Saturday, February 20, 2016

I would make a terrible literary agent.

By Lacey Gunter

In my day job I teach statistics for a local university.  It didn't take me very long in my teaching to discover that I am a slow grader. Since statistics is the application of mathematical theory to discover natural law and science, you may question why it should be take me so long to grade.  Math is right or wrong, pretty black and white, you might say.  To which I would concede, yes it is. However, in my defense, and as I like to tell my students, math is like grammar, and statistics is like creative writing.

In statistics, the black and whites only take on meaningful shape when surrounded by gray. And the right or wrongs get replaced with things like elegant, clunky or problematic.  Thus, when I am grading,  I often have to get a sense of the range of responses submitted and then weigh out the nuances and subtleties of the issues, before making an assessment.

In my writing, I have had plenty of opportunities to participate in critique groups. At any given time I prefer to be an active member in at least two different groups. Here, I have discovered, I am also a very slow critiquer.

In a live critique group, I find I typically have to sit a little while and think about what I have read or heard. I have to evaluate what emotions I felt, when I felt them and why. This usually means I am often silent through the first part of the discussion before I have formulated an intelligible assessment of what I have read.

With online critique groups I am even worse. I typically have to read through a manuscript, sit on it and think about for at least a day or two, then read it again before I feel prepared to comment on it.

Despite my slowness, I don't think I am a bad critiquer. Lots of critique partners have expressed that they appreciate and value my feedback.

So when I watch agents and editors critique a piece on the fly, or talk about how they can tell whether they will like a manuscript after just a couple of paragraphs, I am always amazed by this. How do they do it so fast? Are they so in touch with their gut and their emotional core that they can interpret how they feel about it immediately? Are they acting on mostly instinct, or is there a complex process of thought going on which they have managed to breeze through because of practice or skill?

I could never be a literary agent. My slush pile would swallow me whole before I could ever start to make a dent all on the manuscripts I would have to review.  So for all you fast critiquers out there, I desperately need your pointers. How do you do it? What am I doing wrong? What is your secret? Please share, for all the poor slow schmucks like me.

1 comment:

  1. As a writing teacher, I have had to force myself to get faster at critiquing. It helps me to choose 3 or so areas of concern and try to ignore the rest. On an early draft, I might comment on thesis/argument, topic sentences, and framing quotes/evidence. I might ignore citation style issues, small gaps in logic, all but the most egregious grammar issues, and tone issues. On a later draft, I might comment on the issues I ignored initially. I can usually tell what grade I will give within the first three paragraphs because students tend to put more effort into the beginning. If the beginning is sloppy, it rarely improves. If the beginning is great, it might get sloppy later and the grade might drop, but it is more likely to be consistently good if it starts strong. It also makes a big difference if I an experienced in grading a particular assignment. New styles of essays take me longer, while with old ones I know what to look for and care about. I imagine literary agents tend to specialize in a group of genres and get good at knowing what matters to themselves and to the publishers they work with.

    You might already do this, but maybe ask the author her three biggest concerns on a draft and just focus on those. Too much feedback becomes harder for the writer to use to revise. Limiting the scope of your comments might help you go faster.



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