Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 3, 2014

Who’s the Judge?

Every red petal on the tulips remain, along with much of the snow in the yard, as I settle on the window seat for another day of writing.  Last week I gave the first third of a verse novel about three different girls to my writing group. The second section is well underway, as I drafted the whole book before polishing a section enough to bring it to my friends, which I did without a sense of it being entirely done or quite close to wonderful. The section I’m working on now delights me with its smooth progress. I feel I know and love this girl. But I wonder if the poems are any better and accessible, a word I return to as a guide, along with the image: clear as water.  I want flight, but the kind that young readers can follow. I feel I might be flying too high to follow in that first section. This middle section has the right weight, and is more like the lake I’m attempting. Maybe.


We can’t and shouldn’t get away from judgments: Does this line work? Will it make someone laugh or think? Is it even clear? But much should judgment be part of our actual writing? Learning when to let it into the process may take at least as much time as learning particulars about style and structure. We’re unwise to expect perfection-ish-ness from something that isn’t finished. For me, writing means accepting whatever comes my way first, evaluating later. Others write and assess one sentence or paragraph at a time. I have a high tolerance for mess, with high hopes for what it can turn into, and am happier writing a meandering draft that I’ll trim, polish, and send to my writing group for their gently but firmly told truths.

Can we circle from judgment back around to acceptance that we’re moving along the best we can, making a way between effort and complacency?  Can we stretch and bend in every sentence? It’s yoga. Reach and concede or adjust. At last the thoughts of our first friendly readers and ourselves may bring us to a place where we believe our work is good enough for the eyes of people we may not know called editors. This sounds like it should be a step as simple as jumping over a fence, which maybe it is, but the fence is high and wide. We’re going to meet new judgments, which may revolve around how well the work succeeds at what it attempts, or instead raise issues beyond our words, such as the size of the potential audience, or slippery issues of taste.

Decades ago, I was lucky to learn that editorial judgments are a dangerous place to measure self-worth. In my work-study job at UMass, I wrote “Sorry” on small rejection notes for a literary magazine. That single hand-written word couldn’t show what happened in the basement office where intelligent people sometimes argued about a poem for twenty minutes. Someone laughed through one story. Wept at the end of another. Clattered coffee cups while piling them to wash in the bathroom and muttered, angry that a story didn’t make the cut. I learned that an editor’s response to a manuscript isn’t Fate’s or a reliable way for an author to decide whether or not a piece of writing is good.  There was always more to the story than a rare “Yes” or the far more common, “Sorry.”

We’ve been trained through most of our lives to expect others to let us know when we’ve got something right, but that’s risky with creative work. Editors can be a lot of things, but they won’t necessarily be our final judge. We’ve got to learn to make our own assessments. Which seems to take a lifetime. But if I keep writing until the tulip petals fall, a few words will find their right places. That’s what I’m trying to trust.



  1. Oh, lord, yes. Given patience, considerations of audience, feedback from a trusted few, and our own judgment given what we’ve come to understand as good writing, puts our work on the map – not necessarily as work that will be taken by an editor, but work we can feel proud of.

    • I sometimes silently ask myself if Karen Hesse would throw up if she read the line I wrote. And if it makes its way past that test, I have to believe something good-ish is going on.

  2. Right there with you.

    • and the good company is sometimes the payoff. Tracy, so glad you are staying on the treadmill!

  3. I really do feel I write for myself, but it would be a wonderful thing to see one poem accepted by another’s judgement. I just received my first rejection, no ‘sorrys’ just a ‘lovely, but…’ I like your idea that it does finally come down to our own judging, & one good thing is that I “think” I’m becoming a better judge! Thanks for another thought-filled post, Jeannine, & I just received your sweet note. It’ll be encouraging to read once in a while! Thanks for that, too!

    • “Lovely, but..” sounds better than “sorry!” One does perfect the art of reading rejections, though it’s a fallible exercise. The “but” always stings, but it’s wise to take in what comes before. There’s generally little reason for an editor to flatter, while work can often be rejected simply because there’s too much to fit into a magazine, book, or list.

      And becoming a better judge of your own work, partly from exposure to the eyes of others, is something to celebrate, too. I guess we’re also fallible as our own judges. It’s a tricky business. But something does come of believing in ourselves enough to keep on. I’m so glad you do!

  4. I can’t imagine anybody throwing up over a line you wrote, Jeannine. This is a wonderful post, it opens the heart of the way we hand over our work to others–puppy-like sometimes, other times, fearfully, even with those we trust like writing group members. Still other times, you only want to hear, this is just wonderful, but that isn’t always helpful, maybe only at the beginning when you don’t need a critique but encouragement. There are layers of judging . . . but I love best the story you shared about writing “Sorry” on rejection slips. Knowing you, I bet you wanted to write more, to soften the blow.

    • Okay, the smarter me doesn’t envision people throwing up over my work, but that is the unpretty voice I get to live with while I’m revising, the critic just waiting for me to trip and then burst into mean laughter. I just shoved her out and locked the door. Sorry for the peek.

      Yes, sometimes we need cheers, sometimes we need something tougher, and our best readers know what we need when, even if we have to tell them that. You are kind to think I wanted to write more than “sorry,” but I was more self-absorbed in my student days, just realizing how lucky I was to see behind Oz’s curtain and know these judges weren’t humbugs, but human. Sometimes sorry meant no and sometimes it meant in-a-better-world-you-would-know-these-words-were-wonderful-and-should-be-shared.

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