Forums Writing Writing Labs WRITING LAB 2



Welcome to our second writing lab at MatadorU everyone. Before we begin, please review a few basic things as far as ‘protocol.’

1. Any MatadorU student is welcome to read the Writing Labs; however, only students who’ve finished Chapter 3 are eligible to participate by requesting that their work be reviewed or by leaving comments or questions in this lab.

2. When commenting, please remember that we’re critiquing the writing, not the writer.

3. We cannot guarantee specific feedback on any one particular piece. Instead, we look for writing that exemplifies a student’s having paid attention to the lessons at MatadorU and writing in a way which ‘speaks to us.’

4. If your writing was not included in this lab, it doesn’t necessarily mean we didn’t ‘like it,’ but simply that other writing may have served as better examples of points we want everyone to learn.

1. Hometown Assignment by Jill

From Julie: This piece reminded me a bit of Candice’s hometown piece, largely because it engages the same theme: a certain nostalgia for the history of one’s hometown, which has disappeared. The strongest part of the piece for me were the two paragraphs that start “A stone’s throw to the east, they’re building new condos. Most locals can’t afford them.” and “It’s getting harder to find someone who can say, ‘My dad worked at the shipyard.'”

In these simple-seeming lines, you’ve conveyed the anonymity of the “they” (The reader doesn’t really need to ask “WHO’S building the condos?”), the economics of gentrification, and the fact that history is lost when it becomes harder to find people whose dads worked at the shipyards. These are the kinds of details that give a piece personality and meaning. I’d like to see some more of them–without forcing them in–in this piece, alongside some careful editing of other elements that aren’t quite as strong, such as the paragraph that starts with “Here is my rough description of a side launch.” (which is telling us rather than showing us).

Finally, I was curious about the intro paragraph–is it a quote from a published account of the Tadoussac accident? If so, be sure to include the source. If not, you may want to consider finding a newspaper account and replacing this intro (which is good) with the words from that time–it gives your writing a weight and authority that supports what you go on to develop thematically in this piece.

From Lola: Lots of valuable, intricate details about Collingwood’s shipping past. There were a couple extra sentences and words that could be omitted to make the overall delivery more succinct. For example, “some of the timbers” can be replaced with “some timbers”, cutting out extra words. Loved your use of photos to enhance the article. Chapter 11 will introduce various ways of complementing your articles with photography and multimedia.

Always remember to stick to guidelines. In this case, the assignment called for 500 words or less, but the overall piece was closer to 900 words. A lot of publications have space limitations hence the restrictions they place on word counts.

From David: Overall a fine story / nonfiction read. With a bit of final polish, I think this piece would be a great fit as a feature in a local daily newspaper or regional magazine. As Lola mentions about the words that could be cut, there was also one sentence that seemed unnecessary, and slowed me down: “Here is my rough description of a side launch. ” Just begin describing it. You’re the writer–you don’t need our ‘permission’ to begin describing.

Aside from this, I had only one other observation. The piece begins with a very newspaper-y 3rd person “objective” narration, then switches briefly to first person, a weak transition (as mentioned above-“Here is my rough description), and then later switches to a more natural and “familiar” 3rd person narration: “Until 1986, there was almost always a boat at the end of Hurontario Street. Today there’s an awkward gap.”

It also seems like the main point of the piece isn’t the ship launch itself but more the transformation of the place. All this being said, if this were my piece, I’d begin there, using that sentence, (“Until 1986. . .”) and that POV, and maintain that throughout.

I’d begin by describing how the place is now, then transition back into how it used to be, the describe the boat launch, the changes that followed, then end back where I began, describing the place -“the awkward gap” in present day. The circular structure just always seems to add more depth to these kinds of pieces. It makes you feel as if–in the space of the narrative–you as the reader have also gone on a journey.

2.Hometown Assignment by JoAnna Haugen

From Julie: You (usually) can’t go wrong with a quote or dialogue to engage the reader and draw him/her in, and the device worked here to dual effect; you were also able to establish a relationship between yourself and someone else in the narrative. This piece is rich with vivid details and I like the fact that you (the writer/narrator) are in the story without being the main character– a different and effective approach when compared with many other hometown types of travel writing (not a value judgment about which is “better”, but an observation affirming that there are lots of different ways a writer can run with a prompt and develop it). I think I’d like to see a different title though– anytime I read a reference to ashes and phoenixes, I have a knee jerk reaction against them!

From Lola: Your characters were richly developed and you’ve got lots of vivid details woven throughout the piece. I really liked your transitions – from the dialogue to the girl playing, back to more dialogue, throwing in some history.. Kept the reader engaged throughout. Finding the right balance between over-describing elements and adding enough detail to give readers a sense of place/time is something to think about in future pieces. If extra details like “cocoa brown against the blond bricks” don’t really add to or “advance” your story, you can leave them out.

From David: For some reason I had trouble getting into this story. Somewhere between the first bit of dialogue “labyrinth” and the multiple actions “tilted,” “tossed” and details “wind-chapped,” “knit Packer scarf” I got lost. I liked beginning with the second paragraph.

There were also places that to me just didn’t seem believable. For example, would a girl actually say “apple-stuffed pastry?” I agree with Lola that some details, such as the cocoa brown, made it seem like the narrator was trying too hard. They stood out on their own away from the rest of the story. Distractions.

Actually my favorite sentence in this whole piece, the one that seemed the most believable, was the one where the narrator broke away from ‘story time’ and went into background information: “Sometimes it was hard to believe that just a few short years ago, Eau Claire had been on the verge of becoming another dangerous, meth-induced Midwest town.”

3.Hometown Assignment by Alouise

From Julie: There’s so much that “works” about this piece. First: it’s tight, both in terms of word count and in terms of flow and ideas; there’s not a single extraneous element in this piece. Second, it explores a theme that most of you are touching on in the hometown pieces– the hyperdevelopment of big box stores and how these are viewed as a blight on the landscape, both the physical landscape and the psychological landscape of our memories–without forcing the reader to feel a certain way about that trend. Finally, I like how you touch upon deeper issues–namely, our passivity in the face of this hyperdevelopment–by simply observing them. You avoid sermonizing, which can send readers screaming in the other direction.

From Lola: “At 5pm it’s dark outside.”…At the very beginning, I already get a sense of place. Somewhere up north during winter. In just a few words, you’ve already established key elements – season and location. This definitely set the pace (which was excellent) for the rest of the piece which was also very tight. Well done!

From David: I agree that there was a great narration of events here, a solid piece overall. Avoiding melodrama / sentimentality in a piece like this while still expressing your feelings is always difficult.

Just a few bits of cliched language to be looking out for:

“mesmerized by its grandure” (spelling?)

“quips sarcastically” (you know from context he’s being sarcastic)

“a shell of its former self”

Ironically, my favorite part in this whole piece might be considered by others to be a cliche, but for some reason it just allowed me to visualize the narrator there instantly: “My car’s heater is being difficult…”

4. Hometown Assignment by AdventureRob

From Julie: The elements that give this piece the greatest sense of place are the use of local lingo; I’d never heard of a chav, so it was interesting to learn what that was. I still felt like I was outside the piece, though; I had a hard time placing myself there. I feel like I got a better sense of your family than of your hometown. Are there any other aspects of the place that, with a few extra details, might really put us in the actual town?

From Lola: The sentence “However the sea breeze keeps me cool in these summer months and gives the city its salty smell” described Portsmouth as a seaside town, but nothing more. There were a few elements that pointed to the residents’ love of football and tattoos. Sounds like the townsfolk are trying to look tough but are really soft and sweet? There were lots of interesting elements in there that could have been fully capitalized on to give us a more organic sense of place. Is the town small enough that everyone truly knows everyone? Is your family the exception or are there lots of families like yours?

From David: I felt like this was more a sketch of characters than a story. For the most part I enjoyed the narrator’s voice, however, the one part where he described the really big powerful guy “A large man answers, one foot taller then me and two feet wider, with a shaved head. . . “–almost to make it seem intimidating or build up the tension–then later reveals that it’s just his uncle–is essentially a ‘trick’ that will have most readers lose faith in the narrator and stop reading immediately. If he can’t just say “My uncle answered the door” first, then describe his muscles, shaved head, etc. how can we as readers trust him? Tricks are–and I mean no disrespect by this Rob–telltale signs of an amateur writer. Just tell the story as you’d tell your friend. You wouldn’t say to your friend “This big guy was there. It was actually my uncle.”

My only other observation is that characters are best portrayed through interaction with one another. In this piece everyone is always moving–driving off, outside in the garden, riding on bikes. Consider a different scene where characters are all at the same table, the same room, or on the same trip, so that we as readers can learn who they are via their interactions with one another.

5. Hometown Assignment by Morgan Leahy

From Julie: This piece is a solid example of how a writer can incorporate both place and family into a hometown piece. The details about your house’s history are SO New Jersey! And Heritage Chase and Deer Path… sounds like my hometown, too. Nice circular development, starting and ending with the onion and butter. I also like how you suggest the temporal setting (Thanksgiving) without going into any oversentimentality about the holiday.

From Lola: Had me laughing out loud at “may or may not have left money or a body buried in the back porch.” Many solid details about the past and present. Also liked the key transition from history back into the rest of the story – “Now we are the old timers and Jamesburg is no longer a vacation town. I guess everyone discovered the Jersey shore…” It worked for me.

From David: Really enjoyed this story. It’s filled with great examples of almost everything discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, such as having sentences serve multiple functions. For example:

“Mom does not like to delegate any task that could ruin Thanksgiving and we have already peeled the potatoes and set the table. Sending us to the grocery store is safe.”

In the first sentence we #1. learn about the narrator’s mom, #2 learn the backstory (it’s Thanksgiving), #3, get a bit of setting / description “peeled potatoes and set table” and you could argue that we’ve also learned a little about the narrator just by the way she describes the scene. Then in second sentence, a basic declaration “Sending us to the grocer store is safe,” we as readers are essentially ‘invited’ to go along with, to empathize with, to become accomplices of, the narrator. This is a fantastic example of using different kinds of sentences (descriptive, declarative) one right after the other to achieve a believable, original voice. I can totally hear this narrator and believe her.

6.Hometown Assignment by Nancy

From Julie: You definitely put me in the South: sweet tea, “Oooh, buddy,” and the incorporation of football into church sermons and life lessons: definitely all elements of place in any Southern town. The strongest part of this piece was the paragraph about the two sides of town, rich with specific details that helped illustrate your point about what each of those sides signified to you and to the larger community. I think you could tighten the piece just a bit more (for “blazing hot leather seats” stick just with “hot”– blazing’s overused and doesn’t add a lot more to what you want to say).

From Lola: A strong Southern sense of place in this piece. Definitely transported me to that potluck lunch. For future pieces, be cognizant of over-describing elements. One powerful detail can easily replace 2 or 3 weaker adjectives.

From David: I loved the first sentence of this piece. Immediately placed me in the story and I’ve never even been to church (except for a couple weddings.) It’s all in the details: “cheese laden casseroles and weak coffee.” They not only set the scene but immediately tell the reader in an indirect way, who the narrator is, how she sees the world.

The dialogue and details in this piece were all excellent. The only trouble I had was with the structure. Basically the opening through the end of the dialogue section all reads as one ongoing scene. But then as soon as the narrator makes the first transition into conditional sentences (sentences with would) — “Undoubtedly, the Carolina basketball game would have even made it . . .” it suddenly stops moving forward as a story made out of scenes and turns into a reflection. Having parts that refect are fine, however, weaving them back into the same “day” described in the opening by using subsequent scenes instead of reflecting on them would have drawn the reader deeper into the story.


*Proper nouns vs. improper nouns: Remember: Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Nancy, Uncle Ted… they’re only capitalized when these titles are standing in for their names (ie: “Dad was a tough guy.”) If you’re saying “My dad took me to the grocery store,” dad is NOT capitalized.


*Intricate details in a piece can fully engage the reader and draw them right into the story, however, if they don’t add to the overall message, you can definitely omit them. Over-describing elements is a common trap we all fall into as travel writers.


Thanks for participating everyone. Please be on the lookout for the announcement of WRITING LAB 3, where you’ll have a chance to submit future work for consideration.

View Profile 2009-09-28 21:59:33 PDT

@Jill: I enjoy beginning with the launch description, though as others have said I think it could be done more succinctly. For me, it sets a powerful mood for the rest of the piece, this idea of the past as lumbering, larger than life, people taking on heroic tasks with bare hands and elbow grease–something we feel we’ve lost in our digital, outsourced age. And what’s more monumental than a ship launch (nicely driven home by the linked videos)?

@Alouise: I agree with Julie that you succeeded in steering clear of the “sermonizing” route, but this kind of lamentation over big box stores and Walmart and “progress” has become so familiar to us (a sad fact) that in essence it’s a cliche–it’s lost its emotional power. You’ve done a great job of choosing showing over telling for most of piece, but I think you could go even further. I’d cut lines like “holiday gift, something that’ll be celebrated on Christmas and forgotten by New Years.” This is more an abstract assumption that doesn’t advance the story.

@Morgan: Good job taking on the shifts in voice/tense. I did get a little tripped up in the two longer “history” paragraphs in the middle. You squeezed a lot in there (some of the choppiness is probably due to the word limit). Not sure if it’d be possible to give those paragraphs a little more focus, but if you do, I’d love to see more on the gangster. :)

@Nancy: Use of the word “blazing” aside (not to mention a dangling participle), that was my favorite sentence. Great use of the often overlooked sense of touch. I love it when mere words can make me “feel” a scene. Also enjoyed the “all seemingly made with cream of mushroom soup.” Another example of one sentence/clause serving multiple purposes–it tells us something about the type of culture/cuisine we’re dealing with as well as the narrator’s sense of humor.

View Profile 2009-09-28 23:58:24 PDT

Jill – I really loved this line, “After the champagne, the men get to work, invisible to most of the onlookers.” I thought the transition from champagne to the invisible workers was fantastic.

One thing I might try to avoid – the phrase “pomp and ceremony” is, in my book, somewhat cliche. I think when I’m writing I often find things like that pop to mind and work themselves into a sentence before I know it. I have to read the sentence aloud several times to decide if these phrases are really fitting or if they’re just such stock phrases that they’ve slipped unknowingly into my writing. Generally, I avoid them, and I might’ve avoided using this phrase in this piece.

Overall the writing on this piece was wonderful, and I think you really read the economic and social history of the place into the modern landscape. Good use of quotes, too- particularly liked this one: “Half the people in there have no idea there ever was a shipyard. They think it’s just a cute name.”

Great job!

View Profile 2009-09-28 23:59:13 PDT

@ Joanna -I agree with David on this one. I think when you relaxed a little bit and let your guard down with the background info, the writing became more natural and was really interesting. A lot of the description felt somewhat forced. For me it was the verbs- “peeked,” “slapped,” “packed,” “bobbed”-maybe I’m just verb-sensitive, but I always feel like verbs are pretty powerful, and you probably only need one really vivid, unconventional verb from time to time. Too many and they start to seem bizarre and forced.

View Profile 2009-09-29 00:10:11 PDT

@ Alouise – I like your short, tight sentences. You don’t wax on unnecessarily or embellish your writing with lots of extraneous details. Sometimes your metaphors seem to me a little awkward – “I blink hard, like a camera shutter to capture what I see in my mind.” Or “a complex of box stores that has engulfed the landscape like a tumour” – maybe it’s just that the latter has a couple different plural and single forms. “A complex,” “box stores”, “has engulfed,” “a tumor” – for some reason it seemed to me a little clumsy. But your brief observations and descriptions are excellent – “It’s rare for this town to be on the evening news”, “I scratch the glass in front to get a clear view of what’s ahead.”

View Profile 2009-09-29 00:17:27 PDT

@Adventure Rob – This piece went way too fast for me. I felt like the sentences tended to be long, but the descriptions were short and jumpy…which made for a kind of confusing piece for me. I think maybe a few more lines of background information, and less rapid jumps from person to person would make this more solid.

View Profile 2009-09-29 00:20:51 PDT

@ Morgan – “sitting on the floors of pizza parlors” – loved it! This piece is full of really sharp, true, great details. I thought it flowed really well minus this one transition -“In the early 1900s, a hotel, a railroad and the small town of Jamesburg grew up to accommodate tourists visiting a lake there.” For some reason that seemed like a random excerpt from a history paper inserted. But you picked up the pace really quickly right afterwards and kept it fresh and interesting to the end. Where’s the photo of the cute Starbucks barista? ;)

View Profile 2009-09-29 00:24:46 PDT

@ Nancy- I loved these details and contrasts -“beige food items” and “white tights, combed hair and crisp pink bows.” Great job. And the irony here is also fantastic- “We would literally pray, pulling on our stiff shoes and frilly dresses, that somehow service that day would be cancelled.”

I’d probably avoid the passive voice in situations like this:

“while golf dates were promised all around by the men folk”

I love the concept of “golf dates” but think it’s a little awkward here in the passive voice. I also agree with Lola that sometimes there are a few too many adjectives, for example in “persuasion and pleas ensuing.”

Really excellent job, everyone! Everyone’s piece had a different feel to it and I loved reading them. Thank you! I’m psyched for the next writing lab.

View Profile 2009-09-29 00:32:41 PDT

@david, Lola, Julie, Hal, and Sarah:

I really appreciate the feedback. It’s exactly what I need to become a better writer!

Quick question: I would love to incorporate some of the edits into my post. This may be an inane question, but should I go ahead and edit into the existing post or create another post?

View Profile 2009-09-29 02:38:06 PDT

Thanks to everyone for feedback, I guess I lost the plot in the lack of ‘sense of place’ with trying to build a story in and keep it within 500 words.

It’s a shame no one seemed to notice my attempt at showing the long naval history ‘faded anchor tattoo’ ‘neatly ironed trousers, shirt and cap’, is that sort of stuff better to just tell?

View Profile 2009-09-29 04:31:33 PDT

@joanna I agree with david that the piece pulls me in with “I glanced across the street at the decrepit building. ” then I enjoy “salt-rusted minivans”. I hear your characters but I have a very hard time seeing them, and I have a hard time seeing the park. I guess I don’t know what I am suppose to see.

I am back in it again at “Sometimes it was hard to believe that just a few short years ago…” I see people rallying around the park…Then the last few lines are one-two punches “The woman held out her hand and a tiny blue mitten grasped it. Together they walked across the frosty lawn and out of the park.” To me this is simple, thus true.

View Profile 2009-09-29 04:58:26 PDT