Archives For Editing

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 13 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

____

* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.

_____

* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

Hunting Facts

March 7, 2016 — 10 Comments

librariansI’m having a serious problem. One that was shared by C.S. Lewis.

Unfortunately, it has reached its greatest intensity as I am striving to meet the deadline for my doctoral dissertation.

The problem is one that should be simple to remedy, yet I’m crippled by it. The solution is so simple that it is almost embarrassing to admit what it is.

But, confession is good for the soul. (That’s not a biblical verse, by the way, in case you were wondering. Nevertheless, it’s quite true.)

So, here’s my confession. I love to conduct research.

The internet is tailor made for a lifelong student like me; I can follow any avenue that piques my interest from one corner of the world wide web to the other.

And, I do.

That’s the problem, of course. I always over-research the things that I write. And this dissertation is no different. I have so much research—good stuff—to cram into it that I’m dreading hearing back from my advisor . . . who now has the first three chapters in hand.

So, how does this plight resonate with the life of C.S. Lewis? Well, not in the sense of my possessing his brilliant intellect and memory. Lewis had no need of the internet to sort out all of the material he had studied.

Still, the two of us do share one important character trait. He too, was an inveterate collector of information.

In his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings, Lewis confesses his pleasure at conducting research. He says it in this fashion:

“I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellen-forschung) is perhaps in my marrow.”

Alas, my marrow is filled with the same unquenchable hunger.

Considering Your Own Writing

It may be that some Mere Inkling readers share this passion for pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

It can certainly be argued that it is an important facet of writing. But there are other aspects of writing, and it is quite natural for different elements of the process to appeal to different individuals.

Perhaps you prefer the initial brainstorming, daydreaming or idea phase of a writing project.

Or, as we have discussed, researching information may be the high point of your writing efforts.

This typically leads to outlining, in various shades of detail. Some writers prefer to proceed without any structure in mind. (This is usually not a good idea when writing nonfiction.) I like outlining. I find establishing a logical structure satisfying work, probably because I’m NTJ.

There are, of course those who honestly love the writing itself, especially when they are in the zone and the creativity is really flowing. Frankly, for me the writing is work. (That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the feeling that flashes when you come upon the perfect word or phrase.)

And, although I’m a brutal editor of my own work, and find sharpening an article rewarding work, I must admit I am a little surprised when I encounter a writer who enjoys this phase of the process the most of all.

Then there is sharing or submitting a manuscript for publication. Most writers are a little nervous about this, but some find it exhilarating.

Once someone has published a book, it is now normal for the bulk of responsibility for its promotion to rest upon their own shoulders, as the author. I’m still waiting to meet someone who claims that this is their favorite phase of the writing cycle.

Back Again to the Oxford Don

Lewis’ writing is so enjoyable that I want to close with a longer excerpt from the introduction.

C.S. Lewis’ high regard for MacDonald is well known. This anthology of his work was a tribute to him, in the hopes of introducing many more readers to his work. This book is insightful into the hearts of both men. After all, the editor’s choice of quotations cannot help but reveal much about them too.

In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.

Honesty drives me to emphasize it. And even if honesty did not— well, I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellen-forschung) is perhaps in my marrow. It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought— almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions— the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.

_____

There is no authoritative step-by-step list of the writing process. Some sources call the idea stage “prewriting.” Others break writing down into two parts: “drafting” and “revising.” Some consider editing primarily to be “proofreading,” while you can see from post that I merge the revising and proofreading into what I call “editing.” There are various other structures that are used to describe the writing process. My suggestion is to go with what works for you.

MacDonald’s works are now in the public domain. You can download a free copy of Phantastes here. There is a LibriVox (audio) recording available at the same site.

Bach’s Lost Classics

November 20, 2014 — 11 Comments

csl bach

 

Were you aware that scholars believe half of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been lost to the world due to the carelessness of his relatives?

I was unaware of that sad fact until recently.

J.S. Bach was the preeminent prodigy of a gifted musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the leader of the musicians in their German city. All of his uncles were professional musicians. Two of Bach’s sons also became noteworthy composers.

Bach (1685-1750) held a number of important posts. These included serving the courts of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen and Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

It is not uncommon for gifted men and women to remain unrecognized during their lifetimes. In such cases, it is not surprising that many of their works would be lost.

Bach, on the other hand, was appreciated during his own lifetime. Despite that fact, many of his creations would pass into oblivion. Why?

Amazing, only a single early cantata was published during his lifetime.

Upon his death, all of his precious musical manuscripts—chorales, motets, arias, sonatas, suites, fugues, concertos, canons and more—were divided among his family. Some of the manuscripts were sold, and others presumably were saved and eventually lost to time. Perhaps someday more pieces will be rediscovered, but that remains to be seen.

Bach was a devout Christian (of Lutheran persuasion). While the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he wrote more than 300 cantatas inspired by the Gospel readings for Sundays and church festivals. One hundred of these musical gems have not survived.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed Bach. In An Experiment in Criticism, he uses the composer’s music as an example of something so profound that it continues to satisfy.

Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently.

In his Diary, Lewis’ brother Warnie describes the inauguration of a new record player in 1933. “This after my long expected new gramophone arrived . . . I am delighted with it . . . After supper Jack, Minto and I sat cozily in the study and I played them the Pastoral Symphony and a sonata of Bach.”

In our modern world, the increase in leisure time has allowed many people to pursue their creative dreams. Some write, others paint, and a smaller number compose music.

Bach’s tale makes one wonder what will happen to their labors of love once they are gone. Will our family or friends divide them among themselves? Will they ever be read?

Rather than be depressed by these questions, let me encourage you to share your work with others now. Perhaps a blog would be a suitable avenue for publishing your thoughts? There are also a number of options for publishing ebooks, including some that do so at no cost.

Of course, not everything we write merits publication. We should strive to write something worthwhile, and edit it to the point where we can be suitably “proud” of our literary offspring. No doubt Bach spent many hours revising his compositions until they sounded perfect to his own ear.

And, for those of us who share the faith of Bach, it is worth noting the words he wrote at the close of each of his religious works (and many of his secular pieces): Soli Deo Gloria . . . Glory to God Alone.

Corrupted Poetry

July 28, 2014 — 14 Comments

proofreadersA sloppy proofreader can ruin the most praiseworthy writing. (Just ask Mark Twain.)

If you’ve ever seen something you wrote poorly edited—or including introduced errors—you know personally just how criminal this is.

My choice of adjectives reveals that these tragedies are nearly always mistakes, and not malevolent. Despite that fact, they disrupt the flow and impugn the skill of truly good writers.

I was thinking about this subject today after running across the following passage during my research of the American Civil War. An 1861 newspaper lifted the following from an issue of the Boston Courier.

The Errors of the Press—“Really,” said a printer, in conversing with a literary man about errors of the press, “gentlemen should not place such unlimited confidence in the eyesight of our hard worked and half-blinded reader of proofs; for I am ashamed to say that we utterly ruined one poet through a ludicrous misprint.”

“Indeed! and what was the unhappy line?”

“Why, sir, the poet intended to say:

     ‘See the pale martyr in a sheet of fire;’

instead of which we made him say:

     ‘See the pale martyr with his shirt on fire.’”

The critics were down fierce on the poet; but we don’t see why. A man “with his shirt on fire” must be a highly poetical object, as his life would be in imminent danger.—Boston Courier.

I can easily picture the exhausted proofreader unintentionally substituting a burning garment for a consuming inferno. It made sense to him. And, since he was unlikely to have an ear tuned to poetic imagery, the practical reference to ignited clothing must be what the poet actually meant.

This reminds me that it’s impossible to have too many eyes cast upon the final draft of a work before it goes to print. Take care of your friends and family who offer you the gift of proofreading; their talents deserve to be appreciated and rewarded.

Mark Twain’s Thoughts on the Subject

Samuel Clemens got his own start in the newspaper business and knew firsthand how challenging proofreading was. However, that did not prevent him from venting about the poor proofreading of his novel More Tramps Abroad.

The following was written to his publishers in regard to the printer’s shortcomings. The 1897 letter clearly reveals Twain’s colorful (and occasionally vulgar) writing.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own.

This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it. I have read two pages of it—I can’t stand any more. If they will restore my punctuation themselves & then send the purified pages to me I will read it for errors of grammar & construction—that is enough to require of another who writes as legible a hand as I do, & who knows more about punctuation in two minutes than any damned bastard of a proof-reader can learn in two centuries.

Conceive of this tumble-bug interesting himself in my punctuation—which is none of his business & with which he has nothing to do—& then instead of correcting mis-spelling, which is in his degraded line, striking a mark under the word & silently confessing that he doesn’t know what the hell to do with it!

The following year he wrote a mellower review of the work of the proofreader. Not in the heat of correcting a muddled manuscript, he was able to comment on the benefits afforded by good proofreading.

You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.

Sometimes—but not often enough—the printer’s proof-reader saves you–& offends you—with this cold sign in the margin: (?) & you search the passage & find that the insulter is right—it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.

I must say that I have been rescued by my proofreaders far more frequently than I have been abused by them. May God grant you the same blessing.

Confusing Creeds

November 7, 2013 — 5 Comments

Nicene CreedThere are a couple of sentences in the traditional translation of the basic Christian creeds (statements of faith) that lead to confusion.

Due to the literary examples below, Christian readers may find the following discussion more interesting than non-Christians—but everyone interested in clarity versus confusion should find something intriguing.

The creeds offer a prime example of why it is absolutely crucial to ensure that gradual shifts in language do not undermine or blur the intended meaning of a given sentence. To illustrate, consider this line from the Nicene Creed.

. . . [Jesus] who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. (1662, Anglican Book of Common Prayer).*

The potential confusion here lies in the archaic usage of the word “of.” Whose Holy Spirit are we referring to? Mary’s innate holiness and purity? The educated Christian may stumble over that dated phrase—which is still used in some denominations—but a person not acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity might easily misinterpret it as a Maryological, rather than Christological, confession.

Let’s consider two more recent translations, and note how the first restores the intent of the original writers. The second of these commonly used translations reflects the hand(s) of “politically correct” revisers.

For us and for our salvation he [Jesus] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (1975 International Consultation on English Texts version).

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. (1988, English Language Liturgical Consultation version).

We will consider a second example momentarily, but let’s first look at something C.S. Lewis wrote about reflecting on the importance of the creeds. He noted that too often we rattle through the words without considering their significance. This is unfortunate.

In an essay entitle “On Forgiveness,” Lewis describes a personal epiphany and offers counsel to those tempted to take familiar words for granted.

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.”

But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

As usual, the Oxford don was correct. However, just as good translations possess the power to inspire, so too poor or antiquated translations exercise the ability to confuse.

Here is the promised second example.

And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures . . . (1662).

Ah, I understand, think the uncatechized, the Bible teaches us that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. Well, yes it does, but that is not the sense in which the second phrase is intended. Here, “according to the Scriptures,” means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were all accomplished in accordance with the promises of the Word of God.

In other words, “just as was promised in the Garden of Eden and foretold by the prophets, Jesus won victory when he rose from the grave in accordance with the loving plan of God the Father.” The newer versions make that fact only slightly clearer.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures . . . (1975 and 1988).

Perhaps a future revision will replace “in accordance with,” using something like “as foretold in” or “fulfilling the scriptural promises.”

Some of us worship in congregations using a variant of the seventeenth century creed, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that most of them have at least replaced “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” with “both the living an the dead.” After all, we wouldn’t want people to think that one’s salvation is dependent upon their speed.

_____

* This slightly contemporized version of the creed has already remedied the terribly confusing term “Holy Ghost,” which evokes images of disembodied souls and hauntings.

autographThe advent of the internet instigated some confusion about what it means to “be published.” That accolade is, of course, the dream of most women and men who write.

To be published—historically speaking—has meant that your words have been:

  1. Deemed worthy of being placed in print (at least, by one editor’s subjective determination).
  2.  Made available in some number of copies to millions, thousands, hundreds, scores, or perhaps dozens of eager readers.

Writing “online” was initially dismissed by the publishing industry (and many writers themselves). “It’s not the same,” they would say. Of course not. Yet they accomplish the same purpose, making writers’ heartfelt messages available for others. And, in short time we have witnessed a publishing revolution in which many of the most vibrant and thought-provoking “periodicals” are primarily (or exclusively) online entities.

So, it is quite appropriate to consider oneself published, I believe, if our work has been included in an online publication.

The arrival of print-on-demand technology (and ebooks) magnified the confusion. Now, it costs very little to become your very own Publishing House, and anyone with a few dollars can see their word in literal print. This has had two major consequences.

  1. Freed from the arbitrary whim of editorial bottlenecks, first-class literary works have been published. Works that formerly would have been returned to their creators with form letters expressing the editors’ regret that they cannot find a place in their exclusive booklist for them.
  2. Material that should would have greatly benefited from thorough editing and rewrites now look for all intents, just like real books that merit reading. Works the afore-insulted editors would formerly have protected the world from.

So, it is quite appropriate to consider oneself published, I believe, even when we have self-published our work—assuming, of course, that our book falls into the first category described above.

And today we have blog boom. Millions of posts and columns. Some creative sprouts withered before they had a chance to bloom. But many exquisite writers sowed rich gardens of wisdom and fancy that continue to be pruned and expanded.

All writers hope to become published. And most would like to one day see their words appreciated by as large an audience as possible. When we have an article or book we’ve written accepted by a recognized periodical or publisher, we experience the joy of anticipation. As we look forward to receiving a copy of the final product, our eagerness is tempered by a bit of anxiety. I mean, anything could happen, right? The publication could even go out of business—and that’s actually happened to me.

C.S. Lewis shared this same sort of expectation as his work neared the presses. And, being C.S. Lewis, he was able to reflect on his own thoughts in a brilliant manner. In 1918, as his first book, a collection of poetry, was being published, he wrote his close friend, Arthur Greeves:

So at last dreams come to pass and I have sat in the sanctum of a publisher discussing my own book (Notice the hideous vulgarity of success already growing in me). Yet—though it is very pleasant—you will understand me when I say that it has not the utter romance which the promise of it had a year ago. Once a dream has become a fact I suppose it loses something. This isn’t affectation: we long & long for a thing and when it comes it turns out to be just a pleasant incident, very much like others.

Like Lewis, most of us find the accomplishment of publishing our work “very pleasant.” Still, it’s seldom if ever the mountaintop experience it flirts at being. Literary Sirens sing “once you are published all your dreams will be realized . . . all who meet you will bow in respect at your wondrous achievement.”

Reality is different. Becoming a “published writer” is something about which we can justifiably be proud. But it doesn’t make us better than anyone else. After all, is not a mechanic who can make an engine purr just as talented as a wordsmith who composes music out of prose?