Pamela Bond Contractor
(Guest Blogging for Marilyn Thiele)
It started eight months ago with a tap on my shoulder after an author talk at the library. At the end of the session, I raised my hand and boldly mentioned to the new author, a local fiction writer, that I was an “out of work editor.” She wasn’t particularly interested, but the man sitting behind me apparently was.
Something about the word “editor” resonated with the shoulder tapper, who explained that his creative writing group met every Friday afternoon at the library. Would I be interested in joining them? He didn’t really say why he'd invited me, but I suspected he thought an editor could somehow add a bit of gleam to the group’s output. Now that the world of academic editing didn’t seem to want my "rewriting" (I use the term very loosely) services anymore, an invitation to actually write caught my attention.
At first, I was only mildly interested in being the token editor in a group of adult non-professional (unpublished) creative writers. But, eager to meet new people, especially highly literate people, I showed up—and showed off (mostly to myself). Knowing as much as I did about helping authors use the English language to its fullest effect, I felt as if I stood apart from the group. Even though these were intelligent, educated, thoughtful adults, I kept wondering why I was there among them.
Something was wrong. And it wasn’t that they didn’t write well; most of them didn’t write at all. What had begun a year or so earlier as a fiction and memoir-writing group, the project of a creative writing student who had since moved on, was now an unfocused social gathering of nice folks. Now I kept wondering why they were there. Each of them seemed to have a private reason for getting together each week.
Since that time, a mini-(r)evolution has occurred. We elected a steering committee (of which I found myself chair) and split into subgroups by genre: long fiction, short fiction, and memoir/anything goes. Suddenly, these small groups—four or five members in each—were actually writing. So if getting everyone organized and focused required a catalyst, maybe that’s why I was there: to “edit” the group! Well, OK, maybe not. . . .
Wanting to seamlessly transform myself from academic editor to creative writer, I was eager to start creating fiction. But now something else was wrong. Finally finding myself among writers, here I was with my purple editing pen ready and my own writing suspended, withheld because I was fearful of the transition. Being the only editor in a group of writers was confusing, creating a dilemma born of the ability to see the potential in the work of others combined with the humility—and fear—of finding out what others might see in the work I myself would do.
Despite my identity crisis, I did begin to write and turned in a couple of chapters from my new historical mystery novel, still a tiny seed planted in unfertilized soil. The idea for the story came from a casual remark my husband had made while we were on a driving trip. My interest piqued, I started thinking about what life was like in an earlier era and the promise it held for an intriguing mystery set in the present. Actually, I came to love the idea, and my group seemed to like it a lot as well. But I still had to learn to execute it.
Unable to remove my tight-fitting editor’s hat, I stumbled over my efforts, getting in my own way as I wavered between fact-finding and free-flowing thought. Roughly mashing together hasty research and a story with no clear direction, I created a bit of a mess. But it was a mess with merit, and maybe even a little magic. So I knew I had to persevere in my mission to balance analytical thinking and creative writing.
As if teetering on the razor’s edge between editor and writer hasn’t been difficult enough, I am still learning the subtle differences between editing in a professional environment and critiquing in a non-professional peer setting. Beyond that, I need to understand how critiquing induces good writing. But as an editor-cum-critiquer, how could I stop being prescriptive? Even though I know creative writing has somewhat fluid rules, I can’t not see things that editors are taught to home in on. Yet I know this isn’t exactly what beginning authors are looking for from peer reviewers. They seek critiques more than tweaks, even if nobody quite knows what that means.
At our monthly meeting yesterday, I asked my writing colleagues how they thought critiquing creative writing differed from editing it. Someone said these were right- (critiquing) vs. left- (editing) brain activities. This begins to get at the differences, but distinctions remain somewhat difficult to articulate. The repertoire of editorial skills I'd acquired as an academic editor had left me ill equipped to answer my own question—or even to ask it in the first place. We had some further discussion, and my thinking became even cloudier.
After a few hours’ reflection, however, here’s what I now think I know: Critiquing is not synonymous with editing, by which I mean the hands-on reworking of text, one eye on the details, the other on the whole picture. Yet the two functions have significant overlap, not the least being their primary purpose—to help authors improve their writing. And the fastest way to learn what critiquing is is to submit your own work for peer review.
In a non-professional adult writing group, you need to leave your biases at the door and recognize that—unless you are a published author—the others in the room actually are your peers. You can’t stand apart as an editor, as a teacher, or as a competitor. You’re laying bare part of your soul and inviting virtual strangers and incipient friends to comment on it. Remembering what peer reviews were like in my technical writing classes in graduate school, I feel lucky to be among gifted amateurs who haven’t learned or been exposed to the vitriol of aggressive, cold judgments.
An editor in a professional situation stands apart from authors and their brainchildren, coolly observing how well the work has been rendered. Being removed makes this kind of work possible, even if one is passionate about the editorial process. (I am not exploring here the various editorial roles one finds in publishing houses, but generalizing based on common notions of hands-on editing.) Critiquing in a non-professional peer-to-peer setting is more personal, more interdependent. It is also, to some extent, more subjective than editing—critiquers are often blatantly contradictory. Critiquing is also more emotional, dare I say it, and somewhat less cerebral—but no less insightful—than editing. Those who critique have more responsibilities to authors’ dreams and fewer rules about how they are expressed than those who edit.
What do writers want from peer reviews? Accolades, of course, oohs and aahs, hearing that the reviewers couldn’t put the writing down—that it made them cry, or laugh, or relate, or change their lives—or, best of all—write better themselves. Short story, novel chapter, memoir . . . it doesn’t matter. Authors want to wow those who read them. Then real life happens. An author might read something aloud, only to be rewarded with complete silence. Or a writer might submit something in advance, only to be serenaded with earnest comments about what could have been better—and, damn, they’re right!
In a supportive environment, authors may feel a bit chagrined when their reviewers seem bemused rather than bedazzled, but they will go home and write better as a result of thoughtful, insightful reactions to their work. Good editing may achieve a similar result, but it feels very different to be instructed rather than inspired, revised rather than reinvigorated, edited rather than enlightened. Hands-on editing puts the final burnish on good writing. Heart-to-heart critiquing fuels the fire that creates it. Oversimplified? Yes, but I’m running out of space and time. . . .
My group members and I are not that different as writers, so we can nurture one another’s talent, expressed or latent, without class distinction. As students of writing, we are self-taught. Amateurs we may be, but in some cases gifted ones. Who knows? We may even incubate something publishable, although what that means in today’s changing world of publishing-house mergers and self-publishing technologies requires a lot of educated guessing and adventurous exploration.
Having reviewed the work my group has produced and experienced their critiques of my own, I am convinced not only of their expressed or evolving talent, but of their good intentions. Undoubtedly, whatever I continue to produce as I learn to translate the inner world of my imagination into shared experience through writing will be flawed in some way or another. But in my group, the review process is handled with kindness, humor, and a sense of mutuality. Gradually, this editor is becoming a writer who critiques and a reviewer who is critiqued.
At this stage of life, moving toward the creative side of the writing world is beginning to feel liberating. And doing it in an environment where people care as much about others' work as they do their own is fun—truly enjoyable. If my historical mystery ever makes its way from my head into others’ hands, that will be the ultimate critique.
Pamela Bond Contractor is the owner and principal at Ellipsis Enterprises, an editorial consulting agency; a member of Marilyn’s “Twice Told Tales/Moonstone Mystery” reading groups; and a member of the Hunterdon County (NJ) Library Writing Group.