Criticizing others’ writing

Back in December, I posted a query to readers, asking when and how it is appropriate to criticize the writings of others on their blogs. I should note I was thinking of literary blogs when I wrote this, though some of my readers considered the broader field of any type of blog that involves significant writing. I received several answers in response, and some more on my cross-posting to Facebook. I’ve thought over the answers I received, and read some other people’s blogs on the same and related subjects.

Because she published anonymously, is Jane Austen the Anti-Blogger?

Because she published anonymously, is Jane Austen the Anti-Blogger?

The most important point most readers made was that blogs may be read by the public, but they are not public spaces. We have traditionally published works, which are definitely public. We have diaries that are private so long as they are not published by their authors, and immune from criticism. And then we have blogs, which are privately owned but are designed to be read by the public. In effect, the consensus was that the blog remains the author’s, and that it is not acceptable to criticize the blog’s content anymore than it would be to criticize the author. Praise, on the other hand, is always acceptable. We have “like” buttons, but not “dislike” buttons.

The comparison suggests when criticism would be appropriate: when the critic and author know each other well enough, and the author invites criticism. Moreover, just as one is not expected to insult someone to their face, criticism that is not constructive is ill-mannered. And that pretty much was the consensus of my readers. Moreover, most readers agreed that criticism should be leavened with praise for the positive aspects of the writing (with the proviso that if you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all).

With those as the standard norms, we can set limits on the value of blogging and criticism. If you are looking for people to read your ideas and writing, to enjoy them, and to respond positively to them, blogging is a good idea. If you are looking to hone your writing skills and need searching criticism, blogging is only somewhat useful. A blog gives you a place to practice, with an audience. You should also be searching for fellow writers for mutual criticism, or an editor for high-caliber criticism.

Typical American political discussion

Typical American political discussion

There are at least two likely exceptions to these norms. Political blogs by their nature end up attracting opposing views. And blogs with high visibility and thousands of viewers have generally ceased to be individual amateur productions, and become more professional and commercial. So they should expect and be able to handle adverse criticism. Whether they do or not is another story, one I have not investigated in any depth so far.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Elizabeth Blackbourne, danapeleg1, Catana, pam2626, crimsonprose, Richard Gassan, Helen Morey, Carole Scimemi, and Mark Martin for their feedback to the original post. (Hyperlinks to those with WordPress blogs supplied.) Any interpretation, misrepresentation, or simple distortion of their posts is my own responsibility.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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8 Responses to Criticizing others’ writing

  1. Gwen says:

    What a thought-provoking question (and answer) you describe here. I’m attracted, and subscribe to, only those blogs that appeal to me. Typically it’s an intriguing title that draws me in. If I like the content and writing style of the post, I’ll poke through the blogger’s previous posts and read more. It’s all about content and writing style for me. If those elements aren’t there, I take a pass and keep moving down my reader. So in a way, that’s unstated criticism of the author’s writing.

  2. Judy says:

    As regards the political blog…not agreeing with the author’s point of view or take on an event is not writing criticism, it is a disagreement of opinion. If the disagreement is with the writing style rather than content or with the information flow of the essay and its presentation, then that might be criticism of the writing. I do not think most bloggers invite criticism of the writing but rather are, as you say, honing their skills. Many writers have used journaling as a way to hone their skills, but without an audience it is practice without any feedback. Plus, personally I find it hard to write without some kind of audience because, like taking pictures no one sees, writing to oneself is not very fulfilling. It is easier to develop a voice if someone is listening,even if the someone is on the other side of the planet and never comments. Unless I feel an author is asking, how can I do this better? or is this working? I generally will comment only if I really like something. If I don’t like it, just as Gwen says, I go on to other things. It is interesting with the social media how civil I find WordPress bloggers to be and on Facebook I see more animosity (we won’t talk about Yahoo commenters, LOL!!)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Certainly I’ve run into more animosity on Facebook, but that has been for politics, not my literary output! I do know the one time I did political criticism here on WordPress, I did deliberately behave even more politely than usual, offering grounds to wonder about the author’s position, not to openly disagree with it.

      • Judy says:

        Well its probably not healthy to never have a disagreement as there is vitality in animated discourse. The goal is not always to convert but rather to share a rational glimpse into another POV. Easier said than done probably. In my family there are certain subjects best not entered into and it was many years before I learned getting my opinion acknowledged was not nearly as important as recognizing when to ease out gracefully.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          Coincidentally, on another blog I follow, a well-known writer said the following about discussing politics:

          “I think that it’s important to speak up. Not speaking up is surrender. And the status quo is always the enemy. But if you’re going to speak up, do your research first. I believe that the evidence is the strongest argument.

          “But there’s an even larger context that I would advise. Be pro-, not anti-. If you’re going to speak up, then speak up for people, speak out against injustice, speak up for making a difference, speak out against hate-mongering. If you identify a class of people and vilify them, you’re making enemies. But if you identify a category of people who have a just cause and speak out for them, you’re showing your compassion for others.

          “I think that if we remain silent, our silence is interpreted as agreement. Nope. I’d rather be unpopular for speaking out than accepted for the lie of silence.”

          Source: March 5, 2013 post interviewing David Gerrold, Michael A. Ventrella’s blog on advising aspiring writers (another WordPress blog):

          Gerrold I knew from his Star Trek script for “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Ventrella is a published author himself, who shared his advice on several panels at ARISIA, the Boston area sci-fi/fantasy con.

          • Judy says:

            Absolutely on the do your homework…other wise its like arguing with bad science and ending up with a worse problem than you were trying to cure. “The Trouble with Tribbles” made me smile…I remember. Star Trek was actually one of the most provocative shows ever on so many levels of science, religion,history, & politics. Actually I always thought the powerful way to get a point across was through story telling. Ursula Le Guin is the best at taking a political idea or concept and making it understood and real through story…like anarchism with ‘The Dispossessed’ or sexual differences with ”The Left Hand of Darkness’ or what you’d be willing to accept for utopia with her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

            • Brian Bixby says:

              “The Left Hand of Darkness” in particular struck me as one of the best attempts to discuss human society through a very different imagining of what it might be like, more so than even “The Lathe of Heaven.”

              • Judy says:

                Although I really love The Lathe of Heaven. I found Ursula Le Guin because of a church sermon by Steve Brown many years ago. Unlike a lot of pastors he drew his sermons from many sources and part of the sermon dealt with different realities and he quoted Le Guin on something. So I went to the library to look at her books and see which one a pastor might have possibly referred to. The Lathe of Heaven of course was the one I checked out and given it was about different realities, I am sure that was the book he did refer to with his reference. I was so impressed I read everything thing she wrote, including the Earthsea series which was YA and which I loved!! Oh, if you haven’t read her short story book, The Winds Twelve Quarters, at the time of its writing it spanned her career and each story has an intro with some perspective. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is in that volume. Some short stories provided the genesis for novels.

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