Walk the Right Path: Three Tips for Writing Comments

While at the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto, I had the opportunity to attend a session led by the wonderful Arlene Prunkl, an experienced editor who works with self-publishing clients. During the session, she talked about how to give feedback to writers in a positive and compassionate way. I believe her tips are useful not just for editors, but for anyone who has been asked to provide comments on someone else’s work.

While listening to Arlene, it occurred to me that writers asking for feedback are in a similar situation to the character of Neo at the beginning of the movie The Matrix. They know something is not quite right about the story world they are living and breathing. But they’re not quite sure what the problem is. They seek out an editor, who offers to show them the truth.

That editor needs to be careful when delivering feedback, or the writer is going to regret choosing that red pill.

Matrix Red pill or blue pill

Can I put this off until tomorrow?

 

Here are three simple tips provided by Arlene on how to word your comments positively.

1) Avoid using the word “you” in an accusing way. (“You need to change this.”) Refer to the problem, not the person.

Don’t be like Agent Smith and make your writer feel like a worthless insect.

2) Write your comment in the passive voice. (“This sentence can be tightened.”) This helps you to convey the information in a neutral tone.

Be a calm mentor, like Morpheus.

3) Show flexibility by using words like “perhaps” or phrases like “you may want to consider.”

After all, the writer is the One who wrote the text, not you. Respect the effort that has been put into the text. And remember, you don’t know everything. Sometimes there is no spoon.

If you do your job right, the writer will suddenly see the text in a new way. And they will have the confidence to change things for the better.

Matrix code

“I see…everything.”

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

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Images from the movie The Matrix

Do you find it difficult to provide feedback to writers? What has worked for you? Have you ever read comments that made you cringe?

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The Erasure of Black Widow: Do We Need to Write Female Characters Differently?

Age of Ultron Black WidowI saw the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron last week. I had been looking forward to watching this movie for a long time, so I did my utmost to avoid encountering any spoilers. I enjoyed it, though I felt that parts of it were uneven and that it didn’t come together as well as the first Avengers movie.

Once I’d seen the movie, I checked out what other people had thought of it. That’s when I discovered the complaints about the character development of Black Widow.

I realized that the movie I saw was not the same movie that others had seen.

*character spoilers ahead*

What Some People Saw

A betrayal of Black Widow’s character through

– making her “the girlfriend”

– making her a damsel in distress

– making her a mother figure

– making her feel monstrous for not being able to have children.

What I Saw

An evolution of Black Widow’s character, as shown through

– her attempt to develop a romantic relationship

– her demonstrated ability to protect her other team members and fulfill critical missions (without super powers)

– her yearning for family and connections

– her acknowledgement that she feels monstrous due to her training as an assassin.

 

What happened here? How could these interpretations be so different?

I certainly don’t think that the portrayal of Black Widow’s character was perfect. I’ve complained before about the lack of strong female characters in action movies, and this movie doesn’t break any new ground on this issue. Outside of the movie itself, Marvel is not impressing me with their failure to produce Black Widow action figures. They have even erased her from her own key movie scene.

But still. I didn’t pick up on all the negative nuances that others found in this movie.

This leads me to the question of how to treat female characters in a male-dominated genre. Should writers be treating female characters differently from male ones? And how should gender issues be addressed?

Female Characters as Human Beings

I’d like to think that all characters are simply human beings. When Black Widow needed to be rescued in the film, I didn’t see her as a damsel in distress that needed to be saved by a boyfriend. I saw her as a valuable team member that needed to be rescued by another member of the team, just as the Avengers would do for any team member. The fact that she was female and in a relationship just didn’t make any difference to me.

But I can see why others found this disturbing. We’re constantly surrounded by stories that portray women as the girlfriend, the damsel in distress, the mother figure…so we understandably get twitchy when we keep running into these tropes.

In reading up on this issue, I came across a fantastic article by Kate Elliott (one of my favourite fantasy authors) called Writing Women Characters as Human Beings. She shares three key pieces of advice, which I am paraphrasing here.

1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other.

In this respect, Age of Ultron fails the grade. Although there are multiple female characters, they don’t have meaningful moments with each other. I can’t even remember if Scarlet Witch and Black Widow ever talked to each other.

2. Pay attention to how you are assigning minor roles.

In many stories, the tertiary-level characters are played by men. Age of Ultron does include several female characters in minor roles, including Dr. Cho, Laura, and Madame B.

3. Your female characters should exist for themselves, and have their own agency in the plot of the story.

I would say that Scarlet Witch is the female character that has the most agency in this movie. Her decisions and actions drive many of the key plot points. Black Widow has less agency in the plot, but I would argue that she does have her own dreams and desires that she acts upon in the movie. It’s just that those desires do not line up with the idea of a “kick butt” female action hero. Is that wrong? Maybe not. But in the context of male-dominated superhero action movies, it clearly doesn’t work for a large segment of the audience.

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Have you seen Age of Ultron? How did you feel female characters were portrayed in the movie? Do you think female characters need to be treated any differently than male ones?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

Rogue Words from A to Z: If Wishes Were Wanting…

A to Z Letter WOne of my readers suggested that I write about when to use were with a singular subject (heard in the classic song from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man…”). Why don’t we sing, “If I was a rich man?”

The short answer: “If I were a rich man” is written in the subjunctive verb mood. What on earth is that? I wrote the long answer to that question many moons ago, when I first started blogging. Hardly any of my readers have seen that post, since it’s back from the times when my readers were mostly crickets.

So I figured it was time to bring this out again and answer my reader’s question. I hope you enjoy it!

If Wishes Had Genies…

Verbs have moods, just like genies do. And we all know you need to pay attention to someone’s mood if you want to get your wish. (“Can I have a cookie, Mom? Pleeease?” Oh, no, it’s not working! Time for the cute face. “I love you.”)

Disney’s Aladdin shows us all about moods and how we can stay on the good side of verbs. The film’s characters use the three verb moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Let’s see how each mood can affect your chances of getting your wish.

Indicative Mood

We use the indicative mood most of the time. This verb mood is good for stating facts, making requests, or asking questions. Aladdin uses this mood when he says, “Genie, I wish for you to make me a prince.” The verb in this sentence is wish. This is a simple request, and Genie is happy to lend a hand:

Disney's Aladdin and Genie shaking hands

You’ve got a deal!

Imperative Mood

We use the imperative mood for commands. Our story’s villain, Jafar, is fond of using the imperative mood. After he steals the lamp, he commands: “Genie, grant me my first wish.” Here, the verb is grant. Jafar could have said, “I would like you to grant me my first wish,” which would have been more polite (and indicative). But no. And guess what happens when you use the imperative mood on a genie?

Genie cheering for Jafar in Aladdin

Can you tell I’m motivated?

Subjunctive Mood

This final verb mood is the trickiest. We use the subjunctive mood for unlikely possibilities, things that are not true, and (you guessed it) wishes. You often find the subjunctive mood hanging around with the word if. Aladdin uses the subjunctive when he protects children from being whipped by a rude prince. He says, “Hey, if I were as rich as you, I could afford some manners!”

We can tell this is the subjunctive mood because Aladdin says I were. This can sound strange to our ears, because normally people say I was. With the subjunctive, however, the verb form were is always used (if I were, if you were, if he were, if she were…).

So why is this verb mood important? It tells us that Aladdin thinks he will never be rich. After all, he doesn’t have a genie to help him with that…yet.

Disney's Aladdin on manners of the rich

If only I had a genie…

Once Aladdin finds Genie, he never uses the subjunctive mood again. Why? Because he knows that his wishes will come true. They are no longer unlikely to happen. So, unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t need to think about when to use the subjunctive mood.

After talking about this, now I really want a genie. I’m sure it would improve my mood. Imagine the possibilities…

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Images from Disney’s Aladdin

This post is dedicated to my loyal readers from the beginning blog times who are still with me. I hope you enjoyed this blast from the past!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s (new) post, where I will eXamine the xenophobic letter X…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

For those of you who enjoy my posts on movies and superheroes, I have a guest post on Andrew Knighton Writes today that you may wish to check out. Thanks for hosting me, Andrew!

Andrew Knighton writes

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre…

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I Am Groot. Who Are You?

I finally got the opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy last week. Despite being a fan of both the Marvel movies and sci-fi space opera, I wasn’t sure if Marvel was going to pull this one off. One of the Guardians is a gun-toting, sarcastic raccoon, and another one is a…tree? If Marvel can do this, I thought to myself, they can do anything.

Well, it turns out that Marvel can do anything. Through the combination of top-notch CGI and a stellar voice performance by Bradley Cooper, Rocket Raccoon became the best character in the movie. Rocket’s voice and body language communicated his personality so well that his performance felt seamless. He had a clear identity and it came through in everything he said or did.

Rocket Raccoon

It turns out that the entire movie played with this theme of identity and communication. Guardians of the Galaxy made me think about how our sense of self influences the way we interact with the world. (mild spoilers ahead)

I am Groot

The other CGI character in the movie is Groot, a tree creature who can only speak three words: I am Groot. His way of connecting with others is to state his identity. This limited vocabulary doesn’t stop him from communicating with the team. Rocket (who knows Groot well) is able to interpret Groot’s tone. Rocket translates Groot’s one simple repeated statement into the details of what Groot is thinking.

Groot is comfortable with who he is and this is expressed in his actions. One great example of Groot showing his character is when he grows a flower for a random girl he spots on the street. It’s a touching scene, and demonstrates how Groot is communicating his identity by sharing a physical part of himself.

Groot giving a girl a flower

Groot’s identity is firmly rooted (how else?) in his connections with Rocket and the other Guardians. There’s a great scene later in the movie that illustrates this perfectly, but to tell you about it would spoil it. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If not, get out there and go see this movie!

 Call Me Star-Lord

In contrast to Groot, Peter Quill (the leader of the Guardians) is struggling with his identity. He left Earth when he was young, and he is clinging to his past rather than allowing himself to grow. He jokes around his fears and attempts to communicate with others through obscure pop-culture references. He confuses Drax, who has a tendency to interpret everything literally. Gamora also finds him challenging to communicate with, and asks him to explain himself in several scenes. These situations are played for laughs (and they are a lot of fun). But they are also showing how Peter’s lack of a clear identity is interfering with his ability to build relationships with others.

Peter Quill, Drax, and Gamora

Peter Quill, Drax, and Gamora

Peter tries to deal with his identity crisis by choosing another name. Peter wants to be known by a nickname he created for himself, one that embodies who he would like to be: Star-Lord. But no one takes this pretend identity seriously. Peter needs to grow up and show what he is made of, and he gets his chance as events unfold. By the end of the movie, he has reconciled with his past and has truly become Star-Lord. He has also forged close relationships with his team. (Just in time for a sequel!)

Who Are You?

Guardians is a movie about identities and how they support our interactions with others. It shows us how knowing who we are and what we stand for can help us make changes for the better. And it makes me wonder about my own identity. In our lives, we play so many roles. I have been (and still am) daughter, sister, student, co-worker, wife, mother, aunt, friend, writer. So who is the real me? How can I stay whole and grounded, so that I can connect meaningfully with others in a genuine way? How can I bring my best self to the world?

In Guardians of the Galaxy, a ragtag group of criminals goes on a journey of self-discovery and becomes a group of heroes who save the universe.

Who are you? And what will you become?

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Just a reminder – if you haven’t had a chance to answer my quick summer poll, please take a second to give me your feedback on my blog. It’s your chance to change the future. 🙂 Thanks!

Would Your Captain Be Proud?

My favourite scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is known as “Captain’s Orders.” I’m not going into all the details here, because I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it. In this scene, Captain America tells a group of people a difficult truth that goes against what they believe. He then asks them to take courageous action based on that truth. And they do it. Why? Because the Cap asked them to.

If I had seen this in any other movie with any other character, I would have rolled my eyes. In today’s environment, where we have lost faith in so many of our leaders, who would act based on one person’s word? But it works. Because this is Captain America as played by the talented Chris Evans. And his character has unquestionable integrity.

Would you follow this man? I know I would. Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Would you follow this man? I know I would.

Anyone who’s worked in the corporate world knows how difficult it is to maintain your integrity, especially when you are in a leadership position. My worst experience as a manager was a time when I disagreed with upper management’s direction but needed to inspire my staff to follow it. I had to separate out the corporate message from my message, and speak to what I believed—because I needed to hold on to my integrity. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to look at myself in the mirror.

Since that time, I’ve been careful to avoid putting myself in that situation. I try to live one of my favourite sayings from Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” This is the best statement on integrity I have ever seen. But it’s difficult to follow. So it’s good that I have many captains to look to for inspiration. Captain America may be the best of the bunch, but he’s not the only captain out there with integrity. What about Captain Picard of Star Trek: TNG or David Weber’s Honor Harrington? Speculative fiction abounds with captains who lead with integrity. And we can learn a lot about leadership and communication from them. Here are three things that I have learned:

Let them see who you are

The more genuine you are in your communications, the more your team will relate to you. Everything you say should come from your heart. This can make you feel vulnerable, but it will support you through difficult times. Don’t try to pretty things up or try on a different personality. People can sense when you are being yourself, and will respect you for it. As Captain Picard tells us, “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for who we really are.”

Communicate with a clear intent

Do you have a purpose for communicating that you believe in? Your agenda in speaking should be clear to you and your team. I’ve written in the past about Captain America’s direct communication style. This goes beyond style and into substance. Having an influential speaking style is not going to get you anywhere if people do not see your belief.  Get out from under the corporate speak and say what you mean.

Tell the truth, but don’t feel like you have to tell everything

There are some things you just have to keep to yourself. If communicating something will make things worse for people, don’t say it. Talk about what will help, not what will hurt. If Honor Harrington always told her crew the truth about upcoming spaceship battles (“We are almost certainly going to die”), they would never triumph against the odds. Holding a harmful truth close to your chest is not a lie—it is an expression of your values.

The most important lessons in life are basic truths that you can post on your office wall. Walk the talk. Think, speak, and act in harmony. Value your people. And make your captain proud.

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Thank you to Andrew Knighton, whose post on self-publishing and integrity inspired me to write this.

How do you maintain your integrity at home or at work? Are there captains in your life or in fiction that inspire you?

Me, Myself, or I—Whodunnit?

I’m dealing with a pronoun identity crisis. It’s like trying to pick a clone from Star Wars out of a lineup. Me, Myself, and I are all possible suspects. Which one should I use in my sentence? With the help of Anne Stilman (and with apologies to Jango Fett), I’m going to sort out these annoying pronoun clones once and for all.

Suspect Number One: I, the Arrogant Subject

Jango Fett from Star Wars

I am in control of my destiny!

 I is a “take charge” kind of pronoun. I demands pride of place as the subject of a sentence (the person committing the action).

I will lead my troops to victory! ✓

I continues to demand this right even when there are other subjects in the sentence.

Yoda and I will never be good friends. ✓

I hates it when someone writes Yoda and Me. ✕   This is simply disrespectful.

I also barges in when there are comparisons between two subjects. I shows up even when there is no verb following it.

Mace Windu thinks he is better than I. ✓

In the sentence above, the verb is implied. The full sentence is below.

Mace Windu thinks he is better than I am. ✓  (What a fool!) ✕

I wants you to know that missing words don’t excuse you from getting this right. Don’t screw it up by saying Mace thinks he is better than Me. ✕

I is also arrogant enough to crowd in directly after a verb, when the verb is a form of to be (is, am, was, were).

It is I, the great clone warrior! ✓

In this case, I is following a linking verb (is). A linking verb links the subject to the item that follows it. It (the subject) = I (the subject).

I wants us to understand that I is clearly > Me, so It is Me is ridiculous. (Although this usage is increasingly accepted—for another view, check out Grammar Girl’s take on “It is I.”)

Bottom line, I is an attention hog and a horrible dinner companion. Enough said.

Suspect Number Two: Me, the Objectified Victim

Jango Fett from Star Wars - 2

Why is everyone always bothering me?

Everyone is always out to get Me. Instead of being a subject, this pronoun is treated as an object. Verbs are constantly acting against Me.

They are all plotting to dispose of Me. ✓

Since I is a hog, it likes to kick Me out of its rightful place when there are multiple objects in a sentence.

The Jedi are pestering Boba and I. ✕

This is completely wrong, and makes Me suffer. Here’s the correct version.

The Jedi are pestering Boba and Me. ✓

On a bright note, there is one sentence where Me is not the underdog.

Woe is Me. ✓

At first glance, it looks like I should be taking over this sentence. (Remember when I followed the linking verb is in It is I?) Not so fast. This is another sentence with some implied words.

Woe is delivered unto Me. ✓

Me continues to be an object here, as the receiver of a delivery. So Me wins this round (if you can call it winning).

How appropriate that we are talking about woe around such a moping and hard-done-by pronoun. Let’s move on from Me—the party pooper.

Suspect Number Three: Myself, the Perpetual Sidekick

Jango Fett from Star Wars - 3

I really need to stand up for myself.

Myself really needs a mind of its own. Instead, it follows I around everywhere, feeding I‘s superiority. This is why Myself is known as a reflexive pronoun. It is a reflection of I.

I can’t fight this war all by Myself! ✓

(Guess it’s time to make some more clones then.)

Sometimes Myself tries to rise in importance by acting as an intensive pronoun. Myself intensifies what I is saying.

I Myself believe that war is the only true answer. ✓

This is a correct sentence, but Myself is still following I around, so I’m not sure how successful its ploy for greatness is.

In a last bid for glory, you can find Myself trying to act like a subject or an object.

Dooku and Myself are clearly both subjects. ✕

The Jedi insulted Myself and my other clone brother objects. ✕

The pronoun should be I in the first sentence, and Me in the second one. Myself is out of luck. It continues to be a tagalong pronoun. No wonder it got dragged into a lineup with the other pronoun troublemakers!

I think my pronoun identity crisis is over. The verdict? All of them are still annoying. But at least I know when to use them in my sentences. Now if only they can stay out of trouble!

(Have you experienced pain with pronouns? Are there any particular grammar challenges you would like to see me tackle here? Please share your thoughts below.)