Tag Archives: critiquing

I’m Not Hungry Thanks

What do you do when someone asks you to critique their work and you’re really not impressed?  Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Or do you lie?

As you’re a writer, it’s likely, at some point, that you’ve been approached by another writer to critique their work, probably because they know that it’s not quite right and need a second opinion.  If you’re familiar with them and their writing style – it’s a relatively easy task.  You’ve developed a relationship because you admire each other’s work, you’ve a mutual trust, and an understanding of what to expect.  The whole thing is straightforward – you can be honest, direct, and not tie yourself in knots as to whether you’ll upset them or not. However, it’s an entirely different matter if it’s someone you don’t know that well, but particularly, if it’s the work of someone who’s inexperienced.  Especially if there’s a lot that needs improving.  I don’t know about you, but for me, critiquing the work of someone I’m only vaguely familiar with sets off those anxious little voices in my head (yes, I have voices).  They call out:

You can’t tell them the truth.  

You’ll hurt their feelings.  

And then they’ll be upset.  

And you know who’ll be to blame!

YOU! 

When you’re in this situation (surely I can’t be the only one?), the first thing you should do is turn down the volume on those voices. (You’d never do anything if you took any stock of what they have to say).  The next thing is to consider the critique from the writer’s perspective (especially if they’re a novice).

It’s true that, after a few years of writing, I welcome (fair) constructive criticism, but when I started out, passing my work over for someone else to read made me want to:

  1. throw up;
  2. hide under a blanket;
  3. run away

I knew I was over-reacting. My rational side thought, get a grip woman – it’s only a piece of fiction.  I wasn’t confessing to a life as a prostitute in the window of an Amsterdam brothel (that’s another story)

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She wished she’d got some net curtains. She was sick of every Tom, Dick and Harry looking in when they walked past.

or kidnapping a busload of grannies in Torremolenos and keeping them hostage (best not go there).

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She knew she shouldn’t have left that open invite on Facebook.

Yet, despite this, as a new writer, I felt exposed and vulnerable, consumed by a very real and powerful fear.  My writing felt so personal, and I’d invested so much in it, that the possibility of any negative comments felt like a personal assault on me.  I’d set my creative bar so high, that if I lost my balance, I was scared the fall would be fatal.

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This circus trick course wasn’t all it was made out to be.

It’s this I try to remember when I feedback on someone else’s work: the huge impact we have on someone’s confidence when we tell them our thoughts about their creative abilities. As a reviewer, I’m not simply commenting on a story, but something that is personal to them.  The other thing I try to remember is the lessons I learned from others when I received critiques on my stories:

  • Show consideration for their feelings, and don’t be too blunt.
  • Even if it’s very flawed, it’s really important to make a big deal about the good aspects (pointing out things such as interesting story idea, strong voice, easy narrative style, good characterisation, natural dialogue, striking imagery, etc).
  • Only then, when you’ve buffered them to the hilt, do you describe the weaknesses (in my case, the usual suspects: not moving the story forward, too much irrelevant detail, unnecessary description, explaining too much, being too obvious, overuse of adjectives, cliched characters and cliched writing, too much telling, not enough showing.  I could go on).
  • It’s good to have two positives to every negative.
  • Don’t list TOO many negatives – especially if it’s a new writer.  You can always leave a few out.  The future of the Earth doesn’t depend on it.  It’s likely they’re going to send the story to you again, so you can always point out other issues then – once the writing is stronger.

Hearing the faults in a story isn’t pleasant reading for any writer, but if the positives are emphasised strongly enough, the negatives won’t make you want to scurry away, to hide for eternity, covered in cobwebs and cat wee, never to write again.  Instead, you’ll realise, your writing may not be perfect, but what you have instead is something solid to work with.

So, as a critiquer, what you should be serving to the writer, whatever their experience, is the classic shit sandwich.

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Tell me what the pros of writing are again?

Those two positives I mentioned earlier?  Those are the bread.  And the negative? Yep, that’s the shit filling.  You’ve got that, right?  The bread is a shock absorber to soften the blow.  You’re distracting them with something cosy and comforting to chew on (Mmmm! Thick white Warburtons bread)

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Mmmm, Warburtons. My favourite. What did you say that brown stuff was? Marmite?

before they realise what the smell is and the bad taste in their mouth.  (Do you need some water?)

It’s easy to see many negatives in a lot of new writing, and yes, you should tell the truth, but don’t be overly harsh.  Over-emphasising the positives is not being deceitful.  What you’re actually doing is giving a new writer the honesty they deserve, whilst simultaneously building up their creative confidence and self-esteem. It’s the persistence and practise that’s applied to writing – after an initial boost of confidence – that helps with improvement; the ability to apply the good, and to identify (and remove) the bad.

So, if we return to the shit sandwich analogy (yes, we must)…  Over time, if writers act on feedback, they learn to eliminate the shit from their sandwich until it’s nothing more than an occasional skid mark on the bread.

And maybe one day, if we’re lucky, there’ll be no mark left at all.

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Not that I’ll be eating that bread after I know what’s been on it.

 

 

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Filed under Short fiction, Uncategorized, Writer's resources, Writing

All The Best Intentions…

Probably one of my most annoying traits is the inability to think before I speak.  I thought I’d managed to maintain some vestige of control over it where my writing is concerned. Until recently, when I discovered that, obviously I hadn’t… 

A while back, I asked a couple of writerly friends to critique a short story for me – Colin –  that I’d been wrestling with for ages.  You know what it’s like?  Sometimes writing is as easy as stuffing the contents of a can of Pringles in your face (or maybe two cans, right?), but at other times, the ideas in your head are frozen, like a type of stage fright, steadfastly refusing to make an appearance on paper.

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If only writing was always as easy as binge-eating.

Oh, come on – who am I kidding?  It’s not stage fright.  It’s constipation.  Pure and simple.  Rock-hard pebbles you have to push out with grim determination, that hurt like hell.  I’m afraid to say, I think I might even have that same pained, scrunched-up expression when I’m struggling with writing that I do when I’m trying to…  Er… possibly time for a subject change here.

I get this a lot (writing that doesn’t flow, not constipation.  I swear.  Please believe me), and usually when it happens I write the story regardless, ignoring the diabolical flow, hoping that eventually, it will all form a cohesive whole.  Though in this particular case, there was no ‘whole’ when the words were finally committed to paper: Colin was the writing equivalent of a drunk in a bar – jerky and incoherent.

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It’s best not to let your writing loose on people when it’s jerky and incoherent.

Anyway, I digress.  Back to my writing buds.

I knew them well – having done a few modules of a writing course with them – and understood that I could rely on them to be kind, but more importantly, able to pick out what worked and what didn’t about my, by now, hated short story.  In the past, I’d turn to them whenever I needed an honest opinion, and I knew they wouldn’t let me down.

Now let’s establish something here – something you may already know: one of the most important rules when receiving feedback is that you accept it without comment.  Even if you don’t particularly agree with the critiquer’s opinion.  I mean, as you’ve asked their advice, you have to accept it.   And, there’s a couple of reasons why.

Firstly, if you start trying to justify writing that needs improvement, you start to look like nothing less than an arse.  Yes, that’s right – an arse.

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Being an arse wouldn’t be so bad if only it meant being pert and shapely. I knew I’d get the short straw.

More importantly, remember the critiquing process is not just about you.  it’s hard for someone to give honest feedback, especially when they know a writer has put their heart and soul into a piece of writing.  And my two friends – let’s call them Ethel and Gertrude here, for the sake of argument – have given me lots of useful guidance in the past, helping to improve my writing no end.  The reason they’ve continued to help, is because I’ve accepted it without comment – simply thanking them, going on my way, and using the parts of their advice that I felt was relevant to alter my work.  Even if, at times, I’ve needed to have a little cry after.

So the rule for receiving feedback is:

Don’t comment.

I’ll repeat that again.  Do not comment.

Yes, I’ll say it louder in case you didn’t hear me.  DO NOT COMMENT.

women with her mouth taped up

Sometimes, when you can’t keep your mouth shut, only tape will do.

You know this rule now.  I know this rule.

In the past, I’ve followed it to the letter.  Even when I’ve really wanted to say something in my own (writing’s) defence.

But, unfortunately, not the time when I got the feedback to Colin.

Instead of my usual ‘thankyou, you’re so great – your advice has been a great help’, I took the list of adjustments – which I FULLY AGREED WITH – and decided to explain my thought processes for the writing as it stood.  I don’t know what got into me – I wasn’t arguing with their advice.  What I was trying to do was show my intention in writing it that way.  I don’t know, maybe I was embarrassed – I was used to having more creative success in recent times, and though I’d asked for their help (and needed it), there’s an element of pride being bruised when you’re told your writing needs so much improvement.  Anyway, all that happened was I ended up looking like an arse.  Did I tell you that you look like an arse if you respond back to criticism?  Here’s another reminder:

fat-thong-topless

Yes, I’m an arse for all the world to see.

But what was worse, Ethel was mortified.  (Gertrude was quiet on the matter, but God only knows what she thought.  Sometimes silence is more frightening than confrontation).  She apologised in great detail, thinking she’d hurt my feelings, and said she hadn’t meant to step over the line in her critique.

She hadn’t.  It was me.  I was an arse.

But I suppose there was a positive in the whole situation – it made me understand that the critiquing process is a two way thing: it’s not just about you trusting your reader, but also, about them trusting you.  Just as you need to feel safe in your creative relationship before you pass over your writing, they need to feel safe giving you advice, and understand that you’re not going to argue or nit-pick about the points they make.

So, basically, my point is, when you write, and when you ask someone to give you a truthful analysis of good and bad points, then take their advice, say thank you, and shut up.  That way, they might want to help you again.

I was fortunate because Ethel and I had already established a good relationship, so she understood this was nothing more than a blip.  But, in future, I’ll make sure I treat her with much more care.

That is all.

 

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Filed under constructive criticism, Short fiction

Great Advice by Roxane Gray (link): Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves.

Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

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Filed under constructive criticism, Novel, Short fiction, Uncategorized

Write Now? No… Write Ahead

Set the sat nav. I want the fastest route possible.  Now GO!

Goal Posts

Goal Posts (Photo credit: KTDEE….back on track I hope.)

In life, we all need goals. (And no, I’m not talking about the football variety. Though, there are times – particularly during the World Cup – when we need those too.)  In order to achieve these goals, we have to look ahead to a future that hasn’t happened yet, planning the route to where we want to be. For some people, this is easy – maybe they have more confidence, resilience, or are better connected. But the vast majority of us achieve our ambitions through sheer motivation, determination, and hard work. Also, if you’re anything like me, you might have to stop yourself from constantly talking your way out of situations, simply because you’re scared.

One of the main problems with writing, I find, is that it’s a lonely business. On the one hand, seclusion is essential. You know what it’s like when you’re trying to concentrate, and someone barges into the room, assuming that it’s okay to witter on or clatter around?  But on the other, this same isolation, where you’re trapped with nothing but your own thoughts on a daily basis, can lead to crises of confidence, and processes of negative thinking. You may be familiar with them:

  • Who exactly am I doing this for?  Myself or others?  (Only the dog and the cat show interest.)
  •  Am I any good? (If so, why do only the dog/cat care?)
  • Should I be feeding my children/changing my underwear more regularly instead of this?
  • When is the last time I talked to anyone?

Ignore these thoughts. (Though it might be good to socialise every once in a while, wash, and stop your children from becoming feral). Spiralling into pessimism is common, and it’s your brain’s way of trying to protect you from, what it views as, inevitable disappointment. With everyone around you turning away the minute you mention the subject of writing, it’s easy to give up; to think ‘What’s the point?   No-one cares anyway.’   But you care, and out there will be readers who care, too.  So, if writing is your aim, ignore you doubts.  It’s vital to think beyond what seems like the futility of the moment, and to look ahead towards your objective. But be aware, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take time, commitment and a huge amount of bloody-mindedness.

Can you hear the Death March?  Quick!  Run!

Although I’ve always wanted to write, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve developed the confidence to do it. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure if it was a burst of confidence that was the catalyst. Most likely, it was reaching the age of forty that spurred me on. There’s nothing like being faced with the mid-point in your life – when you see that the end of days is only a hand-reach away – to suddenly make you think, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.’  And, a frightened lamb I might be, but the idea that I’ll never attempt to make a grab for my dream, makes me shudder.

I know there’s a book in me, but how do you get it out?

Like every other person on the planet, I consider myself to have the makings of a novelist. I mean, I have all the qualifications: I read books – lots of them; I can write and spell; I know how to use a thesaurus, and I’m a fantasist. To add to this list of qualities, I can touch-type, and at a snazzy speed.

rover 5000 04

rover 5000 04 (Photo credit: donovanbeeson)

As I’ve said, I’ve always been a fantasist. But, it was the typewriter I received for my tenth birthday that was to blame for one particular flight of fancy. In my dream, I’d sit there, focused, forehead smooth, pounding out page after page. By my side, a neat pile of perfectly written prose – no typing errors in sight, no scrunched-up balls of paper on the floor. There aren’t any flakes of dried-up correction fluid, or any stressful vibes, either. I am the delight of the newspaper critics. Bookshops around the world are straining, each trying to contain fifteen hundred copies of my bestseller. On the back cover of the book, a portrait of my smiling face. In soft focus, of course.

Popeye

Popeye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who knew the reality would be so different?  For a start, my fantasy is out-of-date. Sadly, typewriters are virtually extinct, due to the popularity of the PC (though, positively speaking, their demise does eliminate the need for correction fluid and endless reams of waste paper. Plus, you don’t develop Popeye-like muscles on your wrists and fingers from the effort of typing). As for bookshops, I know where their future lies. In two words: internet and e-reader.

Then there’s that closely guarded secret. You know the one?  Come closer – I don’t want anyone else to hear… Writing is hard work. And it’s nothing at all like the scenes playing out in my imagination. No-one told me that being literate is just one of a multiplex of skills required to produce a masterpiece.

But, thanks to the dreaded four-oh, and all that it implies, I rejected the idea of writing as something only other people do. In an act of bravery unheard of in the Western world, I switched on my computer, opened Word, and wrote two thousand words. In one go. Sweating, leaning back to recover my breath, I gave the story a once over. It wasn’t too bad. Not great, but that’s what editing’s for, eh?  Day after day, I typed, and typed, and typed. In the end I managed fourteen thousand words in about ten days. An average novel is about eighty to a hundred thousand, so I knew, with perseverance, I had a good chance of getting down an entire first draft.

But then I started to make mistakes.

Perfectionism is in the hand of the pen holder

Writing- Pen & Paper

Writing- Pen & Paper (Photo credit: LMRitchie)

When I say mistakes, I don’t mean those linked with punctuation and grammar, or an over-use of the passive voice. These are common errors – and can be corrected through re-writes and editing. What I mean is, instead of just going for it and completing my first draft, I started to introduce obstacles, which eventually led to a total literary standstill.

In wanting to make my story as polished as possible, I failed to understand that I had to get the entire draft down in rough form first. By heading back, repeatedly, to the opening chapters – to re-read, re-write and tweak every word and nuance – I was getting nowhere. Mainly because I wasn’t looking ahead.  I didn’t realise that I’d let the editing process take over from the writing.

Escalator

Escalator (Photo credit: vpickering)

It was like walking up on a downward escalator. Though I was constantly moving, I was stuck in one place. In fact, the many re-readings of the initial chapters didn’t lead to a more polished novel, but to a total disinterest in the story. Worse still, I failed to see what anyone else would like about my writing either.

Room for improvement

As you can see, by this point, my writing and I were no longer on amicable terms, but I wasn’t ready for divorce. In an act of desperation, I involved the help of an intermediary: a trusted friend whose opinion I valued.  Someone I still consider to be my ideal reader.

After reviewing my work, she sent me a critique. She’s a real treasure, as not everyone is as honest, or as astute, as she is.  Whilst focusing on what I’d done well, she also picked out what needed to be changed, and the list read a bit like this:

  • Use of too many adjectives and adverbs. (A fatal flaw in new writers.)
  •  Too much telling and not enough showing. (Ditto.)
  • Dodgy dialogue, or none at all. (Ditto.)
  • Revealing too much about the characters in one go. (Ditto.)

Her overall positivity reassured me that I wasn’t as awful as I feared. Yet I was still stuck.  Mainly because her criticisms baffled me. What exactly is showing?  I’d read about it, but I didn’t understand what it meant within writing itself. And why couldn’t I use fancy words to describe my characters appearance or actions?  What the hell’s wrong with langorious or pulchritudinous?  (I’ve never EVER used the second word. I swear. I don’t even know how to say it.)   And the characters – how do you tell the story if you can’t reveal their lives; what makes them tick?  As for making dialogue realistic – even now, achieving this is a daily struggle, though it has become easier.

That escalator I was talking about?  Yeah. Things had become even tougher. Someone had turned the speed up, and now I was going nowhere and having to run faster, too.

If an artist has to suffer, why suffer alone?

New LCD 22" computer monitor

New LCD 22″ computer monitor (Photo credit: freefotouk)

After buying a couple of ‘how to’ books on the subject of writing, and getting very little from them, I applied for an online course with York University. It was the first positive step that I took towards improving my writing technique. Let me tell you, I was terrified, but it was beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • The regular writing exercises focused on improving skill in showing, characterisation, description, point-of-view, narration etc. All the things I experienced difficulties with.
  • Students critiqued each others’ work, and by identifying positives and negatives in someone else’s writing, it highlighted what needed to be improved in mine.
  • By critically analysing strategies in successful and published writing, it meant that these techniques could then be implemented to improve my own writing.
  • In addition to focusing on fiction, I also worked on poetry and scripts (genres I’d never even considered) which honed my choice of words, imagery, and dialogue.
  •  I learned that authenticity is established by writing in your own unique voice, not by emulating the styles of writers you admire.

But the most important aspect of this course, for me at least, was the investment I was making in my writing. I was looking towards a future where all these improvements would eventually allow me to write my novel. I realised that this was something I couldn’t do overnight, but instead, were skills I would have to practise and nurture. Somehow, it was comforting. A novel wasn’t the sole focus anymore. Continuing to build up knowledge and a strong writing style were my aims now. And that meant working on a much smaller scale.

Short (and sweet) stories

Cathedral

Cathedral (Photo credit: Bill McIntyre)

See, I’ve never really been a big fan of the short story. Not since childhood anyway. And I don’t want to dwell on my addiction to Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Twenty Stories about Princesses (Yes, I know). Though Americans have a great market for short fiction, British adults give them short shrift, which is tragic really. Now I’ve come to appreciate them, I admire the concentration of meaning in the words. Like poetry, but written in prose.

In the past, it was their shortness that particularly offended me. I considered the short story the runt of the fiction family. Also, I disliked the endings, which often left you with a sense of ambiguity. I wanted something complete, that wasn’t a struggle to understand. (Strangely, now that I write my own short stories, I like these ambiguities and the possibilities they imply. I suppose it’s another form of writing ahead – a knowledge that the reader will have a proactive role in the story process, working to find meaning in the words.)

In contrast to this, novels were something I could sink my teeth into. The characters and plot drew me in, and there’d be days, not minutes, to bathe in the pleasure of the storyline. Okay, so occasionally, you might get an unsatisfying ending, but as you’d found yourself totally immersed in the previous two hundred pages, you could accept this as a blip (and would resist the urge to write to your local MP to complain.  This time.)

In a rare moment of clarity, I came to understand that short fiction writing isn’t given enough recognition.   Less forgiving than novels, they require an accurate selection of vocabulary to create sharp images and characters in few words. I realised that, in developing the techniques of successful short stories, I was tightening up and enhancing my writing style.  Again, I was investing in my future writer self.

Hello?  Am I on my own here?

Audience

Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

As the fiction module of my creative writing course drew to a close, I experienced a feeling of trepidation. I knew there was a chance that without the impetus of deadlines for my weekly tasks, my enthusiasm for writing might wane. What if I couldn’t write?  What if I didn’t have any more ideas?   One thing I knew for sure, I couldn’t go back to my complete self-imposed isolation. I needed people to bounce ideas off. I also needed an audience. Another thing I was certain of, husband and elder daughter weren’t willing participants in my journey towards getting published. Other victims were required, though I didn’t think it was right to put an advert in the paper, entitled Readers Needed.

Here is how I created my own audience:

  • Setting up an online critiquing group with some students from my online course proved an invaluable support to me (and them). We’d already developed a trust, and felt comfortable enough to be honest with our thoughts. I continue to learn from their writing and feedback, and one year on, we still check in regularly to critique each others’ work.
  • Making use of an online publishing platform. This, I admit, was done with some consternation. After my course, I wrote my first independently written story (without a tutor to hold my hand), and posted A Strange Occupation on Circalit. Expecting ridicule, I was pleasantly surprised when it was met with a positive reception, giving me a huge confidence boost.  Circalit is now defunct, but the new site, Readwave, invited me to submit stories, and later, they asked me to review other people’s stories too. All of this has given me exposure, an online presence, and a feeling that I must be doing something right. The practical advice and suggestions my readers have given me have also been invaluable.  Beyond this, I’ve developed relationships with other writers, and as a result, have been asked to contribute writing to a short story website called Storgy. Most recently, I’ve been invited by Readwave to submit four pieces of short fiction – The Dream, A Suspicious Mind, Aftermath and After Dark – to Worldreader, a charity that uploads stories onto mobile appliances to improve reading in the developing world. These opportunities would never have arisen if I hadn’t exposed my writing to the public at large.
  •  I joined a local creative writing group, mainly because I’m interested in everything to do with writing, but also, as we’ve already established, it can be a lonely business. If you’re not careful, you can go for days without speaking to anyone. (This worries me more because I don’t really see any disadvantages in this.)  My first session was a revelation – we spent the time writing, but we also socialised. A combination which was new to me. Its facilitator was sparky and dynamic, and his quick wit and random thought processes rubbed off onto group members, who came away dowsed in inspiration. Basically, mixing with other writers (in person) really enhances your creativity.
  • Another way of gaining an audience is by entering as many writing competitions as you can, or sending off stories to lit mags. A good place to start is to buy a writing magazine, which lists competitions and publications in every issue. There are also a plethora of competitions and calls for publication on the internet if you search. I’ve had a little success, being published as a result, which is another nice confidence boost.
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

  • By opening a Twitter/Facebook account, you have another platform for your writing – it’s amazing who’s interested in what you’re doing if you just GET YOURSELF OUT THERE. Once more, I’ve made connections to people who are interested in writing, though it does feel a bit like you’re standing alone at the top of a foggy mountain when you first register.
  • BLOG, BLOG, BLOG!

Do I have to?

All of this seems like a lot of effort, doesn’t it?  Well, yes, I did warn you. But it’s worth it. You just need to consider it all a part of the concept of writing ahead. Planning not just for the now, but preparation for the future.

But be prepared for the fact that your plans may not always be fixed in stone. Just as life itself can be unpredictable, something that isn’t always in your control, consider your writing in the same way. Be prepared for it to change, at times, into something other than what you intended (whether it be because of the complexities and ambiguities of the words you use, the fluidity of the storyline, or because of the interpretations imposed on it by the reader). Sometimes it might be a shock what you produce, but most times, it’s a lovely surprise. Just remember to be open and learn from everything you do, and apply that knowledge to your future writing.

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...

Cover via Amazon

And there is one final thing.  If you want people to take your writing seriously, ensure that it’s as polished as possible. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout all stand out (and not in a good way) if they’re left in a rough state. It tells a potential publisher you can’t be bothered. So, write ahead with this too. If you can’t be bothered, can they?

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