Giving back to the writing community

Perhaps you’ve seen the link over there on the right side for As the name implies, it is a Web site for writers, but it is really quite a bit more than that. There is a vibrant and active community there, a whole bunch of people dedicated to helping each other out.

I registered over there some time ago, but I haven’t been that active. Yes, the whole ‘doesn’t play well with others’ thing raises its ugly head again. Lately, though, I’ve been dropping by the site every now and then. An important part of the community is the system that allows writers to critique each other’s work. I posted one thing there a while back, some writing that was not in my usual style, and I wanted feedback on whether the new style was working. One critique gave me some very valuable feedback, and I subsequently improved the piece quite a bit. I also got several other helpful if much briefer comments. So the system works pretty well, and there are a lot of generous people online.

There is also a lot of bad writing there. (Of course, I’m sure people have read my stuff and said “Wow! That’s crap!” plenty of times as well. The difference is I’m crappy on purpose. Loathe it or hate it, my writing is the way it is by design.) Posting poor writing there is perfectly OK; the whole point of the site is to help writers get better, and no one was born a good writer. That the people are there, asking for feedback, is admirable. That they accept criticism gracefully and even say thanks after you pick apart their work is awesome. So, I have decided to find an inexperienced writer and critique their work once or twice a week. It’s kind of fun finding a bit that has a good story buried in it and an author’s voice struggling to get out, and provide concrete advice and encouragement. Keeping the number down allows me to spend some time on them and get really detailed, and hone the language of my posts to demonstrate my points.

I could not imagine grading papers that way, day in and day out. Hats off to those who do. If I make any impact at all, it will be tiny compared to the good a teacher can do. A couple times a week is all I have in me.

Although I think I may have put my foot in it this morning. Not too badly, but it’s easy when you are criticizing someone’s work to take on the “I know more than you do” tone. I find myself particularly susceptible to falling into that voice when the critique recipient (critiquee?) is a high school student. You know how well teenagers respond to know-it-all adults without any credentials. I think overall I balance my advice, but today as I wrote my criticism I made comments about “as you become more experienced” and stuff like that, only to later dig in and find out the guy’s 35 and has been writing for years. All the more important he sees that his prose has a ways to go, but perhaps the message could have been delivered differently.

I am also a little dismayed at the number of badly flawed stories that receive perfect scores from other reviewers. I suppose the logic, especially with younger writers, is that if you toss them a five-star they’ll be encouraged and eventually figure out their errors on their own. This strikes me as a violation of trust. Here is someone specifically asking for constructive criticism and instead being told that everything is fine, when it’s not. Someone’s tag line in another forum: friends don’t let friends write crap.

Oh, well. I can’t change the world, or even the rating inflation at I can only make sure that any advice I give is wrapped with the proper balance of humility and authority, and hope it helps someone.

14 thoughts on “Giving back to the writing community

  1. As a post script to the above, I just popped over to and found that someone has anonymously paid to upgrade my account. My guess is that one of the writers I reviewed did so as a way of saying “thank you”.

    Only problem is, now I can’t log in.

  2. sorta-related comments…

    I see where Google recently purchased a company that had an online word processor. Makes me think hopeful thoughts about JNW.

    I’m currently reading a biography of Bobby Darin. Unbelieveably, the writer uses a quote from a source on page xyz, and then a few pages later uses the exact quote in a too similar context all over again. Lazy, sloppy redundancy. Where was the editor? It struck me as a perfect application of some JNW feature (the don’t repeat yourself feature?). Admittedly, in all the reading, over all the years, this is the first time I’ve run into this.

    Finally, in past history of this blog, the community has discussed what they are reading. I always enjoyed it, and it was fun to see what Keith and CA are reading. So how about it? What’s on everybody’s night stand at the moment?

  3. The Racing Rules of Sailing by U.S. Sailing. Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing by somebody whose name escapes me at the moment, but who’s well known for translating beauracratese into something clearer. Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos.

  4. Kaz Cooke’s ‘Up the Duff’, and another book called ‘What to expect when you’re expecting’, the author I cannot recall.
    Also a Jamie Oliver cookbook (on Italian food – yum).

  5. The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera – a series of essays and conversations about the evolution of the novel as an art form. I really have to be up for it when I pick up this thin book.

    The Best of H. P. Lovecraft – it occurred to me that I had never read any of this seminal author’s work.

    A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg – by Tim Cahill. Nonfiction essays and articles by a journalist/extreme adventurer. From searching for lost ruins in a South American jungle to infiltrating a cult in central California, this guy’s done it.

    All of those, interestingly, are collections of shorter works.

    I’m guessing, gizo, that you’re reading What to expect… for a reason, which means congratulations may be in order. Huzzah!

  6. CA, You are thinking of Dave Perry.

    I am currently reading Hey Rube by Hunter Thompson (Blood Sport, The Bush Administration, and the downward spiral of dumbness) and Winston Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert (a rather long tome but interesting).

  7. what to expect… is an invaluable go-to guide.Man, I was refering to that thing all the time, and the next one: What to expect during the first Year (or something like that).

    Wow. It’s interesting to see what folks are reading. I’m glad to see CA still has a racing team. So how is Churchill? Have you gotten to the Gallipoli decision yet?

  8. Actually, about the time you posted that, I was listening to Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev’s 2nd symphony, but I had forgotten to run the script that updates the site.

    Now I’m listening to Melt Banana – pure Japanese noise pop. They did the theme for one episode of Perfect Hair Forever, and after I heard it I found their album on e-music.

  9. I finished up my exploration of man pitting himself against nature with Eiger Dreams and The Old Man and the Sea, and am know reading The World is Flat by Friedman.

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