Everybody’s A Critic

Many online writing communities have a place for writers to post snippets of their work for critique. Several communities revolve exclusively around sharing and critiquing, often on a sort of tit for tat basis. In order to post your work for review, you first have to critique several other writers’ work.

These sites can be invaluable for honing your craft and getting your work polished and ready to submit to editors or agents. But there’s a dark side, too. They can utterly destroy a writer, even a talented, promising one, with the drive and potential to be really good.

How the hell can a writing community destroy a writer?

Not long after I started visiting writing communities, I became a member of a tiny writing forum. One of the writers who often shared her work usually posted really short snippets, almost flash fiction. Her writing needed a great deal of work, but there were good points, too. The rest of us had picked up that there was something different about her circumstance – perhaps she was very young, or had a learning disability. But she loved writing and was proud of her work. We all offered some gentle criticism, and a bit of encouragement.

After a couple of months, one of the other members, who rarely ventured into the share-your-work area, deigned to critique her work. This other writer had been a member for quite a while, and was generally respected as an authority among the dozen or so regular posters. He posted a several hundred word long diatribe about why her work was “utter crap”. When challenged for his cruelty, he continued to rant, saying she didn’t deserve to call herself a writer.

In a very sad post, the first writer apologized for taking up time and space for her crap and promised never to “bother” anyone with it again. She left. I have no way of knowing if she continued to write or not. I hope she did. She enjoyed it, and what she lacked in skill, she made up in enthusiasm and unflagging support for other writers.

 Grow A Thick Skin

I’m not saying this happens on all share/critique sites. Far from it. But there are a few where the most out-spoken critics are harsh, even cruel, in their reviews.

So? Writers have to develop a thick skin. If you can’t take the heat… Rejection and harsh criticism are simply part of the game.

Of course they are. That’s not what I’m talking about. The fact is, there are people out there who totally get off on shredding someone else’s work in a way orchestrated to hurt the writer as much as possible. Even if a piece is decent, they do their utmost to find nothing good. Sometimes, it goes to the point of purposefully misunderstanding the writer’s words. If all that fails, it devolves into personal attacks.

These critics aren’t just critics. They’re bullies. Often, there are other writers on the site who jump in, backing up the bully. They certainly don’t want her attention turned to their work. In return for their loyalty, the bully gives their work favorable criticism, no matter how undeserving.

What about the writer whose work is subject to this form of bullying? Think about it. A dozen or more people, seemingly well-respected, tell you, in so many words, that your best work is utter shit. No one finds anything positive, and if they do, it’s something insignificant.

If you’re thick-skinned enough, you pack up your marbles and go play elsewhere, or perhaps you revise and re-post. If you revise and repost, chances are, the same thing will happen all over again, probably even worse. Heaven forbid you give a less than rave review of the bully’s work! To have such gall is to risk having the toxicity spill over from the writing site into other areas of your online life.

So, what do you do?

First, before posting work or critiquing, check out the community. Read the other members’ critiques, and their work. Do the reviews seem honest, offering constructive criticism that’s clearly explained, pointing out both the good and the bad? Do the reviews actually reflect the quality of the work, or is so-so work being hailed as the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Are the more negative aspects of the critiques worded tactfully, or cruelly?

Search for mentions of the site on other sites. Does it have a good rep among writers? Is there one person, or a small group, that makes the bulk of the critiques? Check the archives. Do people come and go fairly regularly, or do most people join and leave after a short period, with a few members staying for a long time? One or a few people making the bulk of the reviews over an extended period, while others come and go in rapid succession can be a red flag and warrants a closer look.

The answers to those questions will help you decide if the site has anything real to offer. If it doesn’t, keep looking. If you think it might, post a trial piece – something small that isn’t part of a work you’ve poured your heart and soul into. That way, if the critiques turn nasty, you aren’t hurt as badly. Once the critiques are in, ask for clarification of any points you don’t understand, to see if the other members are willing to explain their remarks, without flaming you.

Keep looking until you find a community that fits well. Above all, don’t give an anonymous stranger behind a keyboard the power to take away your dream.

What kind of experiences have you had with sharing your work for critique in online communities? Have you encountered bullies? Or have you found a site that works for you?

What can we do, as a community of creative individuals, to put a stop to this form of bullying, other than refuse to participate?

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10 responses to “Everybody’s A Critic

  1. Nice blog entry.

    What you are talking about is a real danger in the online community. We run into these clowns in real-life as well. There is always one of these bozoes around who feels he has his fingers on the pulse of “the way things are” and he is absolutely entitled to “speak his mind” and he doesn’t put up with “any bullshit” and he’s not really trying to hurt anybody’s feelings he’s just “speaking his mind” and yadda-yadda-yadda “You’re not the boss of me”.

    It all boils down to somebody mean-spirited enough to feel entitled to squash somebody’s dreams through thoughtless criticism. A person needs to temper their critical spirit with a little compassion if he wants to qualify for anything less than a “thanks for playing” rating in the human race.

    • You’re absolutely right, Steve. My friend and CP, Azure Boone, showed her WIP to a friend not long ago. When the friend told her husband how much she enjoyed the book, he had to read it. Bastard (edited to clarify: said Bastard was Azure’s friend’s husband, not Azure’s husband.) came back to Azure with PAGES of NOTES about why it was no good! Bad enough he read it without permission – there were some pretty hot intimate scenes, and she wasn’t comfortable with a man who knows her reading those scenes.

      If he’d had some kind of literary background, was a writer, or even an avid reader of anything, he might have had some of the chops to make such criticisms. But the man hardly reads at all, especially not in her genre. He was just, as you said, mean-spirited, with the need to tear someone else down to feel better about himself and his own pathetic life.

      Azure is a really classy lady, and she handled it with her usual good nature. She listened to his points, and explained to him the reasons for each of those choices she’d made. I certainly couldn’t have handled it so well.

      • Oh, Kenra, I just reshared this post because people NEED to hear it. The. And I know exactly who you are talking about in that story. They emailed me a long time after, but I stopped checking that darn email. I need to go track them down and see how they are.

        The last shredding I got for trying to tell people to be A NICE critiquer was hard to swallow, but I did. I even turned a profitable post out of it, using the asshole as a prime example of how NOT to critique. GOOD POST.

  2. Thanks Azure! (in reply to your reply to my reply to Steve, above O.o) I knew you would remember the people I talked about. I really hope R continued writing, and that she’s found a truly supportive community that allows her to enjoy sharing. And Y, well, I kinda hope he jumped into a flaming lake. Such an asshole!

    LOL, I still can’t believe the nerve of that guy coming to your blog and setting himself up as an example!

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  5. Beautiful, succinct and very much to the point: investigate first. That should be a ruling principle for all things on-line, but in particular anything where you’re putting your work out there. It’s confirmed me in my lifelong habit of lurking before posting.

    The exchange above, in the comments: that’s a breach of confidentiality, in a really serious way. The writer in question responded with class and aplomb. A shame that matters literary aren’t covered by their own privacy regs, or someone would be staring at a five-figure fine. As it is, the flaming pitchfork of karma will have to suffice. 🙂

    One of the rules I use for sizing up potential reviewers: 1) are they wiring themselves? and if so, do I like their stuff? Amazing how much bad-faith reviewing is produced by people who never put any of their own stuff up for review. 2) how do they treat other people? It’s so much easier to identify bullying behavior as such when you’re not the target. 3) if they’re writers, what’s their artistic agenda, and are they capable of stepping away from it when they review?

    And in closing: way too often, the ones who set themselves up as gatekeepers of excellence are third-rate artists (as well as fifth-rate human beings). “Those who can’t do, review.” Not a universal, but true uncomfortably often.

    • Hi, EP. We could save ourselves a world of hurt by investigating first and/or lurking before posting. I’m glad I’m not the only to notice that often the ones professing to be experts in all things writing either 1) never show others their work, or 2) when they do show it, their lack of ability becomes painfully obvious, and they defend that lack by pretending they’ve surpassed the need to follow the rules.

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