OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
You've heard me expound the importance of professional editing over and over again, but I do get a lot of emails from people who can't afford professional services.
This guest blog post is from Jake, founder of DocuToss, a free online community that encourages its users to offer feedback and editing advice to their fellow writers.
I think there are essentially three steps to being a high quality writer.
First, be an average writer.
Second, get feedback from other people.
Third, seriously think about that feedback and revise.
What other routes are there to improving writing other than feedback?
Well, reading is certainly helpful and there are some useful training activities and ways to practice. Ultimately though, it all comes down to doing it and seeing how well it worked. Unless you are your own audience that is going to mean seeing how well it worked for someone else.
Nothing about the concept of receiving feedback is new to anyone reading this. The slightly unique argument worth considering is the benefit of providing feedback. There are at least three benefits of this type.
1. Providing feedback forces you to read differently.
It encourages you to look carefully and look for errors. Practice in this type of reading is an invaluable way to write more carefully. Good feedback goes beyond pointing out errors and attempts to explain why an alleged error needs correction. Editing forces you to think critically about grammar, style, organization and content.
2. Providing feedback gives ideas on improving your own writing.
As you read using critical eyes you are likely to find yourself thinking about the mistakes you fall into. You also are likely to begin thinking about the ways other writers organize their ideas.
3. Providing feedback is fun.
This benefit may sound marginal but should not be marginalized. It is a great way to expose yourself to a wide variety of writing you might not otherwise typically read. Writing is usually rewarding, but in a very selfish way. Editing gives you an opportunity to help others through your writing skills; altruism is fun.
Hopefully this has been somewhat convincing.
It is easy to exchange writing with friends, family members or respected colleagues. Another great option is to find an online community in which you enjoy sharing reviews. This can take the form of a favorite writing forum or an online exchange editing platform.
Before you actually get started you might be wondering …
How to ensure you are getting the most of the editing process.
While there are no perfect guides to editing there are a few basic tips.
First, if exchanging files digitally, using comments (instead of track changes) in Microsoft office is a great option. It forces you to explain yourself and think about your suggestions.
Second, there are many online checklists for editing, google a few of these before you get started and use them. It may seem elementary but they are a great way to get you to challenge yourself to think while editing. Here's an example from ReadWriteThink.
Third, editing (like writing) is iterative. It requires repetition. It is best when attempted more than once. If you want the best possible results, don’t be lazy and be willing to reread and reconsider a paper several times.
[Note from Joanna: Please also edit and comment on genres that you already read and enjoy, not genres you know nothing about. And please respect each other and be aware of being constructive. Check out this interview on rejection, criticism and resilience to help you.]
Next time you’re itching for something to inspire you to write, or some golden tip to improve your writing, consider how well the opposite approach can work. Get inspired and improve not by writing, but by editing.
Have you found editing other people's work useful? How have critique communities helped you? What are your tips for editing peers? Please do leave a comment below.
DocuToss is an attempt to improve the quality of writing through a simple feedback interface. It was born out of a simple observation: the process of asking others to review papers, emails and other documents is often more cumbersome than the actual review process.
We wanted to speed up how quick you could toss your documents out for feedback. But we also knew that “roulette” style sites tend to become quickly swamped with low quality content. The solution we have found is to create a community in which users are rewarded for strong contributions.
…and thus DocuToss was born…
I was very skeptical about editing/commenting on other’s work because I was so protective of my time, needing to write, not muck around with someone else’s stuff. It seemed like another potential time waster, a way to avoid putting fingers to keyboard. Also, I had no idea of what to say to be helpful, my own comments seemed overly blunt and critical when I had something to say.
However, after receiving so much amazing, helpful criticism from a number of writers, I began to see how valuable it was. My own writing improved, and out of gratefulness, I began to give tentative comments to others. I am part of a writer’s critique group now, and slowly learning to trust them and trust myself to give constructive criticism. I still feel we all need to be careful not to be distracted by it, and let it take away our own precious writing time.
Joanna Penn says
I agree Sherida, and I am very careful about who I let critique my work and also whose work I critique in turn. There has to be a mutual respect and as you say, we still have to protect our time.
SC Morgan says
Gteat post and so very true. I have been a member of one of the oldest online critique groups, the Internet Writing Workshop, for about five years now. Getting feedback from others is invaluable, but, as you say, it has made me a far more critical reader. Reading other people’s’ work not only shows how to do it right but also where a sentence makes a reader stumble because of faulty syntax, punctuation error, or simple typos. invaluable for my own writing!
Internetwritingworkshop (dot) org
Joanna Penn says
Thanks SC, it sounds like that’s a good group if you’ve been a member for so long.
Ross Lampert says
Good information but as a long-time critique group member, the first thing I hear from new members/writers is, “I don’t know how to critique. I don’t know what to say.” And they’re right.
As a result, a couple other members of the group and I put together a list of things to look for when doing critique and I’ve been turning them into a series of Critique Technique posts on our blog. (They’re all useful for editing your own work too.)
Anyone who’d like to know more can go to the Cochise Writers blog (http://cochisewriters.wordpress.com), click on Our Writing in the menu line, then click on Critique Technique in the drop-down menu. Questions and comments are always welcome!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Ross, I know what you mean. I always give my beta readers a clear list of what I want comments on, but overall critique advice is really useful.
Cyd Madsen says
I love the way this site is constantly giving us alternate ways of viewing things. Here is yet another Ah-ha! post. I love critiquing and beta reading but haven’t been able to articulate why. It does feel good helping someone else, and it’s a great feeling when someone is excited about your work but jazzed about getting involved and amping it up (also known as telling you certain parts of the work are horrible). Criticism given in the right way, and for the right reasons, is enthusiasm squared. The second reason on your list is a huge one for me. If I see my own writing in the work of others too often, I know I’ve fallen into current trends of conversation. Not good 😉
I’ve done critiquing and beta reading for quite a few successful writers who do not use professional editing, yet their books are well-written, grammatically tight while still pushing the edge of grammar used as a tool. Their published works are surprisingly clean as if having had several line edits. Without exception, they agree it’s because they have beta readers in different genres and formats, and each picks up something the other misses–a carousel of fresh eyes. I’m finding the same as I have my work critiqued. As much as I love the support and kudos of close friends and family, there’s nothing better than a fellow writer who really cares about our shared craft and enjoys talking about why something works and what causes failure in some area of the project. Those “critiques” often turn into exchanges about the different elements of our craft so enjoyable that ego dissolves and everyone is enervated. It doesn’t always work this well, and not all critiques are without confused motives, but it’s best learning early the fine art of thick skin and focus on what works. Off to DocuToss to join in.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Cyd, and I definitely recommend people who can’t afford pro editing to use beta readers of this kind of community critique in order to improve their work. More pairs of eyes BEFORE the book goes live is critical 🙂
Edmund Pickett says
This isn’t about today’s post, but I thought of someone you might want to interview–Max Allan Collins. He’s been around forever, collaborated with Mickey Spillane, knew Donald Westlake and has been very productive. I followed an Amazon suggestion and read one of his Quarry novels on Kindle, which led to reading all the others. I suspect that he has received a new career push because of Kindle. The Quarry books were written a long time ago and were probably selling very slowly if they weren’t out of print. His thoughts on internet publishing might be very interesting. Another topic, which could well be a seond interview, could be genre writing in general.
Keep up the good work. I read your comments about “Write or Die,” bought it and love it.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for the recommendation Edmund. I’ll check him out.
Mary Jo Burke says
I belong to a few writers groups. They host contests and I have judged others’ work. Offering a critique can be a humbling experience. I know the person on the other side wants honest feedback and they want to win.
Douglas Dorow says
I’ve been a part of a multi-genre critique group for over 15 years. It started after a bunch of us finished a writing class and wanted to keep meeting.
I’ve learned so much from this group. Not only by having them critique my work, but by reading and critiquing their work as well. Reading in order to critique really makes you look at a work differently than just reading for pleasure.
Learning what works is as important as what doesn’t work, when writing. Others have said I should just be a part of a group that writes what I write (Thrillers), but being part of a group in many genres makes you really think as a writer.
Writing can be such as lonely process, this social component, meeting every two weeks is something to really look forward to. We also find that others are having the same struggles we are and it is good to hear about what works in your writing as much as what doesn’t. You need to be careful though, if a writer is in that self-doubt zone, sometimes they only hear the negative.
Can’t write without my critique group.
Joanna Penn says
That sounds great Douglas and I’m interested in how many people are in your group. I think more than 6 might be unmanageable as you would all be at different stages of the writing process. I generally want people who like my genre to read, but perhaps you’re right, having a broader critique group would enhance the work in other ways.
Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. says
Thanks for continuing to provide us with such great and diverse information.
I disliked critique groups and group projects in college because it always seemed like the blind leading the blind. But professional writers sharing feedback with each other is a very different thing.
While groups like this don’t mean we should skip getting professional editing, they can help us make tremendous improvements before forwarding our manuscripts to the editor.
Dixie Goode says
One thing I read recently, I think in a Reader’s Digest article about how to improve your IQ and actually increase it, was the benefit to your mind, that causes new connections to form in your brain when you form your own information backed opinions. The article actually recommended writing reviews for places like Amazon as a way to fight dementia.
Once again, I love what you have had to say here.
Joanna Penn says
Wow! That’s a new one for me – although some of the quality of the reviews is pretty dire! I do think evaluation of one’s life in any form is valuable though. That’s why I do so many ‘lessons learned’ posts 🙂
Alyce Wilson says
I was relatively new to the process of critiquing when I began my coursework in the Poetry MFA program over 15 years ago. My first real critique made me cry! But I soon learned that the comments — even when they weren’t stated in the most positive way — were a good resource for making my writing improve. If I had never taken those workshops, I’d be a far different (and I think, more inferior) writer today.
Joanna Penn says
I’ve made people cry before Alyce 🙂 and I was massively hurt by my first novel critique, but I know how much it all improves the work now, so it’s important pain.
Dana Sitar says
Can’t wait to check out DocuToss!
I’ve learned so much through editing other people’s work. It’s easy to point out flaws in someone else’s writing that you would never notice in your own. After seeing the sane issues in several pieces, though, they stick with you, and you can start to recognize when you make the same mistakes.
Joanna Penn says
I am hyper-critical about overuse of exclamation marks now, since it’s something I used to do 🙂
Hi, thanks for your great site. I noticed that docutoss.com is no longer active. Do you know whether this is a permanent thing, or is it going to be re-launched?
Joanna Penn says
Hmm, I have emailed Jake who wrote the post – but it seems like it has disappeared. Perhaps that says something about the business model of community critiquing online 🙂 You can always find people through Meetup.com though and have a live version.