Peer review is a very common technique in composition and writing classes. However, unless you’ve got some good peers, the exercise can often seem pointless, a bunch of students sitting there saying, “Well, I thought it was good.” Okay, then. I remember hating peer review in college because I rarely heard anything useful, and was too timid to often say anything helpful. Teaching students how to do constructive peer review, how to judge someone else’s writing, how to say critical things without being personal and how to hear critical things without getting offended is a delicate and difficult process. I’ll be trying it with my 11th graders this upcoming year and expect to be working out the kinks through the first few executions.
As a writer, though, I think peer review is absolutely crucial. It’s so valuable to have your stuff looked over by a fresh eye, someone who hasn’t been obsessing over it for months, someone who can look at it critically, help you untangle and polish and smooth over and highlight whatever needs to be done. With my own stuff, I get to the point where I know I can’t do much more with it myself, and that’s where a good writing buddy comes in. I’ve had a few over the years, and am lucky enough to have just acquired another, a friend who is not only a writer I respect but an English professor, who knows exactly what good peer review should be done. She looked at a poem for me this weekend, and the revisions she suggested are definitely going to make the piece stronger.
So no matter how pointless students think it is, I’ll be teaching it anyway, because when done correctly, peer review can save a piece of writing and help send it out into the world as strong as it can be.
Yesterday I wrote 362 words about serendipity, partially as an exercise and partially as a (late) submission toThe Urbanite, a magazine here in Baltimore that I really like, both as a reader and writer. They have a reader-submissions section every issue, under 400 words on a particular theme for each issues, and this time was “serendipity.” One previous theme was “duplicity,” and I believe the next one is “origins.” It’s an interesting exercise to try for me because it requires such tight focus, which is a constant project for me, and because such conceptual themes can evoke such a wide range of responses. It’s always the first section I turn to, and I’ve set myself a writing goal now that I’ll get an entry in there, so I’m going to submit every month, no matter what. I’ll keep you posted on my progress!
My friend Dawn just sent out a link to a nifty website for anyone interested in writing for children. The Highlights Foundation is an offshoot from the classic children’s magazine, and they do workshops every year for children’s lit authors near Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York. If you can’t make the workshops, or just have some interest in the topics, there’s a great link on the Foundation website to writing tips, that are browesable by author, title or topic and include tips on everything from dialogue to finding an agent.
I thought this especially appropriate on the Weekend of Harry Potter, and it made me wonder how many manuscripts editors see these days about wizards and magic, or saying, “I believe my book could be the next Harry Potter”….
Ernest Hemingway is not one of my favorite writers, but his famous short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is justifiably cited as one of the best short stories in American literature. The implied references to abortion make it somewhat controversial, but as a writer, the story is most interesting for the way it unfolds almost entirely through dialogue, and for how it illustrates Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A good writer does not need to reveal every detail of a character or action.
I think the Iceberg Theory is certainly an interesting exercise, and a useful test, to think about when writing short fiction, which must be so carefully focused by its nature. I have a few short stories lying around that could definitely benefit, especially since one of my challenges has been to walk that delicate line between showing and telling, between being evocative and merely being sparse.
One of the distinctive facets of the Internet experience is the small glimpses we get into the lives of other people, which seems to satisfy the inner voyeur in us all. It’s an endless well of vignettes, those “short, impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or setting” (definition from wikipedia). Someday I’d love to use them as writing prompts for myself or even students to launch short fiction or essays, so I’ve been keeping track of my favorite sources:
Overheard in New York, which is too raunchy/profane for high schoolers, but could work in composition classes and makes me laugh out loud every time
Post Secret, also available in book form and sometimes breathtaking in their vulnerability
The “Missed Connections” ads you can find in newspaper personals or on your local Craig’s List– these can be skimpy, but sometimes you stumble across a real jewel, like this one:
Oh Joeleen YOU silly Girl! You chose to stay with your boyfriend… It was such a good run we had. I never laughed with a girl so much in my life. I hope he is all you said he wasn’t.
I recently started checking in on a blog called Largehearted Boy, which bills itself as a blog about music, literature and popular culture. The songs posted are usually to my liking, but the real treat for me has been the Book Notes feature, where the blogger invites authors to share what playlists were their soundtracks while they were writing their current book. He gets lists from Gayle Brandeis, Bret Easton Ellis and more, and they are fascinating little pieces even if you haven’t read the books. I’ve been intrigued by interplay between music and literature for a long time now myself, so this was right up my alley.
I’ve fooled around a lot with short stories, but have had little success so far (which is why there is no fiction category at the top of the page there) but each one I’ve tried has been woven through with song lyrics and music. Someday I’d like to get better at fiction, but it’s hard to drag myself back to it when I still need so much practice. It’s also a hard balancing act to make the musical references fit within the story well enough that the reader doesn’t need to have heard the song for it to resonate, but that if the song is a familiar one, the scene will really fly. Stephen King is really good at that, for my money.
I’ve been thinking also that making playlists might be a neat journal exercise for students to try as we make our way through books like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye, which seem like they could lend themselves really well to a soundtrack.
I like to skim literary contest sites looking for good ideas for literature-based assignments. The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress runs a yearly Letters about Literature where students write a letter to an author explaining how that author’s work changed their lives or ways of thinking. I’m going to have my students do a similar exercise, though I may not tie it to the entry date for the actual contest. I’m thinking it might make a nice end-of-year exercise for them to think about all the different books we read this year, and also a good exercise in thinking about audience and being self-reflective.
Welcome to my professional blog, where I’ll be discussing my thoughts and projects connected to the writing and teaching work I do. I’ll also be posting here each time a piece of mine is available on the internet or in a print publication.
While you’re here, feel free to look through the tabbed pages at the top, which include links to my published work and my thoughts on the different genres and mediums in which I publish.
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