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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Writer Wednesday: Rethinking Reviews

There’s been a lot of fuss lately, on blogs and forums, about book reviews. Some writers feel reviews should be all about constructive criticism of the book. Others feel reviews are strictly for readers, to help them decide whether to read the book or not.

As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I firmly believe reviews are for readers. If an author gleans some nugget of helpful information from my review to help her make her next book better, so much the better. But my primary goal when I write a review is to share my thoughts about the book with potential readers. I’ve been fortunate in that all the authors whose books I’ve reviewed have been very professional and classy in their responses. Not all reviewers are so lucky.

Reviewer School?

Reviewers are coming out of the woodwork lately – far too many for authors to begin to keep up with all the reviews. Multiple reviews of the same book can be a good thing for readers, making the decision of where to spend their book $$ a little easier. But so many reviewers also means that not all reviews are created equally, to the consternation of some.

One writer recently accused a reviewer of not being ‘professional’, and not knowing how to write. Since when are reviewers required to be professional? How do they achieve that status? Is it some kind of correspondence school, or a degree at a major university?

Seriously, reviewers are readers. Nothing more. Some are highly educated professionals, some never finished high school, and everything in between. They’re all readers. Some have a great deal of sway over other readers, and within the publishing industry, while some influence only a few people, but they’re all still just readers. They won’t like some books. They’ll love others. It’s a fact of life.

Reviewers Behaving Badly

Most reviewers write tactful comments, and find something positive about even horrid books. They are simply sharing their reading experience, not trying to hurt the author’s feelings. But a few reviewers seem to take perverse pleasure in tearing out authors’ hearts. They find the snarkiest ways possible to criticize every aspect of a book, and if they can elicit an emotional response from the author, so much the better. Even better if that response (more about this later) is public and makes the author look bad. Thankfully, that kind of reviewer is rare.

Writers Behaving Badly

We’ve all heard of authors, some of them well-known and prominent, who spouted off at what they considered bad reviews. They’ve launched tirades against Amazon reviews, blogs, and newspaper/magazine reviewers alike. Anyone says something bad about their baby… uh, book, and they jump to its defense.

As a writer, I would be hurt if someone trashed my work publicly, especially in a hurtful way. But I’ll be damned if I would justify that kind of thing by responding in kind. To publicly argue with a reviewer, or any reader, is to magnify any attention their comments may already have drawn.

Those outbursts make authors look unprofessional, at best. Some, not content to leave well enough alone after the initial response, insist on dragging it out. Whether the reviewer responds or not, they fire volley after volley in defense of their work. And end up looking like a petulant child, a speshul snowfwake who must be handled with kid gloves.

Some readers will buy the book, just to see what all the fuss is about. I think the majority will just stand by and watch the train wreck, while they re-assess whether or not to buy any more of that author’s books.

The Bad Publicity is Better Than No Publicity theory might work for that one book, increasing sales. A few people who wouldn’t have otherwise bought it, will like it, and buy more of the author’s work. Most, though, are just curious, rubbernecking as they pass the pile-up. Those ‘sensation’ sales might not make up for the loyal readers who refuse to buy anything else by the author, because of her childish behavior.

So, what’s the correct response to a bad review? NONE. At most, a friendly “I’m sorry you didn’t like it”. The best advice I ever read about responding to any kind of review was really simple. DON’T. If politeness compels you to respond, a simple “Thanks for reviewing my book” will do. Anything more, and you run the risk of looking petulant in response to bad reviews, or like you asked your friends for a good review. Neither is a flattering view of an author.

Great Expectations (I know, I know, just couldn’t resist.)

I expect constructive criticism from my critique partners, beta readers, and, when the time comes, my editor. All before the book is published. I expect criticism from at least some reviewers, some readers, but not all.

If I (and my critique partners, beta readers, and editor) have done my job, my writing will elicit some kind of emotional response within my readers. Some readers won’t like the feeling they get from my writing, while some will. That’s what makes writing so satisfying. Every piece means something different to every reader.

Since reviewers are readers, some aren’t going to like how my work makes them feel. I expect that. I expect them to tell everyone if they dislike it. If they also tell everyone they do like some parts, so much the better. It would be great if they could tell me why they did, or didn’t like it, but I don’t expect that from them.

What I also don’t expect is for them to tell me how to do a better job next time. Figuring out how to improve my work is up to me, with the help of my critique partners, beta readers, and editors. If readers want to offer suggestions, fine, but I don’t expect them to do my job for me.

What do you think? Should reviews always offer constructive criticism? How should writers respond to reviews?

Writer Wednesday: Fresh Eyes

As writers, we should all be aware of the importance of feedback on our work. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s become obvious to me that some writers have no idea of how crucial constructive criticism is, or how to find it.

I see it over and over on writing communities. A new member posts about how everyone loves their writing so much, so why won’t agents agree to represent it, editors agree to publish it, readers buy it, and myriad other such questions. After a few pointed questions from others, the new member reveals that the readers who loved her work were all friends or relatives.

There’s a secret that takes some of us a while to learn – friends and relatives aren’t usually the best people to listen to for honest opinions of our work, for several reasons. They like us – or they should – so they’re likely to say they love it no matter what, to keep from hurting our feelings. They may not be readers of the genre we write, so the brilliance, or lack thereof, of our writing might escape them; they may not even read very much at all. They probably aren’t writers, so the finer points of writing craft will escape them – which is perfectly fine when we no longer need feedback that tells us why things aren’t working and how to fix them.

What’s a writer to do then? Find a way for other writers to critique your work. For some of us, it’s a real-life writing group in our local area, with regular meetings, where member work is critiqued by the group. The method has limitations, but is perfect for some. Getting a large piece of writing can take a very long time this way, as each member has a turn to have work looked at. It can be several weeks between having a chapter critiqued, and the group seeing the revisions. And your work may not be compatible with the group due to skill level or content.

If you’re like me, you might have to drive 2 or more hours to reach a group that will consider your work. The ladies group of the local church encourages its members to write, but I just can’t see them comfortably critiquing my Paranormal Romances with explicit sex scenes. “Mrs. Jones, how do you think Ardrianna will react when King licks her … you-know-where? Would she moan, arch off the bed, bite her lip… Mrs. Jones, are you okay?” as Mrs. Jones slumps from her seat onto the floor. Riiight. Not happening.

In that case, you’re pretty well limited to the internet – which is a fantastic limit to have. Imagine having no access to anyone outside your immediate community for feedback. The opportunities are extensive online to find readers qualified to critique your work and help you improve it.

I started out by posting a short passage on the Share Your Work section of a tiny little writing community, and read and commented on other members’ work. They returned the favor. There was one writer whose work I really liked, and she liked mine. We decided to exchange a few chapters and critique them for each other. It wasn’t long before we were established Critique Partners (CPs) working closely on both our stories. A couple of other writers occasionally joined us, then went their way when they had helped us and we had helped them. Now, A. and I are best friends, and still CPs. Both of us have grown exponentially in skill as writers and as critiquers – we often crit other writers’ work. Our skills, both in writing and critting, complement each other. We both seek other feedback as needed, but we always return to work together.

That path is but one of many possibilities. When you’ve found someone you think you might like to work with as CPs, how do you approach it? And how do you critique another writer’s work? In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring these questions, and more, about giving and receiving constructive criticism, and putting it to work. Keep checking back for updates in the Writer Wednesday Critique Series.

What’s your experience with constructive feedback, giving or receiving? Have you found someone you can work with on a regular basis? What works best for you, if you’ve tried more than one way? If you had the opportunity, would you change anything?