Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Power of Peer Reviewing Your Writing

Gordon Stamper, Jr.
As I begin each college composition course, I teach my students the need for peer reviewing.  They are hesitant to listen because they 1) had the partners who said or wrote "nice" or "it was great" for their in-depth writing analyses; 2) experienced the student critic who thought personally attacking the writer would earn brownie points with the instructor (it doesn't); or 3) had peer reviewers who would bleed comments or corrections on the written page, whether they were solicited or not.
Students are even wary after they see my "foolproof" peer review forms, which force their partners to answer questions and comment on a separate sheet, in a constructive and detailed manner.  But those who dive into the process see the value both for others and themselves as writers, and this value continues outside the classroom in the professional writing world.
Peer reviewing allows a writer to play the roles of critical reader and editor.  She can ascertain what parts of a piece’s wording and organization are cohesive, flowing, or disjointed.  She can see where a writer is or is not doing service to his topic with sufficient development and details for his reading audience.  Also, when prompted by her partner, a peer reviewer can help with later-stage proofreading issues.
Another natural byproduct is the two-pronged personal benefit for the writer.  One relates to human nature, in that when she sees what works or doesn’t work in someone else’s writing, she learns more about her own craft.  The other is when she receives a critique, she gets insight into her work that she normally wouldn’t have, perhaps having a blind spot or closeness to her own writing that the peer reviewer doesn’t have.  Yet this latter benefit is also the one that many beginning or intermediate-level writers are not willing to receive, often becoming defensive or not listening when receiving even the most constructive criticism.
Learning to receive criticism is a valuable part of the peer reviewing process.  As writers gain more experience exchanging comments on their own and others’ texts, they learn about what writing suggestions to keep or ignore.  Also, the wisdom is gained that even the best readers can have bad days and share off-base advice.
However, where does one go to get input after leaving the controlled classroom setting and entering the professional world?  As writers, we don’t outgrow the need for an educated set of eyes to read our drafts.  The shoddy peer reviews of the past should not dissuade writers from receiving valuable commentary.  All the previous points I made about peer editing still apply.  I tell my students that even the most experienced business professionals, lawyers, or writers need colleagues or editors to read their work.
Some have the good fortune of editorial staff and agent commentary, while others find a writer’s group or trusted set of readers.  Outside my classroom experiences, I have had the fortune to attend formal and informal writers’ workshops, and Northwest Indiana writing groups such as the late great Writers’ Expressions and the alive-and-kicking Highland Writers Group.  All have enriched my writing knowledge base.  They have allowed me to be a much more constructive and empathetic editor, and an improved writer who responds to the needs of my reading audience.
Please find a writer’s group or trusted set of colleagues to give a second look at your work.  The support and knowledge given can be invaluable for any level of writer.
Gordon Stamper, Jr. is an adjunct faculty member of Ivy Tech Gary, limited-term lecturer at Purdue University North Central, a published writer, and moderator of Highland Writers’ Group, which meets in Griffith (Grindhouse Café) and Valparaiso (Blackbird Café) on alternating Saturdays.
Editor's Note: You can find a list of Northwest Indiana writers' groups on Indiana Writers' Consortium's website at

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writers' Market Guides

You've written that novel or article or short story, but now you wonder where to submit it. There are a number of market guides that can start you on your way by helping you target the markets that may be a good fit for your manuscript. Many of these guides also provide other helpful information, such as tips on writing query letters.

Here is a list of the most prominent market guides:

  • Writer's Market (covers the better-known markets for most genres)
  • Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market
  • Novel & Short Story Writer's Market
  • The Christian Writer's Market Guide
  • Poet's Market
  • Guide to Literary Agents
Using these guides is only the beginning of the quest. Although most of them are updated annually, the publishing industry changes quickly, and some of the information will be out-of-date before the guide is even published. Purchasing the online version helps, but even that is no guarantee.

Here are some other online guides.

Market guides help you target the most likely publishers or agents, but the next step is to go to each publisher's or agent's website and download its writers' guidelines (sometimes called submission guidelines). Then follow them. Customizing each submission to the publisher's requirements is the best way to get noticed.

Some writers' guidelines say whether the publisher accepts unsolicited queries or manuscripts or whether all submissions must be agented. This may vary by genre within the same publishing house, and the publisher's guidelines should tell you that, as well. If you cannot locate the guidelines on the publisher's website, that may be a clue that the publisher will not accept unagented material.

The writers' guidelines may ask you to submit to a general mailbox (e.g., submissions @ Some people recommend submitting to a particular editor or agent, and that often works. Not always, though. The editor or agent may be so busy that he or she passes the submission to a more junior individual or--in the worse case scenario--tosses it in the round file. For some editors, if you send it directly rather than to the address in the guidelines, the editor assumes you can't follow instructions. So sometimes submitting to a specific individual works for you, and sometimes it works against you.

If you decide to submit to a specific individual, or if the writers' guidelines suggest that you do so, call the company and ask the person who answers the telephone to confirm that the individual is still there. Check the individual's title and the spelling of his or her name, as well. Nothing guarantees rejection like a misspelled name.

Following these steps will not ensure that you get published. They will, however, keep you from wasting time on markets that do not publish your genre or that accept manuscripts only through agents.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Poetry at the Zoo

Peggy Archer
Have you been to the zoo lately? My husband and I went to Brookfield Zoo, just outside of Chicago, where we enjoyed one of the last nice days of fall. We went to spend time outside. We went for the exercise, the change of pace, and to see the animals. Our expectations were met. But an added surprise was to find poetry at the zoo! As we walked, we found poetry on stone, signs, and glass as well as in the beauty of nature. 
Etched on a large rock:
Earth, people and poetry
are one and the same entity
bound together by mysterious
subterranean passageways.
When the earth flowers,
the people breathe freedom,
and poets sing and show the way.
Written on a wall:
To the earth, to the earth.
He has renewed our life,
He has taken pity on us.
I did a little bit of research on line and found this information.
Aside from majestic North American animals and beautiful exhibits, Great Bear Wilderness also embraces the "Language of Conservation," an initiative aimed at deepening conservation awareness through poetry.
With the support of a $1 million National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Poets House (national literary center and poetry library headquartered in New York City) has partnered with five zoos to create approximately 200 unique poetry installations in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Little Rock, Jacksonville, and Chicago. The selected zoos have seamlessly woven poems into the habitats of animals such as polar bears, snakes and flamingos to inspire millions of zoo visitors to become better stewards of the environment.
If you are a poet at heart, and even if you aren't, and you are near any of the areas around the zoos mentioned above, you won't want to miss an afternoon of Poetry at the Zoo.
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NOTE: This post originally appeared on Peggy's blog at IWC thanks her for permission to reprint it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Still Life With Cigarettes and Hat: The Importance of Where and When We Write

Michael Poore
I'm writing this article at the Grindhouse Café on Broad Street, in Griffith, Indiana.
That's how I like to write. In a space with music. A friendly, social space, with people who are leaving me alone. That's my ritual.
If you're a writer, chances are you have a ritual, too.
Your ritual is your way of drawing a pagan circle, so the magic can happen. I used to make a little still life out of myself: me, my computer, cigarettes, a can of diet pop, hat-of-the-day either on my head or off to the side. In thirty-five years it hasn't changed much.
I wonder how important the ritual really is. I mean, does it help me write better stories? Does it help me enjoy the process more? Is it nesting? (I'm not fond of monkeys. My family evolved from woodpeckers.)
Some people have a quiet writing space at home. Janine, for example, writes in her tiny, gloriously messy office, in the middle of the night. She'll wake up at midnight, and write ten pages before going back to sleep. My friend Ted keeps a home office, and nothing but writing materials are ever allowed to touch his writing desk--no bills, no misplaced happy meal toys or loose change. It's like holy ground. Mark Twain had a whole mini-house built in his backyard. These are people who separate the muggle part of their lives from the art-making part of their lives. Hunter S. Thompson, on the other hand, wrote in his kitchen. He also ate there, paid bills there, made phone calls there, and shot himself there.
Other writers have a quiet space away from home. Maya Angelou keeps a tiny hotel room, containing a desk, a Bible, and some wine. Annie Dillard had Tinker Creek (I wish I had a creek. Don't you?).
There are about ten million studies proving that timespace rituals like this are a big help in producing quality brainwork. It's considered an important study skill for kids...set aside a 'homework corner,' and do your homework there at the same time every day. Grades go up, generally, when kids do this. So basically, if you sit down to write in the same place and time, every day, your brain will learn to flip the writing switch when you do this ("Oh, we're at the handpainted desk with the cool, twisty lamp, and it's six in the morning...better fire up the Magic Buddha neurons!").
The problem here is that we live in a hypertopian age, and we don't always have the luxury of choosing our writing timespace. Joyce Carol Oates recognizes this. I read an article once in which she said we basically have to be ready to take advantage of whatever chances come our way. Got 13 minutes between the laundry and Market Day pickup? Sit down and write. Don't worry about the cigarettes and the lucky hat or whether there's a happy meal toy on the desk. Just sit down and do it.
I have always struggled with finding some middle ground between these approaches.
I prefer to write in a café. I wrote a whole book in the café at Borders, in Southlake Mall. But I don't need that, necessarily. Last year, I wrote a whole chapter on a school bus going to a middle-school state championship basketball game, with kids screaming and throwing things all around me. A serious chapter, too, with people getting drunk in a hospital room where a child was dying of cancer.
What does that mean, that I can do some of my best work waaaaay outside of my ritual space?
I'm not the first writer to explore this, of course. Years ago, I read an interview with a successful young writer who said that she had tried writing in all sorts of places--in cafés, at friends' houses, in bus stations, in buses--and I was captivated by this quest of hers. What did it mean? Most writers go through this, trying to find their own particular way. Was she--are we--taking advantage of opportunity? Writing, more than almost any other task, can be done anywhere. But I also have to wonder if it isn't something we use to accomplish that other task at which writers excel: putting off writing.
Sometimes, when I'm making a big deal out of my ritual, I realize that I'm focusing on the fun of being a writer, not so much on getting stories written. I realize that I have spent an hour or more getting coffee, getting a muffin, checking my messages, doing Facebook, getting coffee, doing Twitter. "Look at me!" I think to myself, forming little mental pictures of myself, in my café, doing writer stuff...except not writing.
Here's what I've discovered about rituals and writing: rituals are nice and fun, and can be helpful. But real writing, the good stuff that happens when you are 'in the zone,' is its own ritual. I'm talking about the kind of writing that happens, for me, when I realize my coffee cup has been empty for an hour, when I forget to eat, when I have to be told that the place is closing. When I'm sitting at the table in my own home, surrounded by cats and dogs and happy meal toys, and don't realize that the window is open and it's raining in the dining room or that my stepdaughter is on fire.
Focus...writing itself...may be the only kind of ritual that really counts. Focus is, according to some article I read, the same thing as hypnosis. That's all hypnosis is, intense state of concentration. Kids do it when they play video games. Readers get that way when they read. Ulysses S. Grant was famous for this kind of thing; he'd be working on correspondence in his tent, get up to fetch something, perhaps an inkwell, and never straighten up, walking around his tent hunched over.
That's ritual. That's writing.
It has its drawbacks, like any extreme. Like the time years ago, when I lived in a house with several other young writers, when I woke up with an idea, and raced straight for my keyboard and wrote and wrote. Eventually, I thought: "Man, I've missed breakfast! It's almost lunchtime!" I got up long enough to rush downstairs to the fridge, saying 'Hey' to a couple of my housemates and their girlfriends, grabbing a slice of pizza and a cup of coffee, then climbing back to my upstairs loft, back to my computer. I was just getting started again, after one bite of pizza, when my buddy James climbed up and cleared his throat, and said, "Dude, you do realize you're naked, right?"
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Michael Poore is the author of Up Jumps the Devil (Ecco Press, 2012). To learn more about Mike, visit