Query to readers: criticizing the writing of others

I’ve run into an issue, and need help. I’m reading the blogs of several writers. Their experiences are varied, the quality of their writing more so. What kind of criticism should I offer them?

My difficulty can be boiled down to two observations. One is that an author, by putting his or her writing before the public, is by that very act inviting judgment. No one put a gun to the author’s head to publish on a blog, or elsewhere. And if the author didn’t want other people, even total strangers, to judge it, then the author shouldn’t publish anywhere. The other observation is that criticism stings (unless it is unreserved praise), and some authors can’t handle it. I speak from personal experience: I have been reduced to tears by criticism. It was no help that it was fair criticism. Even knowing that, I could barely look at it.

Let’s take it as given that we’re talking about constructive criticism here. Calling the author a “microcephalic idiot with the charm of a dead possum” and the writing a “fetid, steaming pile of maggot-ridden zebra waste” is out of bounds. What kinds of criticism are acceptable? Please offer your suggestions as comments. (If you don’t want to make your suggestions public, my e-mail address on Gmail.com is sillyverse.) Once I’ve read them all, I’ll write up a new post with the results and any additional thoughts I have.

Thanks in advance to all of you who reply.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Reading fiction, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Query to readers: criticizing the writing of others

  1. This is my advice. Before critiquing, I always make sure somewhere on the blog, the writer actually says they’re looking for constructive criticism. Then I kindly point out things I think could use some editing or deep thought and also point out several aspects of the work I was impressed with. People usually take this approach well; I hope this helps.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      One of the reasons I brought up this issue relates to your point, Elizabeth. A fellow writer wanted to offer a mild but specific criticism of something I had posted. I don’t have such a statement saying I’m looking for constructive criticism, so the other writer was leery of how I would react.

  2. danagpeleg1 says:

    As someone who was also hurt by terrible criticism (no matter how much and how many people loved that very book… it hurt a lot!), who is also asked to give criticism every now and then, I’ve established two main rules:
    1. If I don’t find anything good about that piece, I simply wouldn’t write or criticize it. I ignore it. If you have nothing to say about this blog, most likely you have nothing in common with the author’s concept of writing and your criticism will not be helpful more than the so-picturesque descriptions of the author you suggested (loved the dead possum part…).
    2. Find at least two good things to say about it. If you think the point is interesting, however, badly written, discuss it in length, show that you care about the content, that it speaks to you – and only then write the less appealing stuff. I find it most helpful to end up your critique with a compliment. Even a small one, so as to finish it up in good spirit.
    Good luck, Dana

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Dana, you remind me of a truly dreadful history book I once read. Great subject, author knew his subject, but the book died in a morass of insignificant details. (And as a historian I have a high tolerance for details most would find meaningless.) Apparently my evaluation was shared by many; it was one of the few books my local second-hand scholarly bookstore refused to buy from me. But, in keeping with your rule #1, I’m not going to mention the author’s name or the book title. And if I ever meet the author, I will mention I read it, and that’s it.

      • danagpeleg1 says:

        In fact, the book you mention may fall into the 2nd rule. You like two things about it: the topic and the knowledge of the author. I guess you felt it was so tedious that even these two were lost in the details, and therefore we’re back to square, i.e, rule # 1… It reminds me of the hefty book about antisemitism in 19th-Century Europe from which I studied in ninth grade…

  3. Catana says:

    I agree that a book is implicitly subject to criticism, via a review. But as far as I’m concerned, a blog is the author’s own space, and just because it’s public, that doesn’t mean it’s open for criticism from strangers. I’ve seen a lot of terrible writing posted on blogs, and it’s tempting to offer some advice. But I very rarely do, for several reasons. It would be like barging into someone’s home to tell them that their house needs painting or the lawn is knee-high and full of weeds. If you feel that it’s the public aspect that gives you permission, would you walk up to a stranger on the street and criticise their clothes? Another reason — if the person writes badly, that isn’t going to be corrected with one or two suggestions.

    Blogs are unique in that they are both public and private. Bloggers hope to attract readers who are interested in what they have to say. The only way they can do that is to make the blog public. What would that experience be like if every passerby offered something that merely tore them down? If you don’t like it, or you think it’s badly done, pass on by. It’s none of your business.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I think where I’m having trouble with the idea of the blog as personal space exempt from criticism is in the blurry lines of what it means to be “published” today. Sometimes putting it out in the blogosphere IS publication. And yet I have to admit that most writers on blogs are trying out their skills, looking for encouragement. Moreover, they do have the tools to bar criticism, so certainly WordPress expects many bloggers want to treat their space as personal.
      A genuine “thank you” for a view that reasonably differs from what I wrote.

      • Catana says:

        Brian, we need to remember that people were blogging long before there was any issue of “publishing” as we see it today. Our point of view has inevitably been changed by the advent of self-publishing. We think more in terms of good and bad writing, we’re more aware of the bad, and we’re accustomed to critiques and book reviews being a major part of self-publishing. Do we have the right to redefine blogging to align it with our changed perceptions? I don’t think so. And that applies *even if* the blogger is a self-published author and is blogging to promote their books. A poorly written blog by a self-published author tells me not to bother taking a look at those books. But I don’t have the right to intrude with my opinions, unless, as has already been said, the author is asking for critiques.

        I’m glad you brought up the subject, because it’s taken me a while to come to my own understanding of how I should behave when I see writing that is clearly not up to what I’d consider minimal standards. We’ve developed editor’s sensibilities and it’s difficult to get away from that and just read or not read according to what appeals to us.

  4. pam2626 says:

    Someone actually said that to you? Honestly? I have found most people on WordPress to be very supportive. Sometimes I find a post that I don’t like – either the thoughts are verging on racism, or the writing is terrible. Do I tell them? Of course not. I simply move to another page.
    I have read your articles before. I believe that person was way off. Just write it off. (No pun intended.)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      My apologies, Pam. I did not mean those descriptions to be taken literally, though I have had the equivalent hurled at me from time to time, elsewhere. Usually my critics aren’t quite so colorful.

      So far, I’ve not encountered the like of those on WordPress; in that you are quite correct. Understanding whether that’s the norm or just because I haven’t been around here for long is one of the reasons I posted this. Glad to know it’s not just that I’ve been lucky.

      My thanks for your comments, in every way.

  5. Brian Bixby says:

    Just before I posted this entry, I had a conversation (over on chapter 16 of “Dragon Lady”) with crimsonprose, who had this to say on the topic:

    You could start with why every writer needs constructive criticism in order to improve. We all like praise, but if everyone says, yea, that’s great, how will we know where improvements are needed? We need someone to notice the inconsistencies of plot, that often repeated, repeated, repeated word that begins to jar on the reader, those typos, those misplaced punctuations, misspellings, the many ways an author’s work can be improved – often by deletion.

  6. crimsonprose says:

    Hi Brian. Yea, I agree with what’s been said. To visit a blog for the first time and post an unfavourable or picky comment in definitely out of order. So too to offer criticism, no matter how constructive, on the normal type post.

    But where the post in question forms part of a fictional work, as does yours and mine, I will add this. After several supportive comments have been exchanged, expressing an interest in what has been written, those two parties can no longer be deemed entirely strangers. I would see it as a friendly act occasionally to pick up on a typo, a misspelling, or a glaring inappropriately used word – by which I don’t mean to trample an aspiring author’s work with steel-studded jackboots.

    Personally I would rather a visitor to my blog brought the error to my attention than to discover it myself after it’s been on public view for several weeks. After all, that comment need not be posted, we all have the right to withhold. But I would stipulate, there ought to be those several exchanges first, where a suggestion of trust is established.

  7. pam2626 says:

    Hello, you are nominated by So, hear me for the One Lovely Blog Award. You can see your nomination here: http://pam2626.wordpress.com/. If you wish to accept this nomination the rules are to: 1. Thank the blogger who offered the nomination; 2. Post the One Lovely Blog emblem on your blog; 3. List seven random facts about yourself; 4. Nominate fifteen other bloggers for the award. Send a message to those nominees informing them of their nomination.
    If this isn’t something you wish to do then please just think of this as a compliment to your blog!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Hi, Pam.
      I didn’t respond to this at the time, primarily out of embarrassment. You see, I’m not yet following 15 other blogs I can recommend. Sigh. Getting there, but still a ways to go. So I don’t think I yet deserve this.
      But I do thank you for the nomination. And I’ll try to be a better citizen of the blogosphere.

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