Peer Critique Leads to Award-Winning Writing

It won the 2012 Sidney W. Vernick Award in Nonfiction by fwriction: review, and now the literary journal has published my essay, “September 12th,” online. I’m delighted The Artist’s Road readers have a chance to read a bit more of my creative writing should they choose. But I’m moved by what I’ve learned from this process, namely that peer critique is a powerful tool.

“September 12th” examines my experience covering a chaotic evacuation of Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill as a reporter on September 11th, 2001, but focuses on what it meant to me as a newly divorced father who didn’t have his children to come home to that night. I wrote it last fall, shortly after the 10th anniversary of that infamous day. It was a story that was painful enough to me that I needed ten years of separation before I could put it on the page.

The essayist on the scene ten years later, enjoying the relative calm.

I then did something that, I believe, led directly to it becoming an award-winning essay. I gave it to my local writer’s group for critique, and submitted it for my winter workshop in my low-residency MFA program with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. As 2012 began, I found myself with 18 marked-up copies of my manuscript resulting from those two groups. Portions that drew repeated praise? I kept ’em. Sections that consistently drew questions? I addressed ’em. Dramatically different opinions on tone, structure, and pace? I followed my gut.

I’ll confess that the two most useful critiques came not from true peers, but from my VCFA workshop leaders, Connie May Fowler and Sascha Feinstein. I believe I took every piece of advice the two gave. Particularly helpful to me was their agreement that my ending paragraph, well, sucked. The solution? Eliminate it. (Sorry, you’ll never get to see that paragraph!)

By March I had incorporated my revisions, polished the revised version, and submitted it to the fwriction: review contest. And now it’s been published, and I can share a bit of myself with you through the power of creative writing. Should you read “September 12th,” feel free to provide more feedback in the comment field below. It may be published, but I can still learn.

Do you share your rough-draft creativity with others? Do you provide critiquing to other peers?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

49 Responses to “Peer Critique Leads to Award-Winning Writing”

  1. Good job, Patrick! And congratulations!

  2. I’m actually addressing the subject of allowing others to critique my writing on next month’s post. It’s new for me – in the music world you are expected to be insular and fierce in protecting the integrity of your songs. As in, if you’re not sure, neither is anyone else. This “sharing” thing is new for me. As for your essay? Stunning, Patrick. Simply that – Stunning.

    • Lisa, I’ll look forward to that blog post. I’m fascinated to know how that works with musicians. The sharing thing is pretty new for me, too, but my MFA program has forced me into it, both in letting others read my writing, and in what I write.

      I can’t tell you what it means to hear you say the essay is stunning. Thank you for that.

  3. Way to use that pink highlighter, Patrick!

    As I read it, I wondered how the critique had changed it and where you had gone with your gut, ignoring others’ suggestions. It makes me think of one of my favorite writing quotes, “Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.” (Oscar Wilde) You could tweak and refine a piece of writing indefinitely, but ultimately there comes a time when it feels satisfying (or hopeless, LOL) and it’s time to call it finished.

    This piece definitely satisfies. So interesting to focus in on one man’s life in the midst of an experience we all shared. I especially love the image of the four of you around the little table and the parallel you drew with the awkward rendition of God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol.

    • Pink highlighter! Fantastic throwback reference, longtime reader/blog friend!

      Thank you for that feedback. So glad you like the braiding at the end.

      I’ll share one anecdote of leaving something out. In my VCFA workshop, most participants said something to the effect that they liked that while the story was framed around 9/11, it wasn’t really ABOUT 9/11. One member of the workshop differed. She said I should drop the stuff about my kids and divorce, and just do a 9/11 piece. I chose to ignore that advice, but was helped when one of the participants in a private conversation afterward implored me to ignore it!🙂

      • Say what? Without the kids and divorce, it’s just another 9-11 story. There were a LOT of people in DC that day, and all have a fascinating tale about how it unfolded for them. By adding the personal elements, many of which reflected the themes of that fateful day, you took it to another level.

        One of the most moving parts for me was where you consider checking at the school and decided not to. There is so much meat in that one small detail!

        Glad you didn’t listen to that person!🙂

  4. Well. That’s pretty powerful stuff, Patrick. No surprise it won an award.

    I get a second set of eyes to review and critique my work whenever possible. That outside perspective, that distance, is so critical to sharpening and improving my writing. And with each critique, I not only improve that specific piece of writing, I hopefully also learn a little something I can apply to all my work going forward. It’s how I try to live my life, too. We’re always learning and revising.

    • Jessica, you know what a fan I am of your creative writing, so that means a lot.

      It doesn’t surprise me that you are proactive in seeking feedback. But I love this: “It’s how I try to live my life, too. We’re always learning and revising.” Why else are we here, if not to learn and grow?

  5. Mary Cronk Farrell Reply June 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Patrick,
    Congrats on your essay being published. It carries a lot of emotional honesty and really engaged me. It is powerful when people can relate large public events to their inner journey. It’s like two arrows at the target.

    I have a regular critique group which has been meeting for over ten years with a few people coming and going. It has been absolutely necessary to improving my writing and getting published. I find it interesting how our critiquing has changed over the years as we have all grown. We are more likely, now, to ask for feedback on a specific thing, knowing what we are ready to hear and what we are not. We also are less apt to ask for critique on a novel, chapter by chapter, but more a chapter here or there and then the entire manuscript.

    • Hi Mary,

      Thank you for your kind words. I like your arrow analogy.

      I’m so happy for you to have had a regular critique group for ten (!) years. I have to imagine that you have reached the point where you not only receive creative feedback, but moral and emotional support as well.

  6. Patrick, congratulations again!

    I was really struck by your well written, heart-wrenching juxtaposition between going through the terror of that fateful day in Capitol Hill and the end of your family as you knew it. I think the last line of the piece really works, very thought-provoking. Like Sue, I wonder how much of your essay you decided to change from advice and what you held onto and included because you just knew in your gut it was the way to go.

    I’d love to participate in a good writing critique group, and I’m currently looking at finding one that feels right. You’re really fortunate to be part of such groups in your MFA program and also in your community.

    • Thank you, Carole Jane. Your opinion means a lot to me.

      As for the last line, a couple of people thought the repetition of that line didn’t work for them, but Connie, one of the workshop leaders, loved it. Her opinion matters. Now I will confess that no one actually critiqued that ending; I jettisoned the original ending paragraph, which left that as the ending, but Sascha (my other workshop leader) did say it ended well on that. So there you go!

      Good luck finding a group. I helped organize my local one by networking through The Writer’s Center, where I now teach. If there’s something like that up where you are, or meet-up groups, that’s a place to start. And yes, my VCFA experience is amazing; I only have three residencies left, which is sad (but I’m leaving for my next one on Tuesday).

  7. Great writing, Patrick. It’s so sad; both the disintegrating relationship with your family, and the attack as seen through your eyes. No wonder you couldn’t write about it for so long. But some things need to ferment, to be their best. Powerful stuff.

    • Thank you, Cynthia. As I tweeted you, your opinion means a lot to me. A lot.

      In my VCFA workshop, Connie said that one of the reasons she thought the essay worked was because I had a decade’s worth of distance. I was sincere in the essay as well in saying that damned 10th anniversary really stirred up the pot, almost forcing me to write it. Finally.

  8. Congrats again, Patrick! I have long been a proponent of critique (I’m the president of our local critique group), but I think you touched on something even more important than that here: You can’t just go to a critique group. You have to actually be willing to listen, accept, and do the work to improve the piece. I feel like sometimes people go just because they hear that’s what they’re supposed to do to become a writer, but just going isn’t enough. So good for you; your own openness and willingness to learn has obviously helped you get where you want to be as a writer.

    • Thank you, Annie. I think it helps that, as I’ve blogged before, I had left my muse for quite a long time, so now I am almost desperate for any growth opportunities as a creative that I can find. As Jessica said above–in so many words–you need to listen to grow. So I listen. A lot.

  9. excellent, what great teachers you have, well written, wonderful, heartfelt, congratulations

  10. I read every word, Patrick. Amazing essay! Congrats!

  11. Congratulations, Patrick. Enjoyed reading your essay very much — particularly getting an un-typical view of the events of that day (and the day after). Very nice work.

  12. Patrick, What a beautiful essay. What a gifted and generous writer you are! I think my eyes welled up with tears a few times, especially in the moments where you described the feeling of being so alone. Did the passage of time make this any easier to write?

    As for my own writing, I always ask good friends to read my drafts. As a copywriter, I find it’s vital to get another opinion before I send my work to a client. As a screenwriter, I always send my drafts to my grad school classmates before even mentioning my work to a producer or director. It’s terrifying, waiting for someone’s opinion and feedback, and I exhaust myself with anxiety while waiting to hear from my readers. But it’s always worth it. People see things I don’t, they offer suggestions that never occurred to me, they ask thoughtful questions. A lot of people say that writing is a lonely profession; it can be if you don’t trust others to help you.

    • Hi Mari, you mischief-maker!

      This essay did indeed take ten years to marinate, and, frankly, it was still hard. I guess I got to the point, when the 10th anniversary rolled around, that I decided it would be easier to just write the thing and get it out there, so that was an interesting learning experience.

      How great that you have friends to provide feedback! As a former editor, it’s great to hear a writer who gets the importance of another set of eyes, and yes, it can be terrifying while you’re waiting for that feedback.

  13. Powerful. Your story will forever colour those events of 911. Somehow you managed to make me feel, see, taste, and smell the despair and hope of a disenfranchised father and former husband. Yikes. I should know! Congrats, P.R.

    • PJ, your words mean a lot to me, as someone who understands the craft of writing. Also interesting that it touched on your own experience. Thank you. (Not sure my writing has ever produced a “Yikes” before, but I like it!)

  14. Hi Patrick I enjoyed your essay. I read it on the train home last night surrounded by silent tired commuters. After reading it I understand your reasoning for waiting before telling the story and those elements for me make it the compelling work that it is. I woke this morning thinking about
    it.

    Just a comment on peer review I have one person that I take my work to and that is my partner of 30 years, my muse. She provides me with fearless feedback and will tell me if something sucks or is not clear.

    I’m not a professional writer just someone who likes to write. So having a large group of people critique my work would not work for me. After many years of reading and writing I trust my gut but also accept lots will not like it and a few might. That will not stop me writing though.

    Improvement for me comes from the act or habit of writing regularly and having my muse at my shoulder. Kind regards.

    • Jim, I just got goosebumps as you shared your personal experience with reading my essay, your reflection on the train and waking up with the story. That was a gift you gave me.

      How fantastic to have your partner as your muse. My wife is my muse, but because she is also a professional editor, I tend to try not to give her more “work” in the way of critical reading. I do constantly bounce ideas off of her, though.

      There have been great writers whose partners were their muses, such as Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. So if she writes as well, all the better!

  15. This is a wonderful story of how critiques not only work but are SO necessary! Now I am going to go read your essay. It sounds amazing.

  16. Superb essay, Patrick. Powerful reflection on relationships. Took me back to the era of my own divorce (much earlier than yours, way back in 1983).

    I am joining my first writer’s critique group — way overdue — and am both anxious and eager.Your experience gives me courage.

    • Thank you so much, Beth. I suspect those who have been through a divorce, or have been separated from children in any way, feel the emotions a bit more.

      I am so happy for you that you are joining a group! My experience is that you get out of it what you put in, and that applies both to being willing to share rough, honest prose, but also giving full attention and effort to the work of others.

  17. Patrick I just read your essay and I wanted to say thank you for taking the risk and sharing it. I know you have spoken more than once about sharing that vulnerability or opening up in your writing and wow did this do it! Talk about a mountain climbed!🙂 I strongly believe writing and artwork is more powerful when that personal connection helps to drive the art. The quality of this work will hopefully reinforce that for you. And I hope your peer feedback continues to help your work.

    • Hi Carrie,

      Thank you so much for the time invested in reading it and for your gratitude. Yes, I have resisted what I call Oprah-style sharing, but ultimately I want to grow as a writer, so when I’m told to climb a mountain, I start up. And I fully agree with you on the connection between self and art; I know you’ve addressed that some in discussion of visual art, which I find fascinating.

  18. Heading over to read it right now, but wanted to comment on critiquing first. I could not exist as a writer without my weekly critique group, which consists of professional writers whose opinion I trust implicitly. They’ve been vital to getting my novel published. And by the way, I worked with Connie May Fowler at Spalding!

    • A group that meets weekly! Wow. I don’t think any of us in my group could keep providing copy to critique each week; we’re all pulled in different directions professionally and personally, and our productivity rises and falls. But how blessed you are to have such regular feedback, which obviously has helped you.

      Connie is the best!!!!!!!

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on “September 12th.”

  19. Wow, Patrick! Congratulations! I cannot wait to read this essay, as being separated from my daughter during such a chaotic time would be unbearable. I am sure any parent could relate and feel the pain behind your words.

    • Hi Jolina,

      There’s a section in there on when my daughter was a newborn that, I suspect, will directly connect with you and your life right now. I hope that other parts never connect with you.

      Thanks in advance for reading it.

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