Writing and Rewriting: the benefits of a rod in the brain

pgage-Jo-Anne Richards

Back in the nineteenth century, a mild-mannered railway worker called Phineas Gage somehow managed to get an iron rod stuck in his head. This made him angry (understandably perhaps). But the doctors reckoned it wasn’t only because the rod annoyed him. They claimed the rod destroyed the part of his brain that inhibited anger.

Well, I think an iron rod is a little extreme, but I would like to invent a drug that temporarily deadens the part of the brain that controls the response to comments on writiing.

We at Allaboutwriting have been giving our responses to a new group of would-be writers in our 2014 mentoring group, and it struck me again how difficult it is to do this. It’s an almost impossible balancing act.

Okay, perhaps we need that part of the brain for writing. It might control how much we care about it, and how much love and energy we pour into it. But when it’s time for comments, it would be nice just to skip over the weeping-in-the-bath stage.

I know for myself that someone’s comments can produce an almost physical pain, yet when I look at other people’s work, I can see so clearly that this is an absolutely necessary professional process. Everyone needs another eye, one that can look dispassionately at what is working and what isn’t.

The first chapters of the first draft of a creative work are often filled with too much explanation and back story. They have ill-conceived characters whose voices aren’t yet developed. They commit any number of point of view sins.

When I’m looking at other people’s work in this way, it doesn’t make me judge them harshly – as people or as writers. My first drafts are horrendous things. Only when I come back with a clear eye can I see exactly where it doesn’t match my vision.

A lot of writing is about slog. Over several books, and through assessing and mentoring a number of manuscripts, I have trained my eye. I know that each of our would-be writers will train their own eyes over time. But right now, we’re lending them ours.

It would be so much easier if we could do this without causing psychic pain, no matter how kindly you intend it, or try to express it. But it doesn’t help to be kind without being honest about drawbacks. That won’t help anyone.

I suppose that if you do this for others, you will always be both the good guy and the bad guy … and the latter probably takes precedence for the first two weeks or so. I would be surprised if my face didn’t appear on a few dart boards.

Wouldn’t it be nice rather to give everyone a pill (myself included) before they have to receive feedback, so they can instantly see its benefits with a clear eye.

4 thoughts on “Writing and Rewriting: the benefits of a rod in the brain

  1. Dear Jo-Anne

    Very interesting comments about causing writers pain…much better though to be honest and give feedback. (So enjoyed your books.) I wrote a novel when I was in my early 30s (about experiences in Namibia in the 1960s The Salt of My Desire). No spiritual or moral messages just a romantic story set against the prelude to the Border War.

    Many people have read the book and because at least 50% of the readers (including 2 bookclubs) were known to me, I received only praise and encouragement, even tears. No crits and no helpful remarks!

    Except for printing errors by the publishers and grammatical errors by myself, I would have thought the feedback would be constructive, even if damning. Nada. Now I have another book completed, but am reluctant to self-publish again. I have had wonderful response from the readers I have given it to, but am now very doubtful if this is honest praise or just family/friends being kind.

    Who does crits of books! Any suggestions?

    (Just wish I lived in Johannesburg.)


    Joan Schrauwen

    From: Allaboutwriting Reply-To: Allaboutwriting Date: Thu, 20 Feb 2014 06:00:44 +0000 To: Subject: [New post] Writing and Rewriting: the benefits of a rod in the brain

    allaboutwriting posted: “-Jo-Anne Richards Back in the nineteenth century, a mild-mannered railway worker called Phineas Gage somehow managed to get an iron rod stuck in his head. This made him angry (understandably perhaps). But the doctors reckoned it wasnt only because the r”


  2. Thanks for your comment, Joan. We do promise to be honest (but kind at the same time). Even so, I think it’s sometimes hard on people.

    We do two things, through Allaboutwriting: we have a mentoring scheme, through which we help people with on-going writing projects. We take people on from all over the world, because we give feed-back and have discussions with them once a month on skype.

    We also read manuscripts and give what is known as a “structural edit”, which involves writing a detailed report about where it works and where we think it could be improved. Unfortunately, though, we have enough of those scheduled to take us to the end of the year. If you’re interested after that, Trish has the costs.

    Otherwise, I do know that Alison Lowry (formerly head of Penguin SA) does these as well. Her email address is alison@alisonlowry.co.za


  3. From first hand experience I feel that you both give feedback in hugely non-threatening ways. Sometimes I have felt you have been too kind! (Go figure. I must be a masochist) I look forward to the day that I can re-enter that space and get more valuable insight into my blind spots and development areas. Keep up the great work.


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