» The Power of Peer Review

The Power of Peer Review

This blog is posted at The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood

I am so excited to be here, you can’t even imagine! It is so generous of the Rubies to offer this opportunity to the class of 2011 (cue matriculation music here), and I am looking forward to meeting many of you at RWA in New York!

So, who am I? I am an infectious disease researcher, and like many of you, I have a day job I love. I work as an infectious disease researcher for the federal government and my special area of expertise is tracking and preventing diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans. But days spent writing scientific journal articles can make even the most dedicated scientist long for a HEA, and I found that merely reading about it wasn’t satisfying enough – I wanted to create a world on paper.

I approached writing my first book in much the same way I have always approached a scientific question: research.  Armed with a litany of facts about a Victorian dress and diet, but having absolutely no concept about things like character arcs, I set off. I sat. I wrote. I spit out a 90,000 word novel that revolved around a cholera outbreak in 1854 London. Mere days after writing “The End”, I sent it off to a chapter contest to see if it was any good. My first contest in 2009 saw my manuscript returned with the following scratched across the top: “Is this even supposed to be a romance?” What the heck? Of course it was a romance. It wasn’t my fault the contest limited me to 30 pages, when the real relationship and the oh-so-romantic cholera epidemic didn’t heat up until page 294!

I sat. I fumed. I took a step back and reconsidered things.  I began to see that the contest judge wasn’t being mean – she was giving me something akin to a part of science I understood very, very well. Peer Review. The scientific laugh test. The thing you have to get past to publish your work.  Once, on a scientific paper I had spent weeks writing, I received a comment back from an anonymous peer reviewer. “The author purports to be an epidemiologist, but appears to have trouble with simple mathematics.” The reviewer was peeved because he or she couldn’t make the numbers in my table add up to 100%. It might have been harsh, but it was an accurate review – I hadn’t double-checked my numbers. I can promise you, I never made that mistake again. I similarly discovered, in the moment of getting back those comments from my first-ever writing contest, the power of an honest critique. Even better, thanks to my experience with the scientific peer review process, I was prepared to handle it.

What had I been thinking? No one besides this poor, hapless judge had ever seen my first manuscript – not my mother, not my husband, and not even my best friend. That judge probably deserved a medal for slogging through it, but, like scientific peer review, the process was cloaked in anonymity and I had no way to inform her that I could do better.  I set out to correct my rookie mistake (a.k.a. Book #1). I read every excellent novel I could get my hands on. I joined my local RWA chapter, Georgia Romance Writers. I began to seek out readers and people who would provide me with similarly harsh feedback to that contest judge. The best thing I ever did was match up with an extraordinary critique partner (you know who you are RB!) who wasn’t afraid to tell it to me straight. Most importantly, I sat my butt back down in front of my laptop and wrote Book #2. And you know what? With my next attempt at writing, I not only finalled in that same chapter contest, I won my category. Take that mysterious contest judge!

It has been an incredible, educational journey. Along the way, I have regularly seen colleagues around me turn inward, seen them reject the process of receiving and processing criticism. I get it – no one likes to be criticized. But in my personal experience, it has been as vital to the process of improving as a writer as getting the words on paper. We are so lucky to have writing help in the Romance community, with contests and conferences and workshops.  But even more important than learning how to write, I think, is learning how not to write, and that is where critiques come in. Not only do you have a chance to test the strength of your work in the minds of people who are smarter than you, this step is vital to make sure that your work is of high enough merit to be ready for agents and editors.

I would love to hear from you about your experiences with peer review and critiques, either good or bad. Does it motivate you to work harder, or does it make you want to curl into a ball and reach for an entire pitcher of Sangria? Either reaction is fine, as long as you don’t stop writing. I believe I would have never been lucky enough to final in the 2011 Golden Heart without that first soul-numbing critique. Oh, and if you are out there, mysterious contest judge #4, I have only one more thing to say: THANK YOU VERY MUCH!