Friday, March 23, 2012

Entry # 48 - “Can A Peer Review Help?”

"Where in the World Are We?" photo: Jan Bowman October 2011
This week I’ve thought about the most useful peer review information I’ve received on my own stories. I think of my stories as works in progress, even those that are published. I always see more I could have done to sharpen the vision. So what kind of advice helps a writer to improve work and fully realize a story’s potential? 

Some of my most helpful advice has come from peer reviewers at the Tinker Mountain workshops at Hollins University that I’ve taken with Daniel Mueller of the University of New Mexico.

Daniel says “responding well to another writer’s fiction is… as arduous an act of the imagination as writing fiction, for it requires us not only to imagine the fictional worlds summoned by the words the author has chosen, but also to imagine ourselves in the author’s position to her text.” 

If one has suitable peers to read and offer useful suggestions – then much good can come of having skilled peers give insightful suggestions to improve a story. So what are some traits of a good peer reviewer?  It seems to me that good reviewers: 

1. Read the work thoughtfully and carefully.  (Dan asks his workshop peer reviewers to read without a pen in hand for the first reading and then give it a little time before you read a second time with your pen. This allows you to reflect and give better advice.)

2. Analyze the work on three levels:  Structure, Character(s) and /or Idea (theme), and Language.

3. Discuss the work in terms of how it works - with specifics. This is not a time to tell the writer how to “fix” the work.  That is the writer’s job and any changes a writer makes must accommodate the vision of that writer. 
Based on my own experiences in a range of workshop peer reviews, I find that the best reviewers are kind, thoughtful and helpful.  A good reviewer does not attempt to make the author’s work his story. A good reviewer respects the hope the writer has for his or her story.

Sometimes one of a writer’s most challenging tasks is to KNOW what to use and what to ignore from a writer’s workshop “peer review” for not all writers are our peers.  Some are at the early stages of their development and might not have acquired the keen insights of those who have spent much time and energy getting in touch with the process. Others read seldom or narrowly and this limits their scope of knowledge. It's essential to find a talented reader whose honesty you trust.

I believe that writers are an optimistic lot. How else could we weather the slings and arrows of rejection that come from the submission process? But most of us have hope that something good can come of advice.  And, usually it does.

“I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his (or her) work.”    ----Samuel Johnson 
And next Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - a WRITERS TALK Interview with Ann von Lossberg, author of 1089 Nights: An Odyssey Through The Middle East, Africa and Asia.   Stay tuned! 

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


  1. That is why I am afraid to let other people read my stories. If someone said really bad things I will not be able to write any more. How do I deal with being scared? I don't know how to do these things.

  2. Often peers think they are advising, but in fact are criticizing. There is a fine line between the two. Keeping things positive can make a big difference. Before we offer our critique...I challenge myself to imagine a walk in their shoes. Experience has taught me to always start with a positive comment, include an opinion, and end with another positive comment.
    I think its more important to listen... take what I like and leave the rest. Even if the piece is not met with any positive advise, just consider the comments and the value of any outside opinions.

  3. Hello Writer Friends,
    Be brave. Don't be afraid. Find a person who 'gets what you're doing' and find time to sit and talk with them about what you are trying to do. BE BRAVE! I had a friend who said that when they found someone who could help, it made a huge difference to what they were doing. Keep writing.