Saturday, June 23, 2012

Soapbox time!

I'm seeing a trend in people critiquing other people, and I feel the need to speak out about it.

Writing for publication is, let's face it, a bit of a crapshoot. You have to have a certain amount of luck on your side along with great writing skills and a compelling story. There are writing rules and writing guidelines, and a whole lot of misleading and just plain wrong stuff that get passed around on blogs and writing groups.

It's misleading to say "never use a dialogue tag in this instance", or "you always need a full stop after this word." Whatever the writer did may in fact be breaking some grammar or writing "rule", but please keep this in mind:
           maybe they did it on purpose.

You might be right that the sentence sounds clunky: but maybe the writer felt that fit the scene.

Maybe the piece does consist of sentences that are really really long and make you feel like you can't catch a breath while you're trying to take all of it in: but maybe that was the intent.

It seems to be very easy to point out everything we have any discomfort with, without any regard to what the finished product would look like if the author took all that advice. Ever hear of characterization? It's a portrayal or description of a character. My character Neal, in the beginning of the story, hates to be touched by strangers. Throughout the story he meets a lot of people who want to shake his hand. He changes in a lot of ways but retains the dislike of being touched. A mention of him hesitating to take someone's hand, taken out of context, sure could look unnecessary. But!

There is a reason for me to put that in. Readers who stick with the story will know that he starts out being kind of anti-social but becomes pretty friendly as the story progresses. That dislike of being touched is one way I show some consistency in his personality.

It just bothers the heck out of me to see people giving crits that sound more like pronouncements. Critiquing at its best helps both people learn to be better writers. At its worst, it makes somebody feel worthless. How about if we all think twice before spitting out crit comments? Before you hit “send”, re-read that crit and ask yourself how you’d feel if you were on the receiving end.

Honesty is not the same as brutality. I’m just sayin’.


  1. Wow, a zillion different thoughts formed and faded as I read this, Owllady. "Honesty is not the same as brutality." So very well said. I've been a serious blogger for only about a year. I've watched some transformations while perusing a lot of different sites. And I much of this--this "do it yourself" publishing has affected the attitudes of us out here in the blogosphere? It, at times, seems like a free for all. Anyone can have an opinion. And I can tell you that I used to think that every blogger who shared an opinion (aka advice) with me, was an expert. Someone who knew so much more about this whole publishing business than me. I still do--a lot of the time, but at least now I recognize some of the b.s. being passed off as word of god. Some of what we see might be attitude. Some of what we see might be honest helpfulness shared by someone who has not mastered how to offer advice without offending. I don't know what you saw. I can only imagine. I've seen some rough discussions and comments. I don't think there's ever a reason to be mean. Oy, lol...I'm going now. I don't have enough time today to write down all of those zillion thoughts. Good post :-)

  2. Teresa, thanks for weighing in. I'm relieved to know that simple politeness is not dead! I'm hoping the trend will blow over once people have been stung by others so many times that it will be clear that talking first and thinking later is not a good idea.

    Shame it might have to go that far, though.

  3. I'm struggling a bit with this post because, while I respect your opinion, and in many ways you are right (I have no idea how bad the critiques you've read are), I may have to (politefully) disagree... in a sense. (And yes, that sentence was way too long. ;))

    I don't think it's ever okay to be rude or unnecessarily harsh, but in giving a critique I would feel the need to point out sentences that I think feel too long, or I struggled to understand or get through, or that had improper grammar, or that rambled on and on like this one. Isn't it our job as critiquers to point these things out to the author? Of course, I always try to make sure to let them know that the critique is my opinion and they can take or leave any advice given, but really that's true for any critique. But we say it anyway out of courtesy.

    I know I've received (and give) much advice that may, sometimes, be conflicting. The author needs to have his own vision for the story and decide which pieces he takes. A story I wrote would have looked drastically different if I accepted what even looked like common suggestions, but I accepted what I felt applied and now it is scheduled to be published in a magazine.

    So maybe as critiquers we need to temper our words a bit more, but I may have pointed out that it seemed unnecessary for you to mention your character hesitating there. As the author, though, you know it is necessary.

    It had taken some time and experience myself, though, to realize that pretty much everything everyone says about writing is opinion, even those that get their opinion published in a fancy magazine like Writer's Digest. It bugs me sometimes when they stress certain aspects of writing that, really, you maybe shouldn't even be thinking about until the final rewrite.

    It's a learning process, and part of that process is to learn confidence. Perhaps we can also work that angle and teach and encourage writers on how to take advice.

    I mean no offense. :) Maybe I'd agree more if I saw more of the critiques you are thinking about. Everything in this post is my opinion. (Sorry for the long post. :S )

  4. Hi Daniel. I appreciate your honesty here. And I don't think your views contradict mine, because all I mean is that oftentimes people confuse being honest in a crit with being heartless.

    If you really think somebody's story stinks, that's your opinion. It's not necessarily right or wrong. How you word your opinion can be right or wrong, in my opinion!

    It comes down to tempering our words, as you said. "Hey man, give it up, you break every single rule on writing. Everybody knows you have to use a tag in every piece of dialogue"--that's completely not necessary. If you've been published and your editor told you that, then I'll believe a blanket statement like that.

    "I've always heard you need a tag in every piece of dialogue. I don't see that in your piece and it seems choppy to me without it"--still wrong advice, but at least the author won't feel under attack.

    I think you're basically in agreement with me. If you don't think so, please do explain why. I ain't perfect :)

  5. Awesome, dude. I feel better, actually. There must be more than a couple people who see a place for politeness in critting. I'm glad I got that rant off my mind!