How to Get Useful Peer Reviews of Your Writing

WORDS YOUR WAY BLOG

How to Get Useful Peer Reviews of Your Writing

You’ve taken the time to turn those notes and reflections into writing that might promote a worthwhile idea at work, help your clients, or fit at an upcoming conference. But you’re nervous about sharing it. Maybe you’ve spent so much time in your head that you don’t know if the piece will make sense to anyone else. Maybe you aren’t sure if you’ve covered all the bases and sidestepped any landmines in the office or industry politics. Or you’ve always struggled with grammar and spelling and don’t want to embarrass yourself.

You know you need a review you can trust, but you’re leery because of some bad experiences.

I’ve been there! Every writer has.

You want your friend to scan for typos, and she rips apart your whole argument.

You want your colleague to tell you if the piece strikes the right tone, and he nitpicks about the Oxford comma.

You want your spouse to tell you if you’ve made your point, and she tells you she thinks you should add more humor or suggests an entirely different topic.

Of course, there’s, “That’s great!” which is kind but not particularly helpful.

Every once in a while, you get a reaction that is truly bizarre. A writing group peer once told me that a nonfiction essay I was proud of was “too realistic and therefore dangerous because people might believe what you say without question.”

What do you do with something like that? And what gives?

Consider how you watch your favorite television show. You let yourself get involved in the story without thinking about all that went into it. You may notice a virtuoso performance from a favorite actor, but you don’t pay deliberate attention to the writing, the acting, the direction, the art direction, the sound effects, and the camera work.

Trained editors understand that writing, too, has a lot of moving parts. That’s why they tend to specialize. Some give guidance on overall structure. Others focus on the use of language. Still others dig into the logical flow of a manuscript, such as the order of paragraphs and passages or, in fiction, whether a subplot adds to or distracts from the momentum of the story.

Here are a few tips to get the kind of review you’re looking for:

Identify what you need. Hint: This usually corresponds with your stage in the writing process.

If you have a rough draft, you may need someone who can verify that you’ve chosen a meaningful scope and effectively addressed the intended audience. A later-stage manuscript might benefit from a reviewer who can tell you if the ideas flow and suggest strategic additions or deletions. Still later, you may need a line-by-line edit that ensures your style is consistent, you have defined your terms, and there are no major errors of fact that set off alarms.

Or maybe this baby really is ready for posting to your blog or submitting to a publication as soon as somebody proofreads it!

Select the right reviewer(s) and understand their strengths.

I’ve been in a lot of writing critique groups over the past 20 years. And I’ve observed that even writers, who are familiar with the editing process, will zone in on the things they’re strongest at. When asked broadly for “feedback on my piece,” poets often leap to word choice, journalists to the structure, and creative prose writers to the mood. (The eagle eye for grammatical errors and typos seems randomly distributed!)

If your colleagues aren’t writers, they undoubtedly still have distinct strengths and preferences as readers. That very analytical, detail-oriented project manager you work with may be great at noticing where you made confusing leaps of logic. That theater-addicted friend probably has a good ear. Ask her for help when you’re stumped on awkward sentences. Your wife the voracious reader of anything and everything might be wonderful at pinpointing seemingly tiny fixes that correct deep structural problems.

Communicate exactly what you want.

Explicitly direct the reviewer’s attention to the level of the piece you want them to evaluate.
“Can you give this a second pair of eyes?” is not specific enough. The reviewer won’t know whether you want a copyedit, an overall reaction, or something in between. “I’m not sure if this flows right. What do you think?” is a little better. Now, the reviewer knows you’re looking for something about the sense of the piece.

Even better: “Do those case studies help make the point or, or are they distracting?”
In some cases, you might want to tell them explicitly what not to focus on as well. For example, “Don’t worry about looking for typos. My assistant’s going to proofread this. What I want to know from you is if those case studies work here.” Alternatively, “I need to submit this tomorrow! No time for big changes. Can you take a quick look to make sure I’ve been consistent with those acronyms?”

Finally, recognize the limitations of review.

No reader or editor can completely eliminate your sense of feeling exposed. The more you care about your project, the less anyone can do to reassure you that your work is good enough. If you are a new writer, take a risk! You’ll learn from your readers’ responses.

If you’ve been writing for a while, you may be facing a different challenge: The more advanced a writer you become, the less casual reviewers can do to help achieve your own standards. If you feel like you’ve followed all the rules you know and are stumped at how to make your piece better, seek a partnership, either with a professional (such as a coach or editor) or with a colleague or who shares your dedication to the writing craft.

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

What My Cosmetic Dentist Taught Me About Freelance Marketing

WORDS YOUR WAY BLOG

What My Cosmetic Dentist Taught Me About Freelance Marketing

A few years ago, I fell on my face and cracked a tooth. A front tooth. I was living temporarily in a city far away from my beloved dentist of 20 years. Of the friends I asked for referrals, none had recommendations for a cosmetic specialist — and a few had warnings. The two dental offices in my neighborhood did not offer emergency appointments and neither was a specialty practice. Leery though I was, I called 1-800-DENTIST to find a specialist or a general practitioner who could book an immediate appointment and give me a referral. I checked out the Yelp reviews for each of the dentists whose names I was given, and called the highest rated one. I explained that I’d broken a tooth, and the receptionist said there were appointments open the following day. He asked a few intake questions, and I revealed it was a front tooth. “Oh!” the receptionist, “Don’t come here. Go to my former boss. He’s the best for something like that!” Back on Yelp, I found the following review of dentist number two: “When I broke my tooth, I called a few general practice dentists and asked, ‘If George Clooney was in town and needed a cosmetic guy, who would you send him to?’ “Every one gave me this guy’s name. He was expensive, but he did not disappoint.” I booked the appointment. Indeed he was expensive, but he did not disappoint! His staff gave empathetic customer service. The technician, as she set me up in the chair on every visit, said, “I am very sorry you have to have this experience.” The dentist had a true artisanal passion for his work. He commented on miniscule imperfections in the way my bite had developed, and offered to correct them for better aesthetics. He had a lab in his home where he “played” with crafting perfect veneers, and he’d worked with the same fabrication lab for twenty years. The results? Friends who did not know I’d broken a tooth told me my face looked thinner! While I’d rather still have my imperfect, intact teeth, and the money I spent on the procedures, I am thankful for the dental outcome — and the business lessons.
  • Treat people well! The receptionist who referred me to his employer’s competitor was loyal to his former employer and brazenly disloyal to his current employer. Either he liked his ex-employer personally, or he truly believed that doctor gave better service, or both. A paycheck won’t buy loyalty, and it’s a copout to label it a matter of character.
  • Think twice about paying money for a directory listing, and focus on quality service. My dentist evidently has a strong enough brand that he did not need a listing — even his rival’s listing led to him.
  • When you ask for a referral, ask for something specific and compelling. The “George Clooney” line was good, worthy of a professional copywriter.
Have you learned any marketing lessons from an unexpected source?
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

Reader testimonial

WORDS YOUR WAY BLOG

Reader testimonial

I want to thank you with my whole heart for your article on cats and patting them when they are eating. It is helping me save my cat’s life right now. We found our sweet, 6-year-old baby girl swallowed something, it is still stuck in her but luckily we got her to the vet with enough time to have a real chance at saving her life. After two rough days at the vet and many IV bags and X-rays later they sent her home to spend the night here. They hoped being with her human mommy and daddy will help, and I was charged with one task… to get her to eat. I remembered your article and did something I never thought to do, I patted her while coaxing her to eat. To my great amazement it worked! I was able to get her to eat something for the first time in over four days. Tonight we will pray that the foreign body will pass naturally and eating is going to help. If not tomorrow she is back to the vet and will have a surgery. As insightful and sweet your stories are I never thought an internet group on cats could change a family’s life… but you did. Thank you all for the great work you are doing.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

Don’t Write How You Speak

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Don’t Write How You Speak

“Write how you speak.” The advice is well intentioned. It’s meant to ease the fears that stop smart people from putting their words on paper. (Everybody can talk, right?) It’s meant to correct the tendency some people have of writing in a style they were taught to use for 11th grade English assignments. The advice is not bad; it’s just misleading. To compose effective pieces, one must understand that written and spoken communications have different structures. What’s more, since increasing amounts of what is written today is stored or distributed digitally, there’s another reason to be more deliberate about structuring pieces: structure helps machines “read” your content so that it can be found by your target audiences. When people suggest you write how you speak, they’re talking about style. They’re recommending that you match the register (how formal the language is) of your written communication with the way you would speak to the same audience, and that you match the tone (the attitude or mood you convey) with the message. Writing a welcome letter to people who have registered for workshop, “Be A Clown: Improv for Executives”? The register should be informal; the tone should be friendly and humorous. Writing a demand letter to a customer who wrote a bad check? The register should be formal; the tone should be serious and matter-of-fact. Style isn’t everything. The enrollees of that improv class and the writers of that rubber check know they are reading a letter when they see the salutation, a typical feature of a letter’s structure. Spoken communication happens in an interactive context. It capitalizes on body language, vocal inflection, and the physical environment. Written works, including prewritten speeches, trade those advantages for another one, something akin to a blueprint. When writing a piece, you rely on its structure (the organization of the ideas and information in relation to each other) to achieve the effects you want to have on people’s thinking and feeling. • Journalists use the inverted pyramid to write basic news stories. The first paragraph includes all of the essential information, and the story trails through less and less important content as the paragraphs progress. • Write fiction, and you will learn some version of a formula of Aristotle’s theory of plot or Fryetag’s pyramid. This structure promotes readers’ identification with the main character and immersion in the world and events of the story. • High school students learn some version of the five-paragraph structure. That’s a way to organize a short piece to construct an argument. These formats provide landmarks that hold — and direct — readers’ attention. Each one cues a particular state of mind and promises a specific kind of experience. Neglect structure, and you confuse and annoy your audience.
  • The piece is vaguely interesting, but the reader can’t tell where it’s going until three or four paragraphs in.
  • The main point is buried.
  • The article isn’t wordy, exactly, but it goes on way too long.
  • A short piece uses several conflicting metaphors rather than a unifying one.
  • Instead of a satisfying wrap-up, the piece ends abruptly.
  • An instruction sheet or manual seems cluttered with unnecessary or distracting background information.
Each of these problems is a failure of structure. Most of them don’t pose a problem if you’re speaking to someone in person. To be sure, great writers sometimes break structure deliberately, for effect. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we think we are following the story of Marion, who’s stolen her boss’ money and gone on the lam. Thirty minutes into the action, she’s stabbed in the famous shower scene. Surprise! In the digital realm there can be additional hiccups, like:
  • An excerpt on a content aggregator misrepresents the post to which it clicks through. (The lack of structure means the content hasn’t been marked up properly.)
  • The navigation on a Web site confuses you. The flow between linked pages doesn’t make sense. (No big picture gives order to the ideas.)
Writing how you speak is a great way to get a first draft, but the next step isn’t “polishing.” When you edit your first draft, you stop being a conversation partner and start being a maker. Try to imagine the train of thought your readers will need to take if they are to respond the way you want them to. Imagine also their emotional reactions. Then lay the track. Are you reporting, teaching, entertaining, convincing? Arrange your content to support the goal. Don’t forget the concern of how people will consume the piece: From their phone while on the commuter bus, from their desktop while at work, from a bound book while sitting in a favorite reading chair, or from loose sheets of paper propped up next to a machine they’re trying to fix? Don’t write how you speak; there’s nobody listening. Give people a route to follow.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.
Keep Up Those Amateur Efforts

Keep Up Those Amateur Efforts

WORDS YOUR WAY BLOG

Keep Up Those Amateur Efforts

You never know when or how something you “don’t really do seriously” will pay off.

A few years ago, I was writing for the San Francisco SPCA magazine. There was no money for photography, so I took my trusty digital point-and-shoot camera along on my reporting assignments. My editor published a photo and entered it into a contest. It won first prize.

Judges’ comments: “She captures the complex play of emotions in the cat’s face-wariness, trepidation, and ultimately, trust, with the result being that the image is indelibly printed on the viewer’s mind.”

Today the photo helps promote the cat claw clipping service of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consultancy that keeps cats in their homes and saves their lives.

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.