Scared of Clichés!
I loved the advice in Chapter Two about spotting clichés by asking yourself, would I say it to a friend this way?
It makes a lot of sense that writers use them when they don’t know enough about the subject. But sometimes I get so nervous about clichés popping up in my writing that I find myself questioning phrases or words obsessively. I end up editing to the point where I think I may be doing more harm then good. Other than practice, practice, practice, does anyone have any tips on how to “know” when your article is as good as you can get it without the help of an editor?
The only thing I could advise is to let others read it, such as friends and family. It’s amazing what a second pair of eyeballs who haven’t read it will catch.
You could also have other fellow writers who you trust to take a look at it.
Editors are amazing. They have another set of eyes, and will see potential where you didn’t know you had it, and cut parts of your work that you think are genius (not the great part, but part of the game). That said, every editor has stuff they hate and will not let pass, and you’ll never get it all perfect.
Avoiding clichés is about making sure it sounds like YOU wrote it. You’d never say perched for anything other than a bird on your windowsill in speech, so don’t do it in writing, either. Your voice has to come through in what you write.
There’s something to be said for NOT writing as you’d talk to a friend, too, right?
None of us want to read an article written by some of the grimace-inducing people we overhear having conversations on the train. (“And then, I was like, ‘Listen, buddy! I am going to conquer this pyramid!'”).
So there’s the challenge of finding this balance between the authenticity of your conversational speaking voice and the authenticity of your writing voice.
There’s an article that we published on The Traveler’s Notebook today by Megan Hill about her experiences following Hurricane Katrina that navigates the conversational and the written word really well. It’s not a piece that would be published in Travel + Leisure… but that’s part of the art and craft of travel writing, too: figuring out what type of piece fits in which publication.
But back to the question at hand: Having someone else read your piece is valuable. Developing relationships with editors who really want to support your development as a writer is also valuable. And often, just knocking out a draft and then letting it sit for a good 24 hours before you come back to it again with fresh eyes is also really, really helpful.
Yes! Julie, I think time is the most important factor for me. I can go back after an hour of writing and reread what I’ve written, and I’ll cut a bit here and there and edit a little, but in general I’m pretty blind. I’ve realized this because, even after just three or four hours of letting the piece sit, I see it entirely differently. Sometimes the whole thing will seem cringe-worthy and I’ll start again with a different angle. Or sometimes it’ll just be a matter of cutting and pasting and rewording. But I really don’t think you can get a decent impression of your work until you’ve let it stew for a bit. This means learning how to juggle several different pieces at once, so you can leave one for awhile to work on another.
Yes- taking time away is really important for me too. Sometimes I think I try too hard the first time around, and that’s when the clichés slip in (like you said, Eileen).
I love having my writing critiqued. I have a group for my fiction writing that helps so much. I think one of the most difficult things (for me) about travel/non-fiction is finding my written voice, or the balance between that and my conversational voice, as Julie said. (I dearly hope I never find myself using “I was like” in my writing. Ew.)
Thanks for the help, everyone!
It’s been years since I’ve workshopped my writing, so I’m really interested in hearing from you about your experiences in your writing group. A few questions:
-What specific characteristics of the group and its members have been helpful for you?
-What have you learned about delivering and receiving constructive feedback?
-How might some of the experiences from the fiction writing group be transferred to an online group for travel writers?
My group is really casual- we met online, became friends, and started a blog together that’s really taken off. We’re all in various stages of our writing careers- a few are agented and have already sold to publishers, some are out on sub to publishers, some are agent-hunting- and we just started reading each others books and giving feedback.
So what’s helpful is the different perspectives each of them provides. One in particular is great at line editing. She catches bad patterns in sentence structure and comes up with great ways to rephrase lines that aren’t wrong, but aren’t really strong, either. Another girl is great with overall plot- different arcs and how they tie together, plausibility, etc. They catch simple things, like a character wearing jeans, then later the same “day” wearing shorts.
As far as delivering and receiving constructive feedback, in the beginning I was way more comfortable with taking it than giving it. I love hearing feedback, but I was kind of nervous about giving criticism, especially to those farther along in their careers than me. But the response was great, and it’s so, so true how critiquing the writing of others helps you become a better writer. I’ve learned so much from reading what they’ve written, it’s amazing. We also use each other for our works-in-progress…if I’m working on a first draft and feel weird about a detail, a sentence, a scene, anything, I just mass email them and get feedback within a few hours, and lots of encouragement too.
Each of these girls write in different genres of fiction. So far I’ve critiqued a literary novel, a sci-fi, a fantasy, and a contemporary/mystery. Very different genres, very different prose, but similar problems and suggestions. So I imagine it all applies to travel writing, in that regards- dialogue, characterization, pacing, etc. It’s all about creating a natural, compelling story, in any case.
I guess what it boils down to as far as online groups is finding friendly people you trust and are comfortable with. I don’t know if I’d be so happy with my group if we hadn’t become friends and started this blog together first.
Man, Michelle. I was just saying I feel I need some accountability for my fiction because I’m just not hard enough on myself to be producing as much as I’d wish to be.
That group sounds great! I’m a little jealous.
I just wanted to chime in on what Julie said about waiting 24 hours. If at all possible, this is really key. If you send it off to the editor and then start noticing things you want to change the next day (and you will) you will certainly be bothering the editor with those changes.
It’s hard to wait – especially when you’re excited about what you’ve written, but you’ll be doing everyone end yourself a favor to let it ripen just a little before sending it along.
It’s so interesting to me that you found it easier to take feedback rather than give it; many people find it difficult to take feedback.
That being said, I think many people have problems with both! Learning how to give and receive criticism is an important life skill we should teach in schools. As an editor, I’ve definitely felt challenged at times to give useful feedback. You don’t want to crush someone’s spirit; you want to help them grow. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what needs to be “fixed” in order to be more engaging.
Kate: I didn’t know you wrote fiction! What kind? And yes, waiting is very important…and very, very hard to do sometimes!
Julie: My experience as a music major in college taught me to love the criticism. Teachers are wonderful people who dedicate themselves to helping their students improve. I see editors the same way. If anyone offers me advice on how to write better, I’ll gladly take it and love them for it!
But giving it is tougher for me when it comes to writing. With music? No prob. But the first book I read with that group of writers was the debut novel of a girl who had an agent that just sold said novel in a two-book (and amazing) deal to a fantastic publisher. It’s going to be shelved as “literary”, and from the first chapter it was so beautiful that I was terrified of breathing a word of criticism. Seriously? Here she is, already picking out book covers, and I’m supposed to say what?
But reading it with a critical eye did wonders for my own writing. And she wants me to critique her next book too, which I can’t wait to get my hands on! Once I let go and realized none of these writers in my group were only looking for praise for their “babies”, I really started to learn a lot.
Like you said, I can imagine worrying about crushing someone’s spirit would be a big concern. But I think that’s really up to the writer- they need to learn how to take criticism. There’s something to learn even from the harsher, less constructive bits.
Michelle: I’m not sure how to classify it. On the literary side of hard boiled? Observational?
Yeah – Along with taking criticism you’ve got to learn how to leave it, too. An objective observer is objective and that’s not always good when your writing is meant to convey something specific or emotional that isn’t exactly grasped by the critiquing party.
I know with my visual art, I like to be in a firm place with the work – on solid ground before I show it to someone. I have been thrown off course more than once by someone bringing their own personal opinion to the work.
In writing it’s the same. Give yourself a chance to decide what something means to you before you show it for critique. This doesn’t mean that critiques are no good if they change your vision for the final product – only that you should really give your vision time to grow and solidify before letting the winds of fate blow you hither and yon (how’s that for a cliche)?
Sometimes just knowing what the person’s impression is can be helpful without any advice about what they imagine you should do. Remember, you can leave their council behind if it doesn’t suit your ideas.
That’s really important advice– and often overlooked.
As a writer or artist of any kind, you have to be aware of what your own style is, what you’re willing to compromise, and what would be untrue to yourself if you reworked. Personally, I’m not interested in doing entire rewrites of my articles or essays just to get a piece published.
Anecdote: About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece on spec after having discussed it with an editor at a publication where I would have liked to have been published. It was a piece that was narrative and personal but also involved some significant research, and after working on it for a good amount of time, letting it sit, and then revising it, I was pleased with it: it was exactly the piece I’d wanted to write.
The editor, however, was not pleased, and wanted me to do a rewrite that would have changed not only the style and tone, but the intent of the piece completely. I sat with his feedback for a couple of days and really tried to be objective about it. But after thinking about it, I realized that making the kinds of changes he was asking for would make it his piece, not mine, and I wasn’t willing to compromise in this particular case. I thanked him for the feedback and his time, but let him know I wouldn’t be revising it and understood if he didn’t want to publish it.
I don’t regret the decision at all, even though I ended up publishing the piece on my own blog.
In short- yes, becoming comfortable and adept with/at criticism also involves learning about what kinds of concessions you are (and aren’t) willing to make and why.
That’s great advice, Katie. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.
Julie- I think it’s great that you decided to stick with the piece you wrote. Once writing becomes only about making money, it’s hard to find the joy. I find it really difficult to sit down and write something I don’t feel really excited about.
I know I’m chiming in a bit late here, but WOW ~ you are very lucky to have such a supportive writing group. Regarding feedback, I think giving feedback is just as important for my own writing as it is for the person receiving it. When I read someone else’s work and see things that, in my mind, could be improved as well as really strong points, I think about how I can apply what I’m learning from that work to my own writing. I think the other key to good writing groups is that there is a balance of constructive criticism and positive feedback. Being hesitant to give criticism does not help the receiving writer with improving his/her work.
Thanks for the great discussion on writers’ groups!