The agony and ecstasy of online reviewing

Professional authors (e.g., folks who can actually live on their authorial earnings) are likely to have really good editors. The editor is known to them, there is give-and-take between author and editor, they build trust over multiple projects, and like a producer for a rock band, the editor serves as the steady hand on the tiller regarding questions of style and tone.

If you aren’t published yet, and most of us aren’t, I hear that in-person workshops are great. I can imagine having multiple people in the room at the same time arguing about the different ways I could have written a passage. Better, I can imagine arguing how some passage is right as it as, because it fits into the greater part of the whole. I’d really dig that. Especially as I’d be reading and discussing their stuff, and I’d get an idea whether their concepts for style, construction and tone were at all simpatico with my own.

Making the best of online resources

But not all of us have the flexibility to hie off to the Allegheny mountains to hole up with a bunch of other author nerds and do a workshop. Or even to commit to a local group — with my job, from one week to another I don’t know where I’ll be. And yet, having real live strangers read your work is essential to getting a book finished — and by finished I mean polished, smoothed out, redacted of pointless or self-indulgent passages, inclusive of all the details which I know because I’m writing it but which I don’t make clear for the reader, elimination of too much passive voice, all the ‘fat’ that must be skimmed from a book.

That leaves the online community. I have to say, I’m grateful these communities exist, as I’m getting some priceless feedback. But the big problem that results is that you have multiple people giving opinions on style and construction, and there is no conversation — either between them or with the writer. Furthermore, you have never spoken with these folks, don’t know their age, their literary background (tastes, what/how much they have read), their ‘school’ of writing. You write, they review, you sit back and wonder how to reconcile their comments with the other 2 or 3 (if you are lucky maybe 4) other reviewers on a work — and how to reconcile with your own style and voice. It’s tough on both sides, as we all review each other and as we do, we try to walk softly (encourage), not be rude but definitely point out what needs to be fixed.

I’m struggling with this right now with the re-structuring of Pat Hayden Jones. I’ve decided to get this bloated beast of a story slimmed down, lean and mean, and do something with it. It’s a strange process: I read reviews, get a ton of really good feedback (missing a word, passive voice, how a construction could have more zing). Sometimes, though, the comments are about the theme or direction, and how I’d like to have a conversation. Sometimes you can get a little done over email, but everyone is so busy these days, it’s a lot to ask. I have emailed on reviewer to ask if she’d re-read a ‘fixed’ submission, and she did, that was awesome, but you don’t feel right doing that more than once. It’s a dance in front of a one-way mirror, and you really don’t know how the other person sees you. Mentally, rather challenging.

To all my online reviewers who stumble on this – yes, thank you, I am really grateful you pointed out my passive sentences, missing logic, scattershot POV, backwards constructions, and lazy descriptors. You have really helped tighten up the beginning of PHJ.

About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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