Add a dash of criticism.

I am going to open with a somewhat hackneyed sentiment. Creating a piece of writing is rather like cooking a meal. It may be a short story starter, a main meal novel, a cheese platter communications project or a dessert comedy script delight. Whatever you are working on, you start with a whole lot of ingredients that are put together. Some time after you’ve opened the pantry and slaved over the creative stove; you silently pray you’ve created something your figurative diners enjoy. Hopefully they’ll leave a tip ….and it won’t just be editing advice and a rejection slip. It’ll be in your bank account and paying for next week’s groceries.

I like cooking and I like writing. I’m a much lazier cook than I am a writer, which isn’t a total disaster. That’s what Youfoodz is for. Shove it in the microwave and away you go. There isn’t really a parallel shortcut in the writing arena. If you chuck something together with minimal care it will read that way. Once an editor or prospective employer has read one mess, they are not likely to return for more. That’s like going back for a second round of bad curry.

So. Let’s say you’ve decided to write a short story. You have characters in mind and have jotted down all the main elements of the planned piece. The timeline, the world in which the story takes place, those key players and the essential plot. You have your introduction, your middle and your end. You’re all set to go and you perch at your computer and write those 2000 words (or whatever the brief may be). Once that’s done you re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Is it improving or are you actually wrecking it? Are things missing? Are they relatable characters? Is the protagonist likeable, or really irritating? Is it readable? Are there errors in spelling and syntax that you are not picking up? Hard to tell. You’ve been staring at it for two days now and you’ve either created modern day Dickens or a disaster.

Time to request……….. A CRITIQUE.

Meme from ‘Writer’s Digest’

In some circumstances a writer can be in the advantageous position of having a professional editor at their disposal. Perhaps one has been provided as part of a brief with a newspaper, magazine or book deal. A writer may be a tad cashed up… oh #happyfantasy … and has privately engaged an editor to check their work. Or in the world of reality, you are seeking the opinions of fellow writers or understanding friends for insight with regards to your recently created casserole. This is where it gets tricky. We’ve all watched the carnage of shattered egos on ‘My Kitchen Rules’. No one wants to hear their soufflé sucks.

Any writer who really wants to evolve and hone their skills will seek those risky, critical opinions. It is relatively impossible to evaluate your own work with unbiased eyes. You often know if something has real potential or is (in essence) a lemon. Fine tuning however, is very hard to do completely on your own. That does not mean you take on absolutely everything offered. Blindly rewriting anything and everything. Three different people can have three quite different opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Instead, see if there is uniformity in any of the criticisms. If anyone has offered something that you can clearly see yourself when looking at the piece with rested eyes. That’s what often brings the lightbulb moment. Something goes from average to well above with some intelligent editing.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. (Aristotle)

Critiquing someone’s work is tricky and another topic for another day. There may be little to offer as the writing is excellent. You may have just read a real stinker. (I’m tempted to offer some blue cheese quip here, but I think we’re done with the food analogies). If you are tremulously offering up your writing for criticism, there is no harm in giving your friendly editing team a few guidelines. Key points to ask for are spelling, syntax, their impression as a reader, does the plot make sense and were they engaged by the characters. Constructive criticism is the name of the game. If they liked your literary laksa (sorry…. couldn’t help myself… this is fun), then it is most helpful if they give you the reasons why it appealed. Those can often be built upon during a final rewrite.

I had this experience the other day when I roped in a few victims to read something I am working on. The idea has been simmering in my head for some time, and I’ve been thinking about starting to make some inroads. Jotted down all the essential elements and then wrote a first draft. I had bashed it out and then fiddled with it….. it was hard to tell how it was really shaping up. The good news is my readers seemed to enjoy it. The other good news is, although there were various suggestions, one observation regarding my protagonist was uniform. Yes it was a criticism (how very dare they), and yes it was utterly valid. Fascinatingly, I had been blind to it as the character is my own creation. Therefore, she is already fully developed in my own mind. I know her trajectory and potential for growth from the outset. As a result, I had omitted certain necessary facets of her character at her introduction. In the second draft the lady in question is much less one dimensional- and more interesting as a result.

Survived the critique. Learned something. We’re all still friends. Win.

Offering a critique or receiving one are both tricky negotiations. Both are excellent exercises for writers as you learn something every time. No writing is ever totally wasted, even if it winds up not being a best seller. It’s an ever evolving skill.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to microwave my dinner. It’s time to write chapter two, and I don’t have time to be all Masterchef with actual food.

Bon appetit. 😉

#writing #editing #communications #critique #criticism

Size Matters.

No. I’m not talking about what you think I’m talking about. But we love the use of an attention seeking header……

Being a writer comes with a variety of challenges. Not the least of which is finding someone to pay you for what you create. (Feel free to inbox).

The popular image of a writer is someone sitting holding a pen and paper, or at their laptop; effortlessly churning out brilliant prose. The genius flows, they send off a manuscript and boom. They’re the next Charlotte Bronte. Or Bryce Courtnay. Or Stephen King if you have that kind of bent.

In reality, there are so many kinds of writing and so many options for people in the field. A good writer can pen a novel and have a day job creating a newspaper column, web content for a clothing company or corporate policies. Writing talent is somewhat instinctive in many ways, and can be utilised in a variety of directions. However, you can’t just sit down and punch stuff out without time spent looking at a variety of factors that a publisher or day-to-day employer will require.

A major frustration can be word count if you are only provided with a certain amount of space. 1200 words means 1200 words. ‘Size matters’. Being naturally verbose I always go over… and then have to trim things back. It seems I have a lot to say. (Art imitates life).

credit :

When I was in Year Eleven, Thomas Keneally came to my school to give a lecture. We had been studying ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ and he had kindly agreed to come and speak to us. This was exciting stuff for a book nerd. I was in the front row. Pen poised, spectacles glistening, waiting to be told how to be a famous novelist. Keneally was humorous, generous of spirit and very candid. He also gave an unexpected answer to a question from one of our English teachers. The teacher asked him how he pitched and planned his novels prior to commencing the actual writing process. As someone who personally despised essay plans (and always constructed one after the actual essay was written … oops) … I keenly waited for the reply. To our teacher’s chagrin, Keneally smiled and said something along the lines of, “I don’t. I don’t know what will happen to the characters until I have met them and their story happens”. I thought this the most wonderful answer.

I had often sat down to write something (and still do) and wasn’t quite sure what would happen to the characters until I created them. I’d also wing it when it came to the narrative structure, tone and style of the writing until the whole thing began to take shape. Thomas was instantly my writing hero!!!! Alas for my teenage self, I hadn’t quite comprehended that Mr. Keneally was an extremely famous author and publishers would happily offer him a book deal without hammering him for the minute details. He wasn’t creating content to a brief. He was writing masterpieces on his own terms. A privilege he had most certainly earned over years of proving his worth as an impressive author.

Here’s one I prepared earlier………

For the less lauded of us, we need a plan. So : you have an idea for a fictional article or book. Who is the protagonist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Who is the antagonist? What is the plot outline? What is the world in which the tale is set? What is the narrative structure? And horror of horrors….. how many words?

Although writing whatever comes into my head is still a favourite quirk, I have wisely learned to embrace a good story plan. Quite often something that sounds like genius in one’s brain does not translate seamlessly to paper. Better to iron out the kinks before you spend hours realising it’s not going to be the next ‘Rebecca’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. More pedestrian writing tasks than planning your life’s literary masterpiece also need orderly thought.

If you are asked to complete a job you should always stick to the brief. Tempting as it may be to channel Tolstoy whilst creating a corporate Code of Conduct, the mark of a good writer is being easily understood. Know your audience. Make sure they will comprehend and enjoy what you are telling them. Most of us aren’t Keneally; we don’t have an editor on hand to double check our work. Self editing needs to be the go before someone of importance sees your product. Check and re check. All spelling and grammar. Remove unnecessary wordiness and try to read what you have written with ‘fresh eyes’ several times. If you need to re read a sentence….. it’s not the correct way to impart that information. If you’re like me, you’ll need to reduce your word count to fit the job at hand, and trim back some of the padding.

I’m sure various people wish they could do that with me in real life. Starts out telling a story and an hour later she’s still going. Note to self. Must self-edit long, rambling conversations. 😉

‘Size’ does matter. Good planning is never wasted. Nothing is more satisfying than a positive response from a reader to something worthy that came from your pen. Whatever that creation may be.

The other satisfying thing about writing is some of it can happen in pyjamas with a glass of wine. Hiding inside your house with the heating on. A personal favourite. That’s a happy place, with or without an essay plan. 🙂

Attention please.

My dad told me a story recently about when he was courting my mother in the 1950’s. (Mum passed away in 2017). They’d go to the movies, the lights would go down and by the end of the newsreel she’d be fast asleep just as the Queen was riding across the screen on her white horse, the National Anthem had blared and it was time for James Stuart or Cary Grant to do their thing. Mum would wake up as the credits were playing at the end of the film and pretend she’d seen the movie. Dad would pretend she hadn’t slumbered throughout the entire thing. It was a Saturday night ritual. Westerns occasionally brought her to for a moment during a gun battle, but she’d be in the Land of Nod again by the time John Wayne was back on his horse. My mother could be extremely difficult, but it’s a very cute story. Dad spent many shillings over the years for her to have a nice kip at the Tivoli.

Apart from my father’s bottomless patience with my mother (which was to span nearly 60 years), what struck me in his telling of the tale was the significance of the newsreel. You could, in fact, pay a few bob to go into designated movie theatres JUST to see the newsreels. In the day-to-day of the era, the majority of facts about world happenings came to people through newspapers and radio. That paper landing on the front porch was a lifeline to local and world events.

the Photo credit AAP/Alan Porritt

Not only did people rely on the paper for their news. They relied on the written word for entertainment. If Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor weren’t starring on the silver screen on date night (or there wasn’t a great radio play scheduled on the ‘wireless’) people read…… BOOKS. Sometimes big thick ones with lots and lots of words. Even in 1956, with the advent of early television in Australia, there were a mere four channels on offer. For those that remember, until the mid to late 1970’s the test pattern turned up around midnight. If you couldn’t sleep it was time to whip out a novel.

Things have progressed, but I still like a good book. Because I am old.

I am elderly and read things with no pictures.
(Slow clap for the nerd in the glasses).

Journalists from back in the day to now have always faced the challenge of how to grab their audience. Once grabbing them, the next hurdle is to keep the reader engaged until the end of the piece. What do we first see as readers? A headline, and possibly an image that punctuates that headline. If we’re attracted by that, we will scan down and read the first few lines (or lede). Then we either stick with it or we don’t. Do we WANT to know what ScoMo said today? Is climate change a reality? And in hard hitting news…. can we be lured to spend three minutes reading about how Jen Anniston still loves Brad?

The basic technique of article structure is generally referred to as the ‘Inverted Pyramid’. An academic way of saying upside down triangle, but that is somewhat less impressive sounding. ‘I wrote this great piece on Brexit. Of course I employed the use of the upside down triangle’. Not as convincing.

conversation Neal Cole credit : IPTC

It is fairly self explanatory. The important, attention grabbing stuff comes first; followed by other not quite as important bits and then filler at the end. This becomes vital in the editing process, as editing happens from the bottom up. If the article is too long it’s chopped in an ascending fashion.

The history behind the Inverted Pyramid is slightly unclear. Some believe it came into being with the invention of the telegraph, as sending things by wire was costly and information was prioritised depending on budget. Others believe it began during the Civil War; when there was no guarantee information would get back to the journalists waiting at home. Wires could fail and things could be intercepted. So text was sent in instalments with the most important going out first to guarantee the news arrived and the story was written.

The science of editing aside, the upside down triangle … (pardon me, ‘Inverted Pyramid’) ……. faces new challenges in 2019. In the days of my mother snoring through ‘North by Northwest’, the population mostly devoured what they were given. Newspapers, magazines, books. They were read cover to cover, and interesting parts were re read over the dinner table. In ye olden days what we had was ATTENTION SPAN. When Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..”, he fully expected his readers to stick at it for another 135,408 words. A well written, thick book meant disappearing into an exciting world via those pages for a satisfying amount of time.

These days we barely make it through a two minute read. Movies are getting shorter, television series episodes and segments are trimming down. Short, sharp and shiny entertainment is flooding our world. If we’re not immediately gripped we simply flick to another Netflix option, a different internet article or turn to the next page of the paper or magazine. I should probably say scroll rather than turn. (My joy at holding a paper or mag in my hands is making me somewhat of a dinosaur with every passing day).
I am determined not to conclude here by saying, ‘it was better in the old days’. I do deplore the lack of attention span of the young; but then I also deplore the use of the word ‘peeps’ and want to tell teenagers to actually converse with one another instead of staring at their smartphones.

It’s not just later generations. We’re all getting less and less adept at being held by anything. When was the last time I read Dickens???? The challenge for writers today is to create content that will hold their reader from the top of that upside down triangle to the pointy bottom. What we can hope is that, along with the disadvantages, we’ll be extra motivated. Inspired to create articles and pieces that will draw in an audience that is hard to hold. As a result, we’ll be better writers.

Naturally you’ll all read every word I ever write from opening sentence to conclusion. Because you love me. 😉

Is social media reality?

Social media is a tangible part of our everyday. Hands up who doesn’t look at Facebook and Instagram on the train, bus or waiting in line at the supermarket. (My hands are firmly by my sides). Hands up who hasn’t had a quick look at how many ‘likes’ they got on a particularly fabulous photo when they’re bored at a meeting, at a dinner table or even at a party. (Where you took the selfie, and should actually be speaking to the people IN the photo instead of looking at your phone).

The amount of social media options we have are growing rapidly. The fabric of our society, and even our psyches, are adjusting to accommodate a form of interaction that is still relatively new. Yet changing everything from chatting and dating to marketing and finding a new job.

It is undeniable that social media has some wonderful benefits. Instant connections, networking, sharing experiences long distance with friends and family. Many, many articles are written regarding the various dangers for children and teens. But what about us older folk? Amongst all the evident benefits, what is the downside of this new age?

I am personally a fan of hiding in my pyjamas with my three pomeranians and avoiding humans (unless I’m in a chatty mood). However, from behind my computer I can still summon up a sparkling personality and the mental image of a champagne sipping social butterfly. It can all seem so much easier than putting on a frock and facing the ‘real’ world.

Liraz Margalit of ‘Psychology Today’ gives a good insight.
“One of the distinctive attributes of human social cognition is our tendency to build models of other’s minds, which helps us make inferences about the mental state of others. When interacting with other people we automatically make inferences about them without even being consciously aware of it. We cannot help but ponder what they are thinking about, what their facial expressions mean, what their intentions are, and so on. This predisposition is what makes social interactions so demanding”.

In other words, it’s easier to sit in your pyjamas on Facebook not processing all that exhausting info. The daunting alternative is being face to face at a dinner listening to someone talk about their latest holiday or their cat. You can’t scroll on past and you have to process all those pesky facial expressions. (Plus control your own if you aren’t a cat person).

I guess it’s logical to offer here that social media is making the unsociable even more so. It is also making the inadequate feel worse, when they are hiding in their fluffy slippers at home on a Saturday night. Shyly viewing fabulous people doing fabulous things.

“Part of the reason Facebook makes people feel socially isolated (even though they may not actually be) is the comparison factor. We fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others as we scroll through our feeds, and make judgements about how we measure up”. (Alice G. Walton).

IS social media reality? From my own perspective, the answer is no. It’s a part of our lives and it can be wonderful part. It’s a tool for connecting and sharing and staying in touch. It’s here to stay, and I for one can be very content to be in my dressing gown looking at photos of European holidays and dog memes. Or surreptitiously checking if that witty quip I made on a post got the likes it deserved. But in the end there’s no genuine substitute for face to face communication. We should endeavour to keep that a reality and social media in its own sphere.

Otherwise you miss out on sitting about with your friends, hearing their voices, hearing their stories in person. Unconsciously processing all that pesky real life social interaction. Here’s one I prepared earlier.

Real life and no pyjamas

We had such a great day being fabulous people doing fabulous things.
Of course I immediately uploaded the image to Facebook.

The Psychology Behind Social Media Interactions (Liraz Margaht, Ph.D)

6 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health (Alice G. Walton 2017)