Forums Writing Writing Labs Writing Lab for the Week of March 4 // Open Until Tuesday, March 5, 6:00PM EST

Writing Lab for the Week of March 4 // Open Until Tuesday, March 5, 6:00PM EST

Keph Senett here, critiquing your work with Kate Sedgwick.

IMPORTANT: The lab is not meant for first drafts of assignments. Due to recent curriculum changes, we will be accepting original drafts of your coursework here in the writing labs while they remain in their current form. However, please pay special attention to the assignment parameters. If the assignment has a word limit, stay within that word limit. Disregarding assignment parameters may disqualify your work from critique.

What you submit here should be your best work. In other words, please do not dash something off quickly in order to meet the lab deadline. We do our best in here to give comprehensive feedback and hope you will respect this by meeting our best effort with your own.

Assignment One, Assignment Six, and Assignment Twelve are not eligible for critique here unless they have already been critiqued by faculty and revised.

+ Reply to this thread before the deadline. Posting your own thread might cause you to miss the deadline, so check and make sure you’ve posted a reply to this thread — not a new thread.

+ You must have already completed and gotten feedback on your first assignment before being eligible to post to the lab. You may post revisions of assignments or any other work you would like critiqued.

+ Please post questions about your work with the link to the work or the work itself.

+ Please proofread your work and keep typos to a minimum so we can focus on issues like narrative and character instead of it’s and its.

+ Please limit yourself to one piece of work for review. Your piece doesn’t need to be a course assignment. It can be anything travel writing related you’d like feedback on. However, if it is an assignment or assignment revision, please be sure to let us know for which chapter you wrote it.

+ Please note that revisions from this lab will have to wait for critique until next week’s lab. We can’t review your piece twice in the same lab, in other words.

You have until 6:00PM EST on Tuesday, March 12th to post your work. If you don’t know what time that is, it’s this time here.

View Profile 2013-03-04 16:01:36 PST


Thanks in advance for taking a look at my work.

From Fiction to Reality: The Rewards and Pitfalls of Literature as a Travel Guide

password: chapalo

My questions/concerns are:

1) I realize the piece is a little long and would like to cut it back to 1500 words, but I’m having trouble identifying parts that should be cut. In fact, I almost feel like some ideas could be elaborated upon, but then I’d been reaching into the 2000 word mark… Should I cut? Or should I turn this into a longer piece?


PS: Kate, I’m resurrecting this one after a long absence/break from it. I know last time you suggested cutting it down to 1500, which I did. But, then I felt it would be better to move it in this new direction, which I’m submitting to you today. Of course, doing that bumped me back up to 1,750 words, or something like that. I hope that my revisions make the purpose/idea of the article clearer than before…

View Profile 2013-03-05 10:21:23 PST

Hi Kate and Keph!

This is a short article I wrote to demonstrate some of the small pleasures of travel.  I often struggle with thinking that something grand and amazing must happen in order for me to put pen to paper, so I was excited to be able to create this story out of something so small that lasted no longer than 2 minutes.  Anyways, I would like you to take a look at it and let me know where I can improve any of the descriptions of the scene on the train as well as anything I can add/remove to create a light, interesting travel read.  It’s currently posted on my blog; I would like to prepare it for publication.  Thanks in advance for the time and effort you both put forth each week to help improve our skills as writers!

View Profile 2013-03-05 14:00:02 PST

The lab is now closed. See you next week!


View Profile 2013-03-05 18:04:21 PST

Hi Irene,

This is my first time seeing this piece so I’m giving you feedback based on it as it stands. I’m also going to leave general grammar and punctuation stuff out of this critique — it’s a long piece so I will focus on your question about where and how to cut.

1) In general, I think there is a lot you could cut just by tightening your language up. Let’s take a look at this paragraph from the intro, for example:
My husband’s job was taking us to Niger’s capital, Niamey, for the next two years; so, naturally, I wanted to read about the place. However, there was not a lot of English literature on the country. A regional guide for West Africa that included a small section on the former French colony was all the bookstore offered, and it would have to do.

Here it is again, tightened:

My husband’s job was taking us to Niger’s capital, Niamey, for the next two years, and the only information I could find on the former French colony was a section in a regional guide of West Africa. It would have to do.
2) This story really gets going with your discovery of chapalo. Why not start it there? The first several paragraphs boil down to this simple idea: you knew nothing about the place before you arrived.
3) Try to find ways to weave “hard” bits of information into the story. Look at this paragraph:

Chapalo is a type of traditional beer brewed in many West African countries. However, it is not usually Muslim Nigeriens who produce the slightly sour, grainy beer, but Christian immigrants from Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso who live in small pockets around Niamey. That’s not to say that Nigeriens don’t drink chapalo, too, despite religious dictates banning alcohol.

It’s clunky because you’re loading facts into the story, one on top of the other. You have already said that there are religious restrictions, so you needn’t repeat that. The information that is sour and grainy could come in when you first taste it. And how about instead of generalizing who brews it and who consumes it, you could tell us who is in the cabaret so we can see for ourselves who is brewing and drinking it? Or give us that information in the way you received it… did someone tell you? Who, and when?
4) Watch for places where you slip out of being the narrator and into being the announcer. Here:
The old man thumped his chest and said, “Drink chapalo, and you’ll be strong. No doctors.” The Burkinabé believe that chapalo is good for the health and begin giving it to their children from a young age.

In the first sentence you’re in the bar experiencing this; in the second, you’ve slipped out of the story to declare a “fact”.

Similarly, here:

Idé’s short story proved to be more educational than any guidebook I could have bought. One three syllable word gave me a reason to turn off the main road and explore the nameless back streets. It introduced me to Niamey’s diverse residents, giving me a rare opportunity to sit and talk with them – unlike the usual quick exchange over vegetables at a market stall. But most importantly, the experience drew me into the realities of working-class people in this West African capital. Thanks to Ide’s work, I found a deeper reflection of Nigerien life in a calabash of chapalo.

5) Watch for overstating or repeating ideas:

Pleased with having broken through the invisible divide that often separates me from everyday Nigerien life, I thanked Idé for giving me a reason to find this place. No guidebook would ever have directed me to this little bar, nor would its tried and true advice have given me the same sense of accomplishment and fun in finding it through conversations with local residents.

6) I’m unclear about whether you return to the same cabaret or if it’s a different one.
There’s some interesting stuff in this story, but I think it would be much stronger pared down. I hope I’ve given you some direction on how to do that. One other general thing: I feel like you’re reaching to create this connection between the book and the experience. The idea that this random passage led you to seek out the chapalo is interesting, but you hit the idea so many times, and with such passion (for example, the last paragraph) that it seems over-dramatic and a bit preachy. See if you can strip out some of the extra and reimagine this as a leaner story.
I hope this helps,

View Profile 2013-03-06 12:24:04 PST

Hi shindy35,

You’re right — some of the very best writing comes from being able to recognize and retell small events in a way that paints a larger picture. I’m glad you’re experimenting with this form.

With that in mind, I’d suggest searching for a title that is a little less on the nose. Your current title tells the reader how to feel before we’ve even dug into it.

Watch for language choices:
His eyes were more red than white.  When up close, I could see the tiny veins, expanding outward over the whites of his eye.  His hair and face were black with days of soot and pollution piled one atop the another.  He carried a large, woven basket lined with old newspapers, filled with fresh cucumbers.  Speaking Hindi in a voice, raspy from repeating the same phrase through dozens of train cars, he offered this small snack to those who were interested.
You want to make the language as interesting as the story, so make sure you’re not repeating words (white) and strive for precision (in this passage “… black with days of soot and pollution piled one atop the another.” what is piled on top of each other? Soot and pollution? Days?)  Also check your punctuation: “Speaking Hindi in a voice, raspy from repeating the same phrase through dozens of train cars, he offered this small snack to those who were interested.” <– remove the first comma.

As far as this being your intro, it’s good. It brings us directly into the action and gives us some environmental details about where you are and what you’re doing.

I often recommend that writers read their work aloud. It will help you catch things like repeated words and iffy punctuation, and I think overall this piece would benefit from that.

I’d also like to discuss the theme a little bit. I think you have to be careful when writing out a vignette like this because whether you intend it or not, it’s touching on some pretty heavy issues of race, class, gender and culture. It’s always a good idea to read your work with a critical eye and to see if you’ve “othered” the people in your stories. Are they fully-realized people or simply props in the story of your trip? This is an aspect of travel writing that is more difficult to “teach” than structure, for example, but it’s important. Let’s look at your final sentence:

“I happily accepted two more cucumbers, handed yet another one over to my friend, and continued munching, humbled by the generosity and honesty of those surrounding me.”

For me, the word “humbled” feels false or overdramatic. Why are you humbled? What did you expect? What would you expect in your home country?

You mentioned that you’d like to prep this for publication but you don’t say for where. I think this piece would benefit from a bit more context, specifically to do with the race/class/gender/culture questions that are in it. Depending on how you wanted to work with this material, you could use this vignette to comment on what was likely a very illuminating journey.

I hope these comments are helpful,


View Profile 2013-03-06 12:50:48 PST

Hi Keph,

Thanks a lot for your advice! When I’m in the middle of writing something, it’s often hard to see exactly how I can consolidate those long sentences. I think a lot of my problem is that this piece morphed from a food blog post I had written earlier. I would like to publish it at some point, but I need to figure out what parts of my experience should be included and what should be cut. You’ve given me some things to think about.


View Profile 2013-03-12 19:22:59 PDT

First, let me apologize for my delay in the feedback here. I was visiting my hometown and there was simply too much going on to address this, and I’m sorry about that.

Now for some feedback:


Whitney —

I like a lot of the ideas in your opener here, but agree with Keph.  To me, this intro is a tad dramatic and seems to have more inaccuracies than even she pointed out.  The language sounds a little stilted.  I often tell writers (and myself) that many times an intro needs to be reworked or scrapped altogether.  It often serves as a warmup — a way for you as the writer to put yourself in touch with the story.

Let’s examine it:

His eyes were more red than white.  When up close, I could see the tiny veins, expanding outward over the whites of his eye.  His hair and face were black with days of soot and pollution piled one atop the another.  He carried a large, woven basket lined with old newspapers, filled with fresh cucumbers.  Speaking Hindi in a voice, raspy from repeating the same phrase through dozens of train cars, he offered this small snack to those who were interested.

About the eyes: You might add something more here about their expression. This tells us more than the color. Also, everyone knows what “bloodshot” means.  You might get to the point more quickly.

About the soot: The man, I’m assuming, is dark skinned. I’m not sure what the implication is here. Is he dirty?  Why do you assume he’s dirty from the air alone?  Do you imagine he hasn’t had a shower?  What about his clothes?  And if his hair is black, how can you discern discoloration there?  Do you see what I’m getting at?

More interesting than many of the details you’ve chosen to include here would be his posture, his gestures, and his expressions.

Again here: Speaking Hindi in a voice, raspy from repeating the same phrase through dozens of train cars, he offered this small snack to those who were interested.

He has a raspy voice, but you can’t know why.  “His small snack” is odd-sounding to me.  Also, does he offer them to people individually?  Or does he announce it when he enters the car?

You might really put your readers in the moment more if you show his arrival in your car and how he behaves. When he gets closer to you, maybe you note the bloodshot eyes and soot-stained clothes.  But the important thing is not to make assumptions about the source of his dirtiness or the quality of the redness of his eyes.  You could put us in the moment, in the train car, then let your focus shift to the character.

It’s strange the way you describe the process of serving up the snack only when he’s actually serving you.  I can only imagine you’ve seen him serve several orders, but the only indication of this is that you say “spicy snack waltz by.” While I like the rhythm of that phrase, I think you need to show what the action is before this happens. The issue I’m seeing here is similar to the above issue I pointed out to you.  You need to be “panned out” and then pan in to the microcosmic details. When you focus on the small details and leave out the bigger picture, you are omitting much of the action that would keep readers intrigued. It’s like you’re looking through a paper with a pinhole cut into it as you write this, so I encourage you to pan out and show us more of the scene.

You get into the action more later. I would encourage you to simplify your language.  You seem to be dressing things up a bit and it tends to sound a little stiff and unnatural.

Here:  I nodded and spoke English to each one of them, “Thank you”.

The above sounds stiff.  Why not: I said, “Thank you” to everyone in the car, one by one.

The point I’m making here jibes well with what Keph has said to you.  Read your work out loud. If something sounds strange coming out of your mouth when you read it, reevaluate. To find your natural voice can take a little work, and you’re on your way, but there’s more to do here.

I also think your ending is a little pat.  Try finding a way to show how you feel without tying everything up in a neat little bow.

Good work. Keep at it!


View Profile 2013-03-13 13:20:47 PDT

Irene —

The improvement here is remarkable, but I do think it might be running a little long. I think you’ve got some great writing here that could serve another piece altogether. I love the intro, for example, but I think there may be a little too much detail there.  Try to make everything as on-point as possible. Try eliminating things that aren’t integral to the story.  The adjustment you made to life there is interesting, but doesn’t seem pertinent to the story, exactly.

I like how your narrative carries me along, but I want you to get to the point more quickly.

As Keph has said, you could tighten up your language and avoid seeming ponderous by making sure you don’t repeat ideas or revelations.

What I see here as a huge improvement is your way of putting us in the spaces. I would encourage you to push this aspect (as Keph suggested, even with the people you see), taking in the bigger landscape or picture, then zeroing in on a face. As I recall, we were working towards this in the last batch of critiques on this piece.

You have a fluid way with words and the power to take us along for the ride.  Now it’s time to work on rephrasing and editing.  You’ve grown this by leaps and bounds since the last draft. Good work. Keep it up.

View Profile 2013-03-13 17:46:12 PDT

Hi there…I know the writing lab is closed but I don’t seem to have the ability to make my own post via my iPad so I thought I’d try to get an answer here if possible. I recently submitted my chapter 6 midterm assignment. How long does it usually take to be reviewed will will I be notified when it has been looked at by the editor?


i know this isn’t the best place for this question but I couldn’t think of other ways to post from my iPad.


Thank you!


View Profile 2013-04-02 21:47:19 PDT