Monday, September 19, 2016

The Writer's Unfounded Fear of Criticism

The word "criticism" and its connotations...

Writers often conflate the idea that criticism and negative criticism are the same thing, often forgetting that there is also such a thing as positive criticism. I would dare to bet that many new writers think that "positive criticism" is either an oxymoron or means that positive criticism is just negative criticism said in a nice way.

In fact, "criticism" is a neutral word, just as "quality" is a neutral word, because there is good quality and bad quality. But enough of these distinctions. I want to talk about how writers should strive to accept criticism from readers, whether positive or negative, both the bad things the writer perceives is said about her work and the positive things the writer longs to hear.

Positive criticisms are notes readers or editors will write in the margins like, "This is a powerful sentence," "I loved the way you brought all the conflicts together in this one paragraph," "Nice imagery..." Positive criticism of this sort is both nice to hear and might be instructive as to what the reader or editor thinks the writer did well—and the writer can learn a little something about writing from these bits of praise sprinkled throughout a manuscript. But in the end, it is the negative criticism that writers should listen to the most.

This is the kind of criticism that initially makes the writer angry, hurt, and defensive. The writer should refrain from letting those emotions show. Nor should the writer try to defend herself or justify herself any way to the editor.

Having one's work edited or critiqued should not devolve into an adversarial relationship. Oh sure, editors can be wrong, the criticism can be irrelevant, and ultimately, when the writer is alone with the edited manuscript she is free to reject everything the editor has indicated. But it's not a good idea to fire back a heated response to the editor—ever.

There is one caveat about negative criticism that the writer should never put up with and an editor should never do, and that is to deliver blistering criticism, done in a mean way. A good editor should never say anything like, "This is the stupidest simile I have ever read," "This paragraph should be deleted, since it ruins the entire plot of the novel." And perhaps that is what writers fear about having their work edited and criticized. But as an editor for almost four decades, I can say that editors who plan to stay in the business are simply not going to do that to a writer. So, really nasty, bad, horrible negative criticism is nothing to fear, nothing to be defensive about, nothing to keep a writer up at night. Honest criticism is what writers should be glad to receive and what editors should not be afraid to deliver. As an editor I will tell a client that the book is not ready for publication, and on a sliding scale I will say the book is still in a rough-draft stage, is in a stage where some revision is still necessary (in my opinion), or that a draft is as polished as the writer is likely to get it and should indeed be submitted to a literary agent or typeset and sent to a printing service.

Even if a writer feels hurt by criticism from an editor, the vast majority of the time, if the criticism hurts and causes the writer pain, it's probably a good and relevant criticism; otherwise, it wouldn't hurt. If the writer can brush off negative criticism and doesn't feel anything more than mild irritation with a comment about her work, it probably is an off-beam comment by the editor.

It's those little poison darts that get us where it hurts that writers should pay attention to and consider thoughtfully. This is where writers will learn the most about writing; this is where a writer's skill and the book in question will improve.

As a writer, of course I read all the positive reviews that have been posted about my work. Praise is nice to hear. But I also read all the negative reviews, and once I get over the immediate anger and defensiveness that a negative review automatically engenders in me, I take the negative review into consideration. Amid all the positive reviews about one of my book series, one particular reader went out of his way to essentially say the same thing about each of my books, giving them a one-star rating on Amazon. Ultimately, while there was some merit about what he said about my main characters (they cry a lot), I gleaned that he didn't like the concept of my stories, which must have gone against his own idea of what characters like mine should strive for, and so he struck out in anger in language that was simply incendiary. Eventually, I was able to shrug off most of his criticism, but the thing about my main characters crying a lot was true. Another negative review had to do with my very long, very detailed, very dense fantasy novel. A different reader, not the mean one, said it was the kind of book a person should read if he or she is stuck in bed with the flu. The reviewer was not mean-spirited in the least, and his comment was clever. This was negative criticism about whether or not my novel was boring. I have no problem realizing that some readers might find a 350,000 word novel a little too detailed for his tastes. In fact, one of my beta readers whose opinion I respected (he was also my boss) said that I should cut the content of the fantasy novel by 75 percent. Ouch! In this case, however, I didn't take his advice. I believe that I had good reason to keep what I wrote, and so I thanked him for reading the manuscript and carried through with my plans for this mammoth book.

Writers should strive for excellence, and engaging the services of an editor or proofreader is essential, because once a work is published, once a writer's baby is dressed up and sent off to be sold to the reading public it's too late to do the revision, correct mistakes, or otherwise get a "do-over." Of course if it is only in ebook form that doesn't apply.

That is why it is important for writers to listen carefully to the negative criticism from editors and beta readers and to think strongly about revising what the editor and readers have said before the book is published.

A whole other consideration about the fear of criticism, however, is that writers should not write to avoid negative feedback, should not avoid offending anyone, because there will always be a certain number of people that will dislike a book, be offended by the content of a book, or find something wrong with it. Writers should always write to please themselves first, but that is a different topic.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Commas, Yet Again: The Battle of the Style Guides

Let's delve into the compound "and" vs. the "and" between two clauses...

Writers get these two ideas confused, and it makes for odd comma use. In the preceding sentence, I just illustrated the use of the "and" between two clauses. Note that there is a comma before the "and." The "and" between two clauses makes no judgment about the relative importance between one clause and another but links them together in the same sentence. In such a case, a comma is used before the "and," but when there is only one clause in a sentence and a phrase that follows the "and" there is no comma.

Be sure to use a comma before "and" between two clauses and not between a clause and a phrase that modifies the clause. Note, here, that the preceding sentence contains a clause and a phrase, linked by and. This is the compound "and", which does not take a comma. This is one of the most frequent misuses of a comma by writers. Here's another kind of compound that links two predicates in the same sentence:

I purchased a bread maker with a credit card and paid for the flour with cash. This sentence has two predicates, each containing a verb, but there is only one subject of the sentence, one clause.

Purchased is the first verb and paid is the second verb. They do not need a comma before and. In fact, it confuses the intent of the sentence to divide a compound predicate with a comma. 

Now, let's give passing attention to three or more predicates in the same sentence. 

If there were three verbs in the clause, we would fall back on the "rule" for using commas between each item in a list and a comma before the "serial and" or the "Oxford comma." 

At least those using The Chicago Manual of Style would, whereas those using The Associated Press Style Guide would not use the comma before the "serial and." Nonetheless, when there are three or more verbs in the same sentence, all hung on one subject-noun/pronoun doing the action, we use commas between each verb construct.

While most book publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style and the "serial and" with a comma, most newspaper and magazine publishers use The Associated Press Style Guide and do not use the comma before the "serial and."

Confused? Don't be. Just be aware that if you're writing a book, use the comma before the "serial and" when there are at least three items in the list.

I purchased a bread maker with a credit card, paid for the flour with cash, and dropped the change into the charity jar on the counter.

Friday, July 8, 2016

One of the Most Useful Marks of Punctuation is the Comma

It is also one of the most misused and misunderstood marks...

How confusing is it to use a period? Or for that matter a question mark? Or even an exclamation point? I think we learn about these three marks of punctuation in grade school, because they're easy to understand. A period comes at the end of a sentence. A question mark is used when the sentence is in the form of a question. An exclamation point is used to show excitement, shock, or any high-octane emotion.

And even though bad writers might not be sure exactly what constitutes a sentence, they're sure that a period needs to follow it. Bad writers also overuse the exclamation point! I mean, really!! But that's not my concern, here.

Nor is my concern with the semicolon, ellipses, en- and em-dashes, double or single quotation marks, or parentheses—just the important, lowly, misunderstood, and misused comma.

So, just what is a comma? Unlike the period, a comma is only used as an internal mark of punctuation in a sentence. It either links two or more items in a sentence or separates them. Poets might insist that a comma is meant to show a pause before continuing. That's a rather poetic way of explaining what a comma does. But that might be a good test of whether a comma should be used or not. Except when it isn't a good test, as we will see in the examples below. We cannot depend on using it to show a pause.

But some writers insist on this pause in a sentence that begins with "but" or "and" and place the comma after such conjunctions. A dramatic reading would actually create a slight pause after "but."

Example: But, he never looked back.

This is one of the ways the comma is misused. But to make this point also misunderstood, here is an example of when a comma should follow the conjunction:

But, because there were tears in his eyes, he never looked back.

Note that in the first example, what follows "but" is a clause and the integral part of the sentence. In the second example, what follows "but" is a phrase or added information that might clarify the sentence, but the phrase could be left out without doing harm to the integrity of the sentence. Also note that there are actually two commas in the second example, because like parentheses, the two commas close off the phrase, separating it from other parts in the sentence.

One of the conventions, of course, is that if a sentence can be understood without using the commas the conventional rule of thumb is to leave them out, and the mantra goes up across the English classrooms, "When in doubt, leave it out."

Some writers want there to be black and white rules for the use of commas, as there seems to be for using periods and question marks, but the comma is much more complex than that. Here's a quick summary of the use of the comma before we continue illustrating such uses:

1. A comma is only used within a sentence and not as an end mark.
2. A comma either links two or more items in a sentence or separates them.
3. A comma is usually not used following "but" or "and" when they are used to begin a sentence.
4. Commas come in pairs when they are used to separate a phrase or interrupting idea from the rest of the sentence—if the phrase can be lifted out of the sentence without affecting the integrity of the sentence.

These are really the simple "rules" for using commas. But drat all those style guides that publishers insist on using when they publish a book or a magazine article. There's a whole other universe of "rules" for using commas writers hardly ever think about, and for your sake I'm not going to get into those esoteric uses, just yet.

But here is a hint. There is an ongoing debate about using a comma before "and" in a series. This is called the "Oxford" comma, or it is sometimes called the "serial" comma. The Chicago Manual of Style sides with the debate to use the comma before "and" in a series, whereas The Associated Press style guide insists that it is not needed. As you can see, this debate is about a lesser known use of the comma that will give some writers a headache.

Next,  let's take a look at how the use of a comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence...really!

Hide the cows outside.

Isn't this unambiguous? We are being told to conceal the cows outside. But let's add a comma (and another mark of punctuation) to this simple sentence and see what happens.

Hide, the cow's outside. Shoes are made of leather. Leather is, for lack of a better explanation, the cow's hide, which when tanned becomes leather.

A woman without her man is useless. Yeah, besides being sexist, it's pretty clear what this means. Let's just stretch the sentence a little (however badly written) to show the utter power of the comma in changing the meaning of the sentence:

A woman, without her, man is useless.

Now that you're an expert on the basic uses of a comma, let's appear to contradict the "rule" that says a comma is only used within a sentence and not as an end mark.

"Let me have the red scarf," he said to the clerk.
In this sentence it only appears that the comma that follows "scarf" comes at the end of the sentence, "Let me have the red scarf." But in actuality the whole sentence includes what comes after the quoted material. The single idea (the sentence) is that a man tells the clerk which scarf he wants. It doesn't matter if we put quotation marks around part of the sentence. Conventional use of the dialog tag, like "He said," cannot stand on its own as a single idea, so we attach it to the dialog as part of the whole sentence.

In a later post, I will revisit the comma to delve into the more esoteric uses and abuses of this extraordinary mark of punctuation. We might call it The Battle of the Style Guides.