Category Archives: Writing

How to Criticize People Kindly and Effectively

Unlike most college classes, where you’re expected to do your best on your own and hope for a good grade, fiction writing classes thrive on peer criticism. It’s called “workshopping.” You write a story and give it to your classmates, and the next class session they all sit around and talk about what worked well in the story, and how it could be better.

The first fiction writing class I ever took was at LBCC in 2012. When it came time to workshop it, everyone took turns saying things about my story, and they all said nice things. No one criticized a single thing. I was elated. I had done it. My story was good. 

Now, of course, I chuckle a bit at my past self and her fixed rather than growth mindset. It shouldn’t have been about being a good enough writer, or being a better writer than my classmates, it should have been about being the best writer I could be. And for that to happen, I needed criticism.

I’m in my fourth fiction writing class, now, and I’ve changed my tune. I submitted my story last Tuesday knowing that it felt a bit skeletal–like I should add something to it–but with only the vaguest idea of what I should add. And today, it got workshopped.

My classmates began, as is the custom, by saying what they liked about the story. They liked the characters. They loved the dialogue, which made me happy, because I love writing dialogue but didn’t actually know if it worked well in the story. They firmly established that my story was good, that it had potential, that I had writing talent.

And then they switched gears. By the time you reach a 400 level fiction writing class, saying only good things is no longer an option. It’s not fair to the author. It’s not true. Every rough draft in the universe could be improved in some manner.

I didn’t have enough of my character’s family in the story. “This scene here, on page 7, where the parents are lonely,” said Sarah. “That’s so good, but we don’t know why they’re lonely. You should put them in earlier scenes, so we understand this better.”

“I would have liked more description,” said Justin. “Like on page 9, where you wrote, ‘we sat on the porch and watched the horizon.’ I want to know what that looked like.”

Just like the first time I had a story workshopped, I left the room feeling elated. But I felt elated for different reasons. Not because I thought my story was awesome, but because I thought my story was full of possibility, and I had a very clear idea of how to make it awesome.

Tonight as I was weeding the hedge in the muggy twilight, I thought about how in my opinion, real-life criticism works best when it’s done like workshopping criticism.

First of all, we should limit our criticism to those who have “signed up for it” in some sense–such as family members, friends, and those whom we’ve invested in. Not randos on the internet we happen to dislike. (In fact, I don’t know if it’s ever appropriate to offer personal criticisms over the internet. That may be up for debate, but I definitely recommend face-to-face if possible.)

Second, we should begin with establishing why they’re great people in general, and what they’re doing well. This not only makes the criticism “sit” better, but it also is helpful too, the same way it was helpful to know that my dialogue was working well in my story.

And then, finally, voice our criticisms. But not a vague, “you’re annoying sometimes.” A very specific, “you tend to talk with your mouth full at the dinner table when you get really excited,” or “during Bible study, you dominate the conversation.” Things that are legitimately fixable.

Hopefully, this will leave people excited about what they can become, rather than feeling shamed about who they are.

I’m very curious about your thoughts on the matter. What has your experience of offering/receiving criticism been like?

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How To Write an Opinion That People Will Listen To

Two weeks ago I wrote an opinionated blog post titled “When Even a Mug is Too Much.” Using that post as a model, I’m going to tell you everything I’ve learned, after 12 years of blogging, about writing opinions that people will listen to.

Step 1: Form an opinion

Form an opinion. Don’t just copy one you saw on the internet.

Step 2: Connect your opinion to a story about your life

Let’s say you have a strong opinion about pit bulls. Humans are storytellers. We want to know why you have that opinion. Did you rescue a pit bull that everyone else was scared to adopt, only to have it be the most wonderful pet you could have imagined? Was your niece almost mauled by a pit bull? The story will serve as the heart of your opinion.

In my mug post, I connected my opinion on sustainability to an incident in which my very liberal teacher brought a disposable coffee cup to class every day, and yet thought it was odd that I brought a reusable mug.

Step 3: Write the rough draft

The post should have two parts: the story section, and the opinion section. First, briefly write down the story. Then start ranting about your opinion. Write everything you’ve always wanted to say on the subject.

I usually feel particularly rant-y right before bed. When I wrote my mug post, I couldn’t sleep because I was ranting in my head, so I vented to my blog. Then I saved it as a draft, to refine later.

The story portion was 262 words long. The opinion portion was 459 words.

Step 4: Delete the majority of your rant

People get so fired up about their opinions that they end up saying the same things over and over. This bogs the reader down. You want your opinion to be as sharp and concise as possible.

As an example of this, in my mug post, I came up with an analogy that I thought was so perfect. My rough draft read as follows, misspellings and all. (Remember, I was trying to type on my phone.)

A democrat and a republican were walking one day, when they came to a bridge. It was the only bridge in two miles. Peering closely at the bridge, the democrat said, “I don’t think that bridge is safe to cross.”
“Whatever,” said the Republican.
“No, I’m serious,” said the Democrat. “Look, the wood is rotten. Some of the support posts are buckeling. This bridge needs serious help. If it doesn’t break beneith us, we’ll weaken it so badly that the next people to walk across will fall through.”
“I don’t believe you,” said the Republican. “I’ve walked across this bridge before and it was fine.”
The Democrat was so frustrated. “It’s so obvious!” she said. And she pulled out some civil engeneering reports to show him, aranging the data into some easy-to-comprehend flowcharts.”
The republican schrugged. “I still don’t buy it,” she said.
Exhausted from trying to convince the republican, the democrat gave up. “Fine,” she said. “But when that bridge collapses, we’ll know who was right.” And in her heart she knew that morally, she believed the right thing.

With this settled, they both walked over the bridge. (Obviously. The next bridge was two miles out of the way)

In my edit, I thought, “what is the essence of what I am trying to say here?” and, “how can I say that in as few words as possible?”

I deleted sentence after sentence, and my final draft read as follows:

Democrats and Republicans, I’ve decided, are like two people who passionately argue about whether a bridge is structurally sound, and then both proceed to cross it anyway, because going downstream to the next bridge is too much bother.

Say exactly what you are trying to say, and no more. Delete, delete, delete. I went from a 459 word opinion section to a 248 word opinion section.

Step 5: Refine your story

In the story portion, focus on telling the story well. What parts should you tell first? What parts are irrelevant to your opinion? What details will draw your reader in?

In my mug post, I originally began my story this way:

Some teachers hide their political affiliation well. He didn’t. “I don’t know who you’re voting for,” he said, clutching his paper Allen Brothers coffee cup, “but, I mean, I hope it’s really obvious who you’re voting for.”

When Trump won he came to class looking a bit shell-shocked, as though the world wasn’t anything like he’d supposed it to be, all these years. His daily dose of caffeine was in his hand, perhaps the only thing keeping him functional.
One day he asked me about my mug.

Why did I begin my story with my professor’s political affiliation? That wasn’t the most interesting part. I switched things up, and began with the actual incident.

My writing professor walked into the classroom, set his paper Allan Brothers coffee cup on his desk, and hung his leather messenger bag over the back of his chair. His eyes swept around the circle of our desks, and came to rest on me. Looking both bewildered and bemused, he said, “can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” I said.

“How does that work, you bringing a mug to class?”

Opinions should be stated in as few words as possible, but sometimes we need space to craft our stories well. The story section of my mug post was 262 words long in the rough draft, but I expanded it to 358 words in my final published post.

Other things to think about: Should I keep my story at the very beginning, or would it work better later on in the blog post? Should I use multiple stories to get my point across? Play with different options.

Step 6: Proofread your post, trying to see from the eyes of your audience

When you write an opinion, someone will misunderstand you. That is a sad reality of life.

Still, try to keep the misunderstandings to a minimum. Imagine your grandma reading it. Imagine your liberal neighbor reading it. Imagine your friend from elementary school clicking the link on Facebook and thinking about you again for the first time in years. What would be confusing to them? Re-word it. What would needlessly offend them? Consider adding a disclaimer.

Disclaimers are sticky subjects though, as too many will bog down your argument and make you seem a bit wishy-washy. I added a small disclaimer in my mug post, because I realized that I was painting liberal college students with a really broad brush. I wrote:

Granted, some people live very consistently with their values, and I respect that a lot.

Step 7: Publish!

Publish your opinion. Refresh your computer screen until you get your first comment. Edit your opinion post to clarify the thing they misunderstood. Go eat a cookie. Come back and find that three people think you’re amazing and one person thinks you’re judgmental. Panic. Draft three responses to their comment before deciding to just let it go.

Congratulations, you have published an opinion that people listen to.

This has been day 22 of the April Blogging Challenge. On day 20, mom posted about parenting teenage girls, and on day 21 Jenny wrote about things she wishes she could tell her younger self.

MOP April 13: Vindication

I was pretty bad at academic writing when I started college, which was hard on my ego. I mean, I’d published a book and stuff, how dare my teachers make notes in the margins of my papers telling me to take a writing class?

Humph.

Still, being of a practical frame of mind, I signed up for an entry-level writing class the next term.

Our first paper was supposed to be an essay about “the worst job I’ve ever had.” I wrote something clever and funny, and brought the rough draft to class to get critiqued. I think the idea was to get into small groups and critique each others’ papers, but as the teacher wandered from group to group giving helpful hints he decided to grab my paper and read the first paragraph out loud.

Oh no. My paper was not funny and interesting as I had previously thought. It was, instead, vague and confusing. At least, the first paragraph was. That’s all he read before flippantly dismissing it, and I went home with my writer ego a squashed mess.

I ranted to my mom about it over a cup of tea.

“I once had a writing teacher who absolutely tore my work to shreds in front of the whole class,” she said. “Then when I became a successful writer I saw him again, and he praised my work up and down, and I felt vindicated.”

After I got over the sting of criticism, I re-wrote the first paragraph to be less vague and confusing. The next class session, my teacher immediately came up to me. “Emily! I’m so sorry last class ended before I had a chance to critique your paper!”

“Um, yeah, well I guess the beginning was kinda confusing so I changed it,” I said, tentatively handing my paper to him.

He began reading it. “Yeah, this is great. This makes so much more sense.”

My writer ego scabbed over nicely.

Today, five years and several colleges later, I was finished with class and walking back to my car when someone yelled at me from across the street. “Hey, it’s the girl in the red rubber boots!”

I laughed as my former writing teacher crossed the street and came up to me, shaking my hands as if I were the celebrity and he was a fan. “I love your blog!” he said.

Mwa ha ha ha ha, vindication at last.

 

MOP April 7: Making the Most of the Life Stage You’re Currently In

A picture of Jenny just because she’s pretty.


Right now, I want to write another book. I know exactly what I want to write. I sit and daydream about pulling out my pencils and digging into a stack of old notebooks and organizing my ideas. I research how to write book proposals.

But.

I am not at a life stage where I can write a book.

It took me a while to come to terms with this. I’ve tried for years to be a writer and a college student at the same time, and it worked, to some extent. I wrote things. Just not things like whole entire books.

I know that I’ll be done with college eventually and can write a book then. But will I? Deep down I have a fear that if I don’t find time to write a book now, I will never find time to write a book.

After my last blog post about the perks of having married friends, someone commented saying it was nice that I’m secure in my singlehood, because many people can’t view singleness as a gift. My first thought was this: It would be much easier to view singleness as a gift if I knew for sure that I would eventually get married.

There are many, many perks to the life I currently live. A young mother recently told me that I need to appreciate my long interrupted hours of reading while I still can. As a college student I get to spend the majority of my time learning, thinking over the complex and beautiful issues of the world. Very little in my life could be described as “mundane.” There is a carefree independence to being single, and college offers a way to make friends with an ease that will probably never again be replicated in my life.

However, neither one is a stage I want to stay in forever.

There are some stages of life that we just survive. Seasons of illness and times of grief, for instance. If you want to know how to make the most of those stages of life, don’t look here, I haven’t got a clue. But singleness isn’t like that, and neither is college, and neither is the stage of having wild young children, or grown children that haven’t gotten married yet. These are all stages we will one day be nostalgic for, and yet our enjoyment of them, right now, is hampered by our longing to be in the next stage and fears that it will  never happen.

I don’t exactly know how to change that feeling. It’s one thing to say, “appreciate the stage  you’re at now,” but what are some practical steps to actually doing it?

Then again, this isn’t Buzzfeed. I don’t need a list of “ten practical ways to appreciate the single college student stage of life (number 14 will surprise you).” Tonight I will celebrate my singleness by staying up past midnight chatting with an old friend, and tomorrow I will make the most of my studenthood by talking to Garrett who sits next to me in class. I don’t know why I don’t talk to him. He seems like a nice enough guy, albeit kinda quiet.

What stage of life are you struggling to appreciate? Any tips to offer?

Read Jenny’s April 6 MOP post here. Stay tuned for a post tomorrow on Mom’s blog.

Writing is Just Hard

Uggghhhhhh writing is so haaaaaaaarrrrrrd.

Why? Shouldn’t it be easy, so long as you learned how to type in high school? Just put your fingers on the keys, and, “beep beep boop!” Transfer your thoughts to the electronic equivalent of paper.

Right? I mean, come on, fingers. You haven’t posted in a month and a half. Do your thing.

My friend Esta recently read two books about writing, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King.

“I love On Writing!” I told her, sipping tea in her living room while her toddler napped, a fan whirring to muffle our voices. “I started Bird by Bird and didn’t finish it.”

“See, you’re like Justin,” she said referencing her husband. “He also liked On Writing but not Bird by Bird. Anne Lamott is always second-guessing herself, and writing is so difficult and painful for her, and Justin just had a really hard time getting through it. But I told him he has to read it to understand how I think as a writer.”

I was actually really surprised to hear that writing was so hard for her. Listening to her talk about the painful dramatic tug-of-war in her head made me think, “wow, writing comes easy for me.”

But it doesn’t. I mean, it does when I write in my diary, it does when I’m inspired and feel like writing, but the easy writing is never enough to turn me into the type of writer I want to be.

I read On Writing in a Journalism class, and loved the humor and practicality, even though Stephen King is not an author I would normally read. I think this is because I have a very practical approach to writing, one that is more stereotypically male than female. So when it comes to things like “writer’s block,” I always think there must be a practical solution.

Like, “Outline more.”

Or, “Make yourself write for an hour each day.”

Or, “trick yourself into doing it.” That was the solution I came up with today, powering off my iphone and telling myself that it’s staying off until I post a post.

But that doesn’t change the fact that writing is just hard.

The other day I inexplicably found myself alone in the house. In the morning, no less. Mom rushed out the door and left a steaming pot of tea behind, and I sat at the table and gazed across the brilliantly green fields and felt like writing.

So I got out a story that I should have finished months ago, but for some ridiculous reason I’ve been putting off for FOREVER. I opened the notebook, set my pretty tea cup on top of it, and snapped a picture for Instagram.

Yeah…so much for diving into the writing.

insta.png

I realized, after I posted it, that this is more of a universal struggle than I thought it was.

I asked Mom, “why is writing so hard?”

“Because,” she said, “your thoughts are a jumbled mass of emotion, visual, impressions, whatever. They’re not in orderly words and sentences in your head. So they have to be squeeeeeeezed through this cake-decorator tube that shapes them into words and sentences.”

The fact that she can articulate it that well shows that she has mastered the craft, in my opinion. But writing, for her, is still so, so difficult.

This is one of those posts where I want to hear your thoughts. Writing is hard. But why? What do you think?

Words of an Educated Amishman

Gmpa

I’ve been spending a LOT of time at school recently, since Ben and I ended up with widely different schedules, yet only bought one parking pass to share between us. Some days it’s dark when I get up and dark when I leave school.

As a way to productively fill some of the extra hours, I’ve been typing up my Grandpa’s handwritten memoirs. My Grandpa, who is almost 99, has the extremely unique distinction of having gotten his bachelor’s and master’s degrees while still old order Amish. Since I am also interested in education, this is an area where I like to pick his brain.

Yesterday I began typing the education section of his memoir, which began like this:

“On the subject of education I hardly know where to begin or where to end. Some of it was gained in a small creek, where there were minnows and tadpoles and crawdads, and some of it in university halls. It began at the cradle and it continues until now.”

What a nice sentiment. I quite like the idea of still continuing my education at the age of 99.

When I reached the section where Grandpa described his motivation for going to college, I was surprised.

Context: Grandpa was in a CPS camp, as a conscientious objector during WWII. As the war was ending, he was trying to figure out what to do next. He wrote this about what led him toward thinking about college:

“I still had the desire to return to farming sometime, but I also saw some needs in our Amish church. I felt that our people were too uneducated. They were too poorly acquainted with our faith and practices. I was backed into a corner time and again trying to explain my faith. Should I try going to college? Could I help the situation if I went to college?”

It fascinated me that college came (at least partially) out of a desire to be able to explain his faith. Now, in conservative Anabaptist circles, the fear is that college will destroy your faith.

For me, though, college has vastly strengthened my faith. If nothing else, I saw just how many people did not actually have peace in their hearts. It astounded me, and I saw that the Holy Spirit had indeed given me peace that passed all understanding. (Philippians 4:7, Galatians 5:22)

Furthermore I’ve noticed, like my Grandpa before me, that many Christians/Mennonites have a hard time adequately explaining their faith to people who don’t speak Christianese.

I haven’t finished transcribing Grandpa’s memoirs, but already I’m completely fascinated by what he has to say. It’s hard to have a conversation with him, as he is nearly deaf, but the stories give me a glimpse of what goes on in his still-sharp mind.

About Last Blog Post, and Other Things

Okay, I have a few topics to cover today. I have homework to do but I feel like doing a blog post instead, so I’ll indulge myself. 🙂

Topic #1: My Latest Blog Post

First let me say that yes, I am aware that I misspelled “obsession” as “obession” in the title of my blog post. I found it humorous and ironic, but I was kind of annoyed that, even when I fixed it on my blog, the misspelling lived a long un-fixable life on Facebook. I imagined that everyone saw it but couldn’t point it out for fear of coming across as a fake intellectual. 😀

The blog post had one of the most interesting responses I have ever received. Some of the response was expected, and some was quite unexpected.

My post perched on the edge of devaluing education and intelligence in general. I toyed with the idea of putting in lots of disclaimers about how important education is, and how I think intelligence is a worthy thing to aspire to, but in the end I didn’t because that wasn’t what the blog post was about.

I expected this to slightly bother some people who really do value intelligence, and like to read and share things that make them think. I thought I might make them paranoid that their very real aspirations to learn more would be perceived as “fake.” And I did get a little of that, though not as much as I was afraid I might.

So maybe I’ll add one disclaimer: I you are a “fake intellectual” at heart but are sharing things that are actually interesting and bring more information to the world as a whole, while being respectful to those who disagree with you, then great. I don’t like “fakeness,” but I do think good things can come from a place of fakeness. For instance, being kind to someone you don’t like.

However, things that establish your intelligence primarily by labeling an entire group of people as “stupid” have got to go.

There were, however, two very unexpected responses that pleased me immensely.

First, several people admitted that the post hit really close to home for them. I don’t think you guys understand how rare this is. We have a tendency to construct a reality around ourselves, applaud the things that fit this reality, and squirm away silently from the things that don’t. I don’t think I have EVER written something that said, essentially, “you’re doing something wrong,” and had the response be, “oh, you’re right, I am.”

In fact, I don’t know if I have ever responded this way to something I read. The things that actually change my mind usually happen from a slow chipping away at existing ideas. Or, if I do suddenly realize that I’m wrong, I don’t usually have the guts to advertise it.

The other thing that surprised/pleased me was that I got a few private messages about the post.

I’ve often wondered about how the dynamics of blogging (especially blogging about controversy) would change if the only “commenting” option were to message the author directly. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “You should just try it! Disable comments! Tell people not to comment!”

Well, the thing is, many people depend on Facebook to see my posts, and if no one comments on Facebook not nearly as many of my friends will see that I’ve even posted. Yeah, stupid Facebook algorithms. Oh well. I really do like comments, so I don’t mind.

However, private messages are also very nice. So, if you have something to say about my post that you don’t necessarily want to make open to general discussion, feel free to message me on Facebook or send me an email. But also, comment. Either one works. (Or both.)

Topic #2: Contact Information

I added a “contact” tab for that exact reason. My email address has always lurked somewhere around the blog, but I decided to lodge it in an easy-to-find location.

Topic #3: About Me

I keep clicking on the blog links of people who comment on or like my posts, and then being disappointed to find that they have little-to-no “about me” information.

Well hello kettle, my name is pot, because I also have little-to-no “about me” information. You’d think that if I’m narcissistic enough to blog about myself I’d take pleasure in constructing a lengthy essay about who I am. But it still feels weird.

Any help from you on this matter would be appreciated. How do you decide how to describe yourself? When you read the “about me” page of bloggers, what info are you hoping to find?