Tag Archives: reading

Critique Abundance


by Jude Walsh Whelley

Last Thursday it was my turn for critique with the Plot Sisters, the five amazing women writers who read and respond to my work. I am new to this group, they have been responding to one another’s writing for several years. We respond to only one writer per session and she has the entire two hours devoted to her work. I gave the Sisters one essay that I wrote  more than a year ago and found as I was cleaning out my documents files. I read it over, realized I could do a much better job with it now and revised it to give to the group. And then I trusted them with a newly hatching piece, only partly written, a true first draft.

They responded to the revised piece first. I can see how my craft has improved! These years of writing almost every day, taking craft classes, reading widely, and attending workshops is paying off. I am a better writer. I had a good start on that essay, I liked the content, but could tell it better. I now have the skill set to be able to look at my work and know what to do to improve it, so I made some changes and expanded the work before sending it to them.

The changes I made were only the first step in getting to a polished piece, a piece ready for submission. Having this critique session with people I trust and respect, gave me a more complex level of response, elevating the essay’s potential. The Sisters gave three forms of feedback: their comments during the session, the writing with either hand marked or track change comments, and a few paragraphs of general critique and suggestions. The photo above was the treasure I took home after the session. Talking over the piece, listening to their remarks and criticisms, seeing it through their eyes, made me want to rush home and immediately begin revising.

They responded differently to the second piece. Recognizing that it was not fully developed, they responded tenderly, simply saying what they liked and what drew them in and what potential they could see. I felt like the egg I had been sitting on, keeping warm so it could grow, was passed from nest to nest and returned to mine a little more developed within its shell. And that now there was some pecking from inside that shell, signaling it was ready to enter the world.

 You can surely see why I titled this post Critique Abundance! I left that session energized, inspired, and easy to revise. Thank you Plot Sisters!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Writing with All Your Senses — A Learnable Skill

image002When beginning writers read flowing prose full of dazzling descriptions, they may think, “I’ll never in a thousand years be able to write like that!” They may grow depressed and consider throwing their computer off a bridge. Nobody is immune.

When you hear those thoughts, rest assured that your Inner Critic is the source, and that they are both true and false. They are true because our writing voices are as personal and unique as our speaking voices. You could study and practice that author’s style for fifty years, but you’ll never write exactly “like that.” Your challenge is to develop your own best style and message, not to mimic anyone else.

They are also false because writing dynamic description is a learnable skill. It takes practice and dedication. In my experience, a three-pronged approach has worked well to hone description skills to a keen edge. One prong involves reading, another involves awareness of surroundings, and the third is deliberation.

I am a purposely slow reader. I savor words and phrases as a gourmet savors flavors. I always have a pad of sticky flags at hand when I’m reading a novel or memoir so I can mark words and phrases I admire. Some books may sport only a few; others resemble a hairbrush. When I read an innovative description, I savor its richness, reading it aloud to practice the sound and feel of it, letting it sink deeply into my mind. I imagine, for example, Charles Frazier sitting in a trance at his keyboard, raptly engrossed in a scene he envisions for Cold Mountain. I see him reaching for scrap paper to doodle some thoughts before he finds the phrase that evokes a smile and nod of satisfaction: “the air … so damp it caused fresh sheets to sour under him and tiny black mushrooms to grow overnight from the limp pages of the book on his bedside table.” Wow! The pure genius of that dismal description gives me goose bumps!

After I finish the book, I head for my computer and type the flagged passages into a Word document. I review that file now and then for inspiration.
Turning to the second prong, awareness of surroundings, when something captures my attention, I often ponder ways to describe it. What is unique about its color, texture, shape? What does it remind me of? What metaphors or similes might work? I scramble up the side of my perceptual rut and stretch toward new ideas, relying on the tool I just mentioned — thinking about how other authors come up with phrases I admire.

Deliberation, the third prong, comes into play while editing. I challenge every sentence, seeking fresh ways of stating the ordinary and artful ways of arranging words. To borrow an example from Jennifer Stewart’s rollicking Writing Tips newsletter, our prehistoric ancestors might have bred by engaging in “Paleolithic passion.” Free association and visualization are the bedrock of this process.

This is art, and it has a musical component. Students of writing and literature hear a lot about a writer’s voice. We each develop our own, as unique and personal as our speaking voice. I may admire Rosamund Pilcher from daybreak to dusk, but my writing will never sound like hers. It won’t sound like Sue Grafton’s either, and certainly not like Steven King’s or William Zinsser’s. My writing will sound like Sharon Lippincott’s, as it should. My challenge is to continually strive to stay on pitch and in rhythm to keep my writing as crisp and clear as it can be.

Write now: scan the room around you and find one specific item that catches your eye, then write about it. Describe it in an unusual way and strive to involve two or three senses. Find other things to describe until you’ve covered all your senses at least a couple of times in several variations.

This post is excerpted from The Heart and Craft of Writing Compelling Description, Sharon Lippincott, 2013

Photo credit: Rochelle

Sharon Lippincott is an evangelist for lifestory writing and memoir and the author of four books. Her most recent, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing Compelling Description, helps writers transform tales from blah to brilliant.  She teaches writing courses online and in Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh Osher programs and cohosts the Life Writers’ Forum YahooGroup. She is founder of the Pittsburgh area WE WRITE! Creative Writing University and serves on the NAMW advisory board. She has been blogging at http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com since 2007.