (useful phrases might be “this felt a bit flat in affect”; “the narrator felt too much at arm’s-length here”;  the choice of diction in this passage didn’t evoke the response in me that I think you’re going for”). If, on the other hand, the piece made the reader feel strong-armed into a single emotional response, that, too, might be a problem.

Q: When an peer editor thinks a piece would benefit from slowing the process for the purpose of instilling a degree of fear in the reader, what specific suggestion could be made, e.g. lengthen or shorten sentences?

A: Well, that in itself (lengthening or shortening sentences to create a particular rhythm or tone) is an excellent suggestion! Creating suspense and fear is one of the trickiest things in writing, and so much of it indeed has to do with the stylistic choices a writer makes.

One thing I might do with writers looking to create a specific emotional response is to ask them to bring in a piece of writing that they’ve been inspired by in that regard and to select a particularly effective passage from it. Then we would parse the passage together, sentence by sentence, to see what effects and techniques the writer is using to create that emotional response. Varied sentence length is certainly one such device, as is the use of careful repetition.

In some cases, it’s useful for the peer editor (after reading) to question the writer on what kind of emotional response she’s hoping to convey with her piece. While it might seem too obvious or leading to ask such a question directly, the results are often worth the awkwardness. Very often the answer will be quite surprising, because if it were easy to achieve desired emotional effects in writing then we’d all have Pulitzers. Once the reviewer can identify specific places where they were not thus emotionally engaged—a character meant to be heroic is coming across as merely egocentric and off-putting; a scene attempting to create suspense is delaying the action to the extent that it risks boring the reader—the writer will have specific points to work from.

When you say “slowing the process” I think you’re referring to the tendency for writers to move the action and the narration along too quickly, without giving the reader enough time to settle into the situation, to let anxiety or attachment or whatever the salient emotion is build. Homework for those who are interested on this front: 1) Read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a superb example of how emotional suspense can be built with great subtlety and a slow burn; 2) Look into Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense (particularly the “bomb under the table” theory), which is very easily Google-able; the film Hitchcock/Truffault is also recommended, available for streaming on Kanopy.

Q: Have you ever done a peer-editing workshop online, using Zoom or a comparable platform? Does it work?

To date I haven’t personally done more than a one-on-one writing consultation online, but I’m excited by the possibilities of larger-group workshops. I do think the current platforms, Zoom among them, are working hard and quickly to adapt to the manifold demands that teaching classes of all sizes bring.

Can online writing workshopping truly replace in-person engagement? Perhaps not—at least not yet. As humans we take so much of our understanding of what others are truly saying, or trying to say, through nuances of timing and voice as well as non-verbal cues, all things that are compromised to various degrees in the online forums currently available to us. Yet, the technology is improving quickly, and as I say, it’s evolving in ways that seem particularly amenable to the various demands of a writing or creative writing class. The innovation of “breakout rooms,” which allow the leader to break participants into smaller groups, seems particularly amenable to peer editing “in” the classroom.

And we must remember that many educators have been teaching writing online for some time. As the writer Rick Moody said in a recent New Yorker piece, “It turns out that many of my friends have taught digitally for years, in community and prison workshops, through public libraries and Y.M.C.A.s, and their students have become stronger writers, have learned, and grown.” (Many universities have also offered “distance” creative-writing programs, employing asynchronous teaching models so that instructors can connect with students whether they live in Saanich or Singapore, for upwards of a decade.) Though Moody, perhaps not unfairly, calls a good deal of what’s been provided for students over these past few weeks “a hastily arranged experiment” (his piece is called “Why Teaching the Literary Arts over Zoom Doesn’t Quite Work”), it is wise to remember that experiments are often the seeds of great solutions. I think if we all learn from each other over these extraordinary months, and remain curious and open-minded in our teaching styles, some great models of truly reciprocal online workshops and peer-editing models can be created—with a lot of sweat, to be sure, on the part of course creators and instructors.

Which leads me to some final thoughts on this question. I have witnessed, these past few weeks, my peers who are teachers and professors working twelve-hour days to try to provide their students with instruction and assessment that does not fall drastically short of the quality they would have been receiving in person. It’s unrealistic to suppose that, should online models continue to be the modus operandi in September and beyond, this gargantuan work of re-thinking the way we teach will suddenly become clear and easy. Please, as teachers and teaching professionals, support each other—through everything from exchanging strategies and sharing resources, to taking a thorough and honest accounting of the time you are spending and sharing that with your administrators, to asking for realistic expectations and additional support. As I say in my workshops ad nauseum, till the cows come home, like a broken record (to give you a triple-whammy of clichés), writing is hard, and teaching writing is possibly even harder. And it takes time, both in the planning and in the execution. No matter what form of writing you are teaching, plan and fight for the time and space that it needs in the classroom, virtual or otherwise, in order that it can be done with care, engagement, deliberation, and creativity.

Stay well,

Melanie Little
April 10, 2020

Cartoon Credit

Maslin, Michael. “The answer is a dog.” The New Yorker, November 19, 2018.

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.

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