158 Queries or, Another Case for the Growth Mindset

“I queried 158 times before I sold my first word.”

I was sitting in a Just Buffalo writing workshop led by Nancy Davidoff Kelton, the author of Finding Mr. Rightstein (Passager, 2016) and Writing from Personal Experience (F+W Media, 2000) and countless personal essays. “158 queries” was part of Nancy’s opening remarks.

The rest of her workshop was useful, personal, and entertaining—even if you don’t count the law firm’s noisy party on the floor below. But “158 queries” is what I needed to hear the most. I walked into the workshop, thinking “I don’t need a writing workshop—I need a query pep talk.” Unlike most of the other workshop participants, I’ve taken writing classes…several. I’ve spent a couple years, in those classes and working with 2 different writing groups, developing control over my voice, so the academic in me doesn’t come out unless invited.

But so far I’ve not developed a successful query process. I think I know my query issues, AKA false beliefs that serve to self-handicap, AKA the fixed mindset when it comes to querying. What’s ridiculous is, when it comes to writing, I’m the queen of growth mindset, which is the idea that if you keep doing something, you will improve. And improving depends on regular practice.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this because the research on mindsets (made famous by Carol Dweck who wrote the book) says that indeed, a person can have a growth mindset in one area and a fixed mindset in another. Here’s what I mean:

My attitudes about querying (Fixed Mindset):
– I query intermittently, not on a regular schedule.
– I, inaccurately, see querying as separate from writing in the sense that I “can’t” make room in my schedule for both at the same time.
– I dread querying because of the (extremely high) chance that I will fail.
– I don’t believe that if I keep doing it, it will pay off (meaning, result in an accepted piece).

My attitudes about writing (Growth Mindset):
+ I write regularly: multiple times per week, if you count academic writing, which I do since it’s my day job.
+ I make time to write in between all my other obligations.
+ I look forward to writing, because I see it as something that I can improve if I do more of it.
+ I believe that if I keep writing, I will end up with a piece I’m satisfied with.

Before Nancy’s “158 queries,” mini-pep-talk, I had been lying to myself. Telling myself that querying is too hard, that it’s not in my skill set because writers aren’t natural marketers, and that if I just keep entering contests I will eventually, miraculously, be found through that process by an agent or publisher who can’t wait to publish eerything I’ve ever written: my books, short stories, personal essays, back files, rough drafts, and even random, lightly polished journal entries (hey a girl can dream).

Ha. Please don’t tell Jane Friedman, or Anne Janzer, who helpfully present more on mindset-as-applied-to-the-writing-life here.

So now I’m trying to stop lying to myself. Querying is difficult, but Nancy did it. 158 times before she had any success. And now she is a grand success. She had, and has, a growth mindset about both writing and querying.

They (people, somewhere) say identifying the problem is half the battle. So here I am, problem identified.

Time to stop writing—for now. I need to go send in a query letter.

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Getting Your Book (Cover) On 21st Century TV

How do you get from only an idea for a book cover, to one that was recently requested for use on the set of Grace and Frankie, a popular new Netflix TV series?

This happened to Sue Mangum and me for our book, Braver Than You Believe: True Stories of Losing Love and Finding Self, which just celebrated its 2nd birthday. We found that like good writing, creating an attention-getting cover is a process that unfolds over time. It helped that Sue knew the artist she wanted to work with: artist Amy Michelle, based in Atlanta. She also knew she wanted an image of a heart being sewn up.

Here’s the first try, from early April, 2013: painting by Amy MichelleSue and I were both excited about the potential, but we felt the last word in the title, “Believe” was too separate, making the title look at first glance like “Braver Than You.” Sue requested a change, and by the end of May, we were pleased as pink lemonade with this: painting by Amy Michelle, May 2013In the meantime, I was taking an eBook DIY class with Bethany Carlson of The Artist’s Partner I learned about the importance of bold colors, readable fonts, and having a cover pop out even as a thumbnail-sized image. For a class assignment, I mocked something up, and chose the red, white, and grey colors from Amy Michelle’s work. Those colors echo the themes of grief and romance from our book.

If we had offered a teaser free e-download, we could have used this…
cover draft by C E Cameron…but we decided to just go forward and publish the book on Aug. 10, 2013.

The last step for the official cover was deciding about the font for the subtitle and author names. Sue and I emailed back and forth, and considered several options including the infamous Comic Sans, which some design enthusiasts actually want to ban.

We eventually decided on Calibri, a font that is now Microsoft Word’s default for new documents. Why? Because it works. Combined with the emotive, hand-lettering of our book’s main title, the Calibri choice was simple, modern, and professional.

Here’s the final cover…

final cover, copyright Sue Mangum and C E Cameron

…And here’s where the work paid off: A month ago, I received a request through our self-publisher (Amazon’s CreateSpace), from Act One Script Clearance. Script clearance is necessary whenever a production team creates a set, using books, posters, or other products that are copyrighted. Act One staff were seeking books that looked like plausible reading for the characters played by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda on Grace and Frankie. In the show, these women are left by their husbands, when the husbands decide they are gay and fall in love with each other.

When I asked how they found our book, I learned that the production team searched Amazon for books their characters might be reading during a time of great turmoil. And while I’m sure our book’s title was key in the search, an attractive cover didn’t hurt. In fact, the cover was the main copyrighted work requested for use in the show. The production team sought permission to show it throughout the season, on bookshelves or coffee tables. It is now a part of this season’s permanent set.

Hollywood, here we come!

Claire Cameron is an educational psychologist at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and aspiring science writer. Her dream is to write about human development, health, and science in a way that everyone will want to read.

Submission Services from a Writer’s POV, Part 2

This post is Part 2 of 2 about my experiences working with Writer’s Relief, an agency that helps authors find agents and outlets for their work. In December, I had just submitted materials about my work and myself, so that Writer’s Relief could draft a query letter and send me a list of agents who might be interested. This post continues the Q&A format I used in Part 1.

1. What happened after you submitted your materials?

After signing up on Dec. 16, two different Writer’s Relief staff contacted me on Dec. 23 and Jan. 7. One asked for my publication credits, and the other sent this intriguing question:

How close to your life is the book? You’ve called it a memoir – does that mean that you’ve just changed names and some minor details. This will determine how we target your book. Is it based very loosely on your life? Could it be called a novel? Please advise.

I responded:

All events in the book happened, to me, as they are described, in the timeline described. I agree with your wording: only names and minor details (such as identifying locations and personal information) have been changed. And obviously I’ve put it into third person, which I think I noted in my submission materials was due to the sensitive nature of the health details–easier to read and write this way. It is definitely not a novel.

This level of detail told me they were looking very carefully for the agents who would be interested in my book, which I describe as a health mystery memoir.

2. What did you think of their query letter? And the list of agents?

On Jan. 13, I received their draft query letter. I was impressed. Though I had done my best with my own query letter to sell the big picture, Writer’s Relief zoomed out even more. They also sent me a PDF document of various resources for authors, which included a rationale for their approach in writing query letters. Their goal is understated professionalism. No clichés, nothing over the top. Let the work sell itself. Their opening paragraph reflected that:

Please consider my book Pretty On The Inside: A True Story of Transformation, an autobiographical account of my experiences dealing with a chronic, disfiguring skin condition. Due to the personal nature of the story, I’ve written in the third person and names have been changed.

3. Did you like the list of agents?

hidden entrance to a stone building

ooooh – mysterious …..

On Jan. 16, my personalized list of agencies and specific agents arrived, also in a PDF. The $250 fee covered 25 agents + query, but the list contained 29 names and email addresses, plus the materials I should submit to each party. What amazed me most was the fantastic fit of the agents to my work. I had no idea there were people who were seeking to represent “non-fiction efforts in health and wellness, relationships, popular culture, women’s issues, lifestyle, sports, and music.” Except for sports, my book has all those elements. Neat-o!

Many agents wanted an excerpt from the first part of the book, though this varied from as little as 5 pages to as many as 50. Most wanted the first 1-3 chapters. Writer’s Relief instructed me to query immediately (within 3 days), though this turned out to be a challenge given the particulars of each agency’s query preferences. As of today (April 15), I’ve managed to send 16 out of 29 queries. Shh, don’t tell Writer’s Relief!

4. What happened after you received the list of agents?

What happened next is I’m waiting and trying to find the time to finish querying. Of 16 queries already sent, I received two personalized notes from agents who expressed enthusiasm for the project but are just too busy (or not enthusiastic enough), but who encouraged me to keep going. Totally worth it. Thank you Janet Reid (who also writes a funny and sharp take-your-medicine blog for writers) and Molly Friedrich.

5. Can you recommend Writer’s Relief?

Yes. One could say that I can’t know for sure, until I find an agent. But honestly, the structured process of prepping my materials for a professional set of eyes, the long list of agents that assured me there is a place for my story, and the supportive personal notes from two agents have already made the sometimes confusing journey from query to publishing easier.

Claire Cameron is an educational psychologist and aspiring science writer. Her dream is to write about human development, health, and science in a way that everyone will want to read.

 

Submission Services from a Writer’s POV, Part 1

You know how it’s hard enough to find time to write, not to mention time to research your best-fit agents, journals, or magazines? Author submission services make a living by performing some of the research and administrative work for you. There are several resources about author submission services, including some helpful warnings about particularly scammy situations. This post is not about those topics. Instead this is Part 1 of 2 about submission services from an individual writer’s POV. I’m working with Writer’s Relief, est. 1994, but this is not meant to be an endorsement.

courtesy freedigitalphotos.net

courtesy freedigitalphotos.net

If you want the quick take-away, it’s this: I haven’t convinced myself that this is the magical path to publishing because, well, it’s not. But I am feeling renewed motivation knowing that some other professionals are involved in helping me navigate the crowded and constantly changing publishing world. I’m also using the experience to further develop how I market and communicate about my work. Now for lessons I’m gathering about Writer’s Relief, Q&A style:

1. How did you learn about Writer’s Relief and decide to submit? Several months ago, I heard that a co-worker’s wife used Writer’s Relief services for her poetry, and is pleased with the results.

  • TIP: If you’re considering author services, look for a testimonials page on the website. Writer’s Relief posts a range of feedback—from dripping enthusiasm to a pretty bland “I got an agent, so I guess you could say they helped me.” This honest representation of what different clients thought helped convince me of their sincerity. I also liked Writer’s Relief because they have a review process: they don’t accept all writing that authors submit, only work they think they has a reasonable chance of moving to the publication phase.

2. How did you become a client? When I visited their website in July or August 2013, I learned that Writer’s Relief was reviewing essays, poetry, and novel/memoir. My memoir wasn’t done, so I decided to submit three chapters adapted from my memoir into essay form. I don’t recommend this approach, because after 2 weeks, I received this reply:

Thank you for sending your work for our review process. Unfortunately, we are not able to invite you to join our Full Service client list. Because we do not charge a fee for Review Board consideration of your work, we cannot offer you specific critique. That said, we do invite you to send different or revised material in two months.

I then wrote to inquire about what this meant–was 2 months all I needed to become a polished author? (No.) I learned that they review material in 2-month cycles, officially. Which means any writer at any level can submit as often as every two months. But then:

3. What did you learn that’s not on the website? In early November, I noticed their official “deadline” to have work reviewed had passed on Oct 16. But when I emailed, I learned from Daniele:

Or next open call is in December. But if you’re ready now, we are still accepting new clients on a very limited basis. We’re not advertising this anymore, but we are allowing people to submit when they stumble upon our site. So, if you’d like to send your work along, I’ll be glad to have your submission read for you within the next week!

This perception of exceptionality—I assume calculated to make me feel special—nonetheless motivated me to prep my work for submission, this time in its proper genre of memoir. I submitted these elements:

– First 15 pages of book (required)
– Proposal (required but left open), which I interpreted as a 170-word author bio, 4-page synopsis, outline of chapters, and 3 pages about the market titled “Who will read this book and why”
– Mini ~150-word book synopsis (required)
– Short answers to several questions, including “What do you hope to achieve by working with Writer’s Relief?” (required)
– Sample query letter (optional)

Going through this submission process was valuable by itself. If I want to be a published author, I should be able to easily come up with all this.

4. How long did it take to have your work reviewed? I was impressed at the turnaround both times I submitted. The first round, the unsuccessful essays, took less than two weeks: from submission on Aug 13 to the form letter reply on Aug 26. The second round, the successful memoir, took less than a month: from submission on Nov 9 to an acceptance email on Dec 5.

5. What happened after your work was accepted? What does it cost? On Dec 11, I received a paper packet with a thorough description of a “Full Service” option. In the fine print and through a phone call, I learned that there are actually three price points:

  • Option 1, Full Service: they research agents and appropriate publications, prep your query (or write it for you), send you submission materials that you then mail out yourself*, and track your replies from agents, I presume on a fancy Excel-style spreadsheet. This costs a $250 administrative fee plus a first-time cycle fee around $400, plus a regular 2-month cycle fee around $300 –the exact amount depends on your genre, and books are the priciest. If you want to take a cycle off, it still costs $150 in case agents reply during that off-cycle.
    *This is because agents don’t want a middleman to deal with on top of the thousands of author emails and queries they handle. The fact I’m responsible for my own queries led me to choose the next option:
  • Option 2, A la Carte, Research + Query: This is the option I chose, for $250. They research 25 agents that are likely to be interested in my work, and they also write the query letter. This option still required an extensive additional set of materials from me, including:
    – One-sentence book description, e.g.: Anna, a young scientist, transforms the way she approaches life when a mysterious acne condition and a fear of Accutane lead her to seek the help of a local acupuncturist.
    – A list of genre and topic descriptors; they provide the list, you select the ones that fit
    – the region, religion if any, and demographics of characters in the book
    – Previous publication credits
  • Option 3, A la Carte, Research Only: For $150 I get the list of 25 agent names that they’ve researched.

I’m currently awaiting the agent list and query letter. Even though I have a query letter that I like, I’m eager to see what people who have seen and written tons of query letters will write.

Look for Part 2 in 4 months or so, after I’ve queried the first round of agents I get from Writer’s Relief. And keep writing…that’s what I’ll be doing with the time I’m not spending on research.

– C. E. Cameron

Outlining My Way

I’ve always hated outlines. For big writing projects, that was always the directive: make an outline. Start with your thesis…then flesh it out with evidence. List all the important events in the piece in the right order. Open with conflict…then include key scenes to develop it.

When the instructor didn’t assign an outline, I felt I should use one anyway. It seemed a necessary step on the way to an achieved goal, like letting the dough rise or gassing up the car before a journey. If I skipped outlining, the image of a dull paper covered in red pen plagued me. So like a good doobie, I outlined. I made a list with Roman numerals, capital letters, and numbers. My outline was a beautiful thing, and one to which I rarely returned.

Farewell to Outlines Haiku

I will not ever

use a Roman numeral

in writing again 

Since drafting this piece, I discovered that two writers I know and admire—Bethany Carlson and Dan Willingham—are Old-School Outliners. I’m sure there are others as well, but truly, this piece is not for them. It’s for all the other people—people who, like me, don’t know all that you’ll write before you begin.

After producing many lovely and ignored outlines, I’ve learned to let go of the old way and see my process differently. Writing—even logical, systematic writing, like I do for my research job—is a creative process. I can’t show up at work at 9am and write until 5pm, and I can’t produce an outline and then follow it mechanically to its finish. There are too many unknowns on the way to a finished piece, and they emerge in their own due time. Not by an imposed schedule or anything as regular and top-down as an outline.

Sure, I might know my topic when I start, and I might even have a few things I want to say about it. But! There are invariably insights that arise as I’m writing, thoughts I wasn’t going to think until I wrote the sentence…that I just wrote. (For example, having just written the previous sentence, I thought of the word, emergent. Emergent thoughts, by definition, can’t be known ahead of time. The web tells me that emergent means “in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.”)

It’s that “in the process” that I love. À la Don Fry, who wrote “Writing Your Way,” I’ve learned to use outlines my way. I use them in the middle of my process. Instead of an outline, that process begins with thinking off the page, contemplation on walks and while washing dishes and at other times when my mind is empty of deliberate input. I might jot some notes down to jog my memory later, like the note for this post I made on July 17: Outlines are not useless…or something to explain how using an outline to get started is only a start, [you] don’t need to stick to it.

At some point after in-the-mind marinating, I’ll write for a bit. Then, when the writing tide ebbs, maybe I’ll make an outline. It might even have a bullet point, but I avoid numerals. Too inevitable. Brainstorming with my writing group is pure fun. At other times, my outline is a diagram, like screenwriters use for movie plots. Or, I’ll use the Comment feature in Microsoft Word Review tab to describe the goal of each paragraph after it’s drafted. An outline that becomes prominent after the writing has commenced honors my personal process in a satisfying, bottom-up way that I don’t experience with the traditional outline.

outline

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned since my early indoctrination is that there’s no place for “should” in my writing process. Like an old-fashioned outline, “should” makes me feel constrained to rigid sequence, with its mechanical headers and sub-headers and bullet points, and that’s not where my creativity lives.

Instead, I find my creativity in the process, and that’s right where I want my outline. In the middle of the mess and the emergence, it can do its job of guiding, signaling, and organizing.*

*Side note that wouldn’t be in any outline: I’ve heard the best leaders are more like coaches than like bosses—they’re focused less on the product and more on the process. Maybe that means my beef with outlines is really a problem with authority…

–C. E. Cameron

Writing group, times eight

This semester I incorporated writing groups into my college course, Cognitive Psychology of Education. The course includes freshmen (who at UVa are called “First years”) at one end, and PhD students at the other. With a total of 31 students, we have eight writing groups of three or four students each.

Syllabus description for Claire's class at UVa

The class syllabus at UVa

I decided to use writing groups to individualize instruction by grouping students at similar stages together, and to allow them to give and receive peer feedback. As Dr. Bill McKeachie, my first teaching mentor, points out in Teaching  Tips, “interactions that facilitate learning need not be limited to those with teachers. Often those with peers are more productive.”[1]

I’ve been grandly impressed so far. We’ve held two writing groups during class. The first time, students critiqued an informal blog-style post on a course topic they found interesting. The second time, they critiqued one another’s proposals for their course project, either a research proposal, policy paper, or magazine article that they work on all semester.

In both sessions, students followed my instructions to the letter:

writing-group-instructions

The instructions for this writing group

When I was in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure my ego would have impeded such a task. At that stage, I was hungry for positive affirmation and afraid of any type of criticism – even constructive criticism. In discussion of my work, I drowned out anything that wasn’t a compliment with a long explanation of why I made the choices I did. Maybe if I explain it more, they’ll understand. It’s not me, it’s them!

 It wasn’t until I had to seriously revise a manuscript, in graduate school (or was it as a postdoc?!?), that I learned the critical ego lessons:

  1. Critiques are part of the learning process.
  2. Critiques are not personal.
  3. The readers are always (OK, 99.5% of the time) right, and responding sincerely to their critiques improves the work.

Why do my students – some of them not yet 20 years old!! – seem so adept at taking critiques with grace? It took me years, and hours of patient mentoring, to realize critiques were not personal attacks on me, but simply suggestions for improving the work. I harbor a secret theory and hope that we humans are slowly, collectively evolving. My other hypotheses include:

  • My students have adopted a growth mindset, which is Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea that mistakes are part of learning.
  • They know that practice and targeted feedback can help you learn more efficiently.
  • They are aliens from a planet where there is no ego and everyone just helps each other with politeness and sincerity.

Whatever the answer, here are three of my favorite quotes from students in writing group:

In response to my question of whether a group needed more time:

“He hasn’t thanked us for our feedback yet,” (Followed by playful laughter and actual thanking).

Overheard during a discussion:

“It’s just that I think your premise is wrong.” (This was followed by a respectful debate about the nature of education and testing).

In response to my walking around, checking in with groups:

“I decided to reorganize my paper after seeing how C. did it!”

Now three final questions:

  1. Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
  2. Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
  3. Will I happily take a little credit? Yes, but only along with the students themselves, their parents, teachers, grandparents, and mentors, Dr. Dweck, any other writing group experience they’ve had, the evolving human race, and the universe.

Now that I’m not in my twenties, I’ve also learned that while individual effort is necessary to success, there is no such thing as individual accomplishment. We accomplish things in the context of our cultures and communities and in the incubator of our families, classes, and jobs. If those contexts provide us with support – whether emotional or economic – then we can thrive. In those types of contexts, we can learn and grow. If we get feedback about how to improve, in a safe setting where we can actually hear it, we can thrive. On the other hand, if our contexts undermine us, underpay us, or stress us out, we can’t.

I know what kind of world I want to live in. My students are on their way to creating it, one thoughtful critique at a time.

Claire Elizabeth Cameron PhD is a co-founder of BACCA Literary where she practices her critiquing skills. She is a research scientist at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and teaches the Cognitive Psychology of Education.


[1] McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, research, and theories for college and university teachers. Eleventh edition. Houghton Mifflin. P. 188.

Mind-Expanding Writing Strategies

One thing that I love about “writing in community” is the accountability. Expanding the group of people who can give constructive feedback about our writing makes it a less lonely activity. Writing groups, partners, or teams help cheer us on when we’re stuck. And deadlines for those groups help us keep going even when – like at the end of Daylight Savings Time – we’d like to curl up on the couch instead of sticking to our writing goals. Here are some other mind-expanding* strategies that keep me writing.

1. Writing is an opportunity to be mindful

angkor_thom_image

The author captured this peaceful face beyond the doorways on an October 2013 visit to Angkor Thom, Cambodia

I recently learned the term productive procrastination, which means doing something that seems productive, to avoid doing The Thing that you should be doing – in this case, writing. Ever notice that when you sit down for your daily dose of writing, the dirty dishes or laundry start calling to you? Or for some reason it’s a good time to do your banking?

Even chores can seem compelling if you’ve been out of the writing habit for a while. So: next time this happens, expand your awareness to include this tendency. In other words, simply try to notice, to consciously register, when your mind tries to convince you that something else is more important than your writing. At first, you may still end up avoiding your writing. But after a while of noticing, you can change that habit (your brain is actually re-wiring itself). Now when I catch myself beginning to productively procrastinate, I’m usually able to override the impulse and keep on writing. Sometimes it helps to write down the item on a to-do list so I don’t forget. I just say to myself “You’re writing now, you can do that later.” And it’s true!

2.  Think outside the screen

In this age of electronic devices, sometimes I forget about writing strategies beyond my laptop screen. But interacting with a paper draft is different than on a computer or tablet. I find reading and editing on paper an especially important strategy when I’m working on chapters – or really, anything longer than a couple of pages. When I read on the page, I notice more easily if a sentence needs to be moved up or down, or I can see a whole section that can be edited out. Do you find it difficult to order the action in a novel or short story? Consider cutting up pieces of text and moving things around.

You can also use outlines however they work for you. For example, try outlining after you start writing, or make an outline of what you’ve written. This will show you the entire story and things that are out of place might pop.

3. Writing is part of the learning process

DSCF2278

One of many colorful Buddhas in a park in the Cambodian Cultural Village of Siem Reap. He might be saying “Don’t worry. Be happy. Just write. Then edit.”

I used to have a concept that I would understand something fully and then write it down. But I’ve learned that for me, writing is how I figure things out. In other words, I’ve broadened my definition of “writing” to include “writing to learn,” in addition to “writing to teach” (or explain, describe, or entertain). I’m not so hesitant anymore to start writing even if I don’t know where it might lead.

4. Expect to edit

Learning is a process. We are all in that process. Even experts write “crappy drafts.” Which is why another thing that’s just part of writing is editing. And to truly open a piece up to its possibilities, some parts of yourself may need to be uninvited from the editing part of the process. For example, the “that’s not good enough yet” voice and the “everything I do is perfect” voice do not belong in the editing room with you. Banish those voices and you will have more room to think.

*Credit to the great wordsmith, A M Carley.

— CE Cameron

Five Benefits of a Writing Group for Academic Writers

In my day job at the University of Virginia, I do research, which many people may not realize involves a lot of writing. As my boss says, “In academia, the coin of the realm is publishing.” Our research group, called Foundations of Cognition and Learning or FOCAL, examines the underlying foundational skills that children need to succeed in school. Skills like self-control, visuo-motor skills, and motivation.

This post is about how writing groups can help technical and academic writers. Academic writing is a certain type of creative challenge because it’s essentially like learning a new language. There are particular words to use and not to use. Rules for when to use something called causal language, which implies a traditional experiment with a control group. Rules for the precise difference among highly similar words, like effect, effects, affect, and affects. Rules like never using fragments or phrases.

If you don’t know the difference between impulsivity, impulse control, effortful control, inhibitory control, inhibition, perseverate, attentional shifting, and executive function – if you’ve never even heard of these words and feel perfectly content about that – you are a normal person. Because all those words essentially mean “self-control,” and they have to do with how we must deliberately plan, organize, and apply effort to learn new things.

It's tiem to get organized

In academia, because scientists examine the most subtle details of phenomena like human behavior, we end up coining obscure phrases that only a few experts in that particular area master. As a graduate student, or as a scholar new to an area of study, figuring out what an article is even about can be maddening. Learning how to write in the style of scientific writing takes years, and learning how to write well in this style is even more of a challenge.

I was reminded of this a few years ago when I started writing about an area that is new to me: visuo-motor skills. I had been writing about self-control for 8 years, and when I tackled motor development, I felt like a first-year graduate student all over again. I remembered how challenging and just plain frustrating it was to build a skill from scratch. It felt like I would never get better!

For the past two semesters, I’ve been involved in an academic writing group that helps doctoral students and their mentors make progress on their writing. When the group concluded this spring, the students liked it so much they decided to keep meeting over the summer. The mentors liked it so much we decided to keep meeting over the summer too! (In the fall, we’ll all get back together). Here are five benefits of our group:

1. Effective feedback mechanism. Scientists are trained to consider a position from all sides and refute challenges. Arguing for one’s point is part of the business. But when learning to write, this somewhat antagonistic stance serves no one. My academic writing group adopted the BACCA model of allotting the first 15 minutes or so of the session for the readers to comment and for the author to listen. As our academic writing group leader Dr. Sonia Cabell pointed out, “Not responding when someone comments on our work is simply unnatural. We spend so much time on the piece that it feels impossible not to respond and defend our efforts.”

Even so, she and I agreed that was the best decision we made in structuring the group. An “author listening period” allowed the readers to build a conversation and comment off one another. Themes became evident and so were areas of disagreement among the readers. After the listening period, the author was invited to ask clarifying questions and seek more information from the readers. A side benefit of this practice was that we learned one can separate the piece of work from one’s own identity – this is what I call “ego work.”

2. Allow for comparison and contrast. In our group, students with widely varying interests – literacy development, self-control, preschool math education, measurement of visuo-motor skills, and cultural competence of student teachers – all read each other’s drafts. They told us this had two benefits: first, they learned about areas they didn’t otherwise encounter. Second, they more easily saw the principles of strong writing because they had examples of the same style of writing (academic) on so many different topics. In other words, their tunnel vision – so essential when becoming expert in a focused area – broadened.

3. Confidence building. The group involved four mentors – established research faculty who have been writing for a long time – and we mentors submitted our own working drafts. Thus, the students got to see our rough drafts. Our rough drafts were – and this is a technical term – messy. We started calling them “crappy drafts.” For university students, who are surrounded by long-time PhDs, it’s a relief to see that writing well is difficult for mentors, too. It’s difficult for everyone. Which leads to the fourth benefit:

4. Practice: The writing group provided multiple opportunities to practice and receive timely feedback on our writing. A few students submitted the same paper more than once, albeit with changes and improvements. And as research on expertise shows, improving at a skill requires practice. A LOT of practice.

5. Large return on investment. Our academic writing group did not take a lot of time. Students enrolled for one independent study credit. We met every other week for 1 hour, and reviewed two pieces of writing. When necessary we were able to review in BACCA speed, 20 minutes, though we tried to give each person more like 25-30 minutes.

Other than the professional benefits, we had a lot of fun together! The students keep coming back, so we must be doing something right. If you are interested in creating your own academic writing group, please contact Claire Cameron at cecameron(at)virginia.edu.

Claire Cameron

The Writing Group Weekend

One of my favorite things about writing – both fiction and nonfiction – is that you never know where you’ll end up. When the four of us met in David Ronka’s Evening Fiction workshop at WriterHouse two years ago, I’m certain that all we expected was a writing class. But now we are BACCA Literary: Bethany , Anne, Carolyn, Claire – aspiring authors, already-writers. After responding to Bethany’s emailed invitation, we’ve spent the past two years honing our skills in monthly critique sessions.

We’re honored that our writing group was the first – as far as we know – Virginia Festival of the Book session by writers-in-progress, for writers-in-progress. We presented on Saturday morning, March 23, 2013, at a Publishing Day event called “Creating a Great Writing Group.” We were excited – maybe even a little nervous – and wanted things to go well. To prepare for the session, we decided to spend a late-winter weekend at a nearby retreat.

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Like walking into a new class for the first time or sharing your work with strangers, spending an entire weekend writing with people you normally see once per month is an “uncertainty situation.” It’s hard to know what to expect. The pay-off could be huge – or not. And the weekend got off to a rocky start. Two days before the retreat, Carolyn was forced to drive herself to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Her husband was out of town and she began to bleed heavily from a recent cancer-related surgery. When we heard the news over our private Facebook page, we went from preparing for the weekend in excitement to worrying about Carolyn and wondering if the retreat would work out after all.

Carolyn at her desk

Carolyn at her desk

While Carolyn was in the hospital, I realized how much I wanted all four of us there. We are yin and yang: two fantasy writers, two reality-based writers. Two Baby Boomers, two Gen X-ers. Like a table with four legs, BACCA would wobble if one of us were missing.

Carolyn’s condition turned out to be caused by loose stitches. Though she needed a blood transfusion, her doctor still gave her the green light to leave town. Her husband, a true “knight in shining armor,” drove her out and unpacked all her things. After they arrived, I asked Anne, “Do you think this is pushing it?” Anne checked with Carolyn, who reassured us that if anything should happen, we were only 40 minutes from the nearest hospital. Luckily, we never had to test that drive.

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After the novelty of settling in, I could appreciate our beautiful surroundings. The retreat had one space for meeting and another for resting, dining, and socializing. Internet was limited. By chance, we were the only group on the grounds. Though the air was chill and the skies cloudy, the land cradled us in rich earth tones of straw and bark, red clay, and spring-green grass in spots. Just beyond were the Rapidan River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, timeless reminders to relax and let our creative energies flow.

We began the weekend with a writing prompt, plucked from a paper bag at 5pm. The instructions were simple, based on our composer Anne’s experience with a music retreat: choose one prompt, then take 24 hours to write a short piece. The next day, read your work to the group.

Bethany's hands at work

Bethany in close-up

The others seemed game, but I was initially skeptical. Our writing group routine is to share, one week before meeting, material that we’ve polished for months. What could we possibly produce in 24 hours? Especially without knowing the topic in advance?

The prompts were:

  • Write about an object you love dearly – something besides photo albums – that you’d save in a house fire.
  • You’re convinced that your best friend’s son plans to bring a gun to school.
  • You’re sorting through your childhood things and a stuffed animal suddenly begins talking to you.
  • You have a near-death experience. When you awaken, the only person you remember seeing is Adolf Hitler.
Anne writing

Anne writing

After choosing our prompts, we rested or brainstormed in solitude. Then we made dinner and chatted. By sheer coincidence, Anne and I are both on gluten-free, dairy-free diets, with several other restrictions, so Anne generously volunteered to prepare entrees for both nights. Her chicken soup and tomato-free turkey chili were delicious as well as diet-appropriate. After dinner, Carolyn brought out a dog-eared “Moon Signs” book and we playfully psychoanalyzed ourselves before bed. We weren’t surprised to learn that our moon signs were compatible. It started to feel like a bona fide slumber party. That night I slept on a loft with a window to the sky. I awoke once to the moon at its peak, a shining light I could have read by.

The next morning, we prepared for our VA Book session. Then we wrote. The 5pm prompt deadline approached. At 4:50pm, I was 99% done. I needed an ending though – the piece hadn’t gelled. Then, an insight, and a hasty final sentence, which ended up the same as the first. Funny how things come full circle. But was it any good? I didn’t have time to edit.

Claire looks up

Claire looks up

At 5:01, I walked into the kitchen. The three others sat around the table already. Everyone looked as hesitant as I felt. Someone said, “Y’all realize this is a rough draft, right?”

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If you want to know what we wrote, you’ll have to wait until we publish our pieces. But suffice it to say that after we finished sharing, we agreed that each piece was submission-worthy, with a little tweaking. We agreed that the prompt activity had far surpassed our expectations, and that two years before, there was no way we each could have written something coherent in 24 hours.

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So was it the beautiful place, the energy of an all-but-unplugged retreat? Was it the change in scenery or the moonlight? Or was it two years of monthly meetings and regular feedback? Whatever it was, here we are. Four women, four writers, four friends. After working together, we presented at one of the country’s best book festivals – Bethany’s preparing to teach her E-publishing WriterHouse class – Anne’s consulting other writers in her small business – Carolyn won second place in The Hook’s 2013 short story contest – and I just completed my first book. Could we have accomplished what we have without each other? Possible, though unless someone invents a parallel universe, we’ll never know. But what’s certain is that without each other to lean on, cheerlead, and listen, the successes we have enjoyed so far wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

Carolyn, Bethany, Anne, Claire

Heading home from our weekend: Carolyn, Bethany, Anne, Claire

“Uncertainty situations” are designed to stretch us, sometimes in uncomfortable directions. But perhaps that’s the point of writing, writing classes, and writing retreats. To stretch, learn, and grow. Especially in the company of friends.

– – Claire Cameron

A shorter version of this post appeared at the WriterHouse blog