Saturday, January 16, 2010


Girl at a Piano --Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam--Maris, Jacob 1837-1899 - 1879

When I got my daughter’s 3rd grade newsletter (when she finally returned to school after her bout with the flu), there was an entire page on a new technique they were using to teach spelling. The letter also asked parents to encourage children to spell carefully.

I was delighted to see this at the end of the letter: “Most importantly, don’t overdo it. Some places need to be “free zones” where children are free to express themselves without fear of the ‘red pen.’ Journals, poems, anything personal should be encouraged, not graded.”

I easily remember being 8 years old and giving stories for different teachers or adult friends to read. “It’s a wonderful story. But I’m so distracted by the spelling that I can’t really enjoy it as much…” The “wonderful story” got lost and so did the encouragement. I wasn’t asking them to grade it. I wanted them to like the story.

I think the same school of thought applies to adults. Obviously, spelling and grammar need to be perfect when we’re at the submission stage. But before then, unless someone specifically asks for line editing help, I think it’s much better to offer encouragement on content as well as advice on improving the manuscript (if that’s what’s asked for.)

When I gave my manuscript to first readers years ago, I didn’t know to tell them what types of errors I needed them to read for. Now I’d rather say, “Can you read this strictly for content?” unless I’m at the point where I need line revision.

The writing community is an incredibly supportive one. I think that’s because writers get constant rejection—agents, editors, reviewers, even critique group members. We get negative feedback on our work. And maybe we’re not the best folks to handle it.

I’ve read articles from some writers that say we shouldn’t give out false hope to writers who just haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t agree. No one’s saying the road to publication isn’t a rough one. No one’s saying not to do your homework and revise like crazy.

But every manuscript or poem or essay I’ve ever taken a look at has some worth to it. If the writer has cared enough to share it, there’s a spark in the words that belongs to the writer.

It might be an original idea or an interesting character, or a new twist on an old plot.

One of the critique groups I was in had a rule: you’ve got to find something good to say about the manuscript. You couldn’t just go in and rip it to shreds. You had to find some redeeming value to the piece. And there’s always something there.

Writing can be a very discouraging business. It helps tremendously to have people who cheer you on.