Fair comment?

Started by Jo Bannister, February 10, 2018, 04:26:41 PM

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Jo Bannister

This isn't a piece for literary criticism (although feel free, if anyone wants to) but to try to establish what are reasonable expectations of people seeking and offering criticism.  It's here rather than in another section because this is where we currently find a divergence of opinions; and it's a new thread because it's about generalities rather than the particular piece we're disagreeing on.

Heidi, who knows I value her opinions, thinks some of us (including me) are being too tough on novice writers.  In particular, she points out that there are two boards for criticism: one for novices, one for more experienced writers who want it warts and all.

The introduction to the novice section asks for "polite, honest feed-back from fellow wordsmiths".  And there are three elements to that, all of which are important.

It is important to be polite.  I hope we can all agree on that.  There is nothing to be gained by deliberately or negligently upsetting someone.  There should be no room here for hurtful or malicious personal comments.

It is also important to be honest.  Small children learning to do joined-up writing need encouragement, however hard it may be to find something praiseworthy in their efforts.  Intelligent adults with an interest in writing do not need to be mollycoddled in quite the same way.  By the time they're posting work for people other than their own families to read, they should have mastered the basic techniques.

Yet time and again we see work that would fail an end-of-term exam at school.  And to pretend that's good enough is to set up false expectations from which no one suffers more than the original poster.  If being kind leaves people thinking they can become writers without learning the fundamental rules of written communication, they're in for a lifetime of disappointment.  I have written professionally since I was 17 years old.  I have employed other writers.  I would not give a first interview to an entry-level reporter who didn't know how to punctuate reported speech.  Nor would any other editor.     

Which brings me to the third important element: the reference to "fellow wordsmiths".  Surely that presumes a degree of capability in the business of writing which stands above that of the general populace.  And that seems fair enough to me.  This is somewhere to learn about creative writing, not to learn the English language.  That is a necessary prerequisite, for the novice board as much as anywhere else.  Being inexperienced is not the same as, nor an excuse for, being sloppy.  No writer worthy of the name should be posting first drafts.  You do your re-writes and your edits before hitting the send button. 

Gyppo put it well in a recent discussion.  He said we don't take ourselves too seriously, but we do take our writing seriously.  As indeed we should.

OK everybody - tell me I'm wrong... 

Lin Treadgold

I think it's a question of balance, Jo.  When I was teaching, we were always trained to balance the rough with the smooth.  Being honest isn't always what everyone wants to hear.  Many get upset when you tell the truth.  When I give constructive criticism, I treat it a bit like Morse code with dots and dashes. The dashes being not so good and the dots are what I liked best.  However, politeness doesn't cost anything, so we can give away plenty of that.  Also lots of encouragement is important. There are those who were on our previous forum who thought they were the best writers since sliced bread. There are times when firmness is a must, but being polite should not be omitted from the feedback. 



Well--I wish I'd read this first. I did address some of these issues in my response to my recently posted work. Geez I wrote a thesis for a masters in theology at a catholic women's university and was told my writing was well above expectations.

As I said in my other response I must write that butter book. I don't have a lifetime to do it. I wonder if I should write it out as best I can and see if I can get someone to edit it. I have no idea what something like that costs.

Any suggestions?


I think it depends on which board you place your work, that is why there is a choice here

And English is not everyones native tongue on these boards either. To try and relate what you want to say from one tongue to another would be an extremely hard task I think. I have enough trouble with my own language without trying to translate that to even USA English.

Don't take life too seriously, none of us get out of it alive


Let's remember also that people can have 'natural talent' without knowing the rules. Writing isn't just about 'rules' it's about passion and learning.
I agree that a review should be handled correctly as per which board they choose to post. I also was told to leave on a positive note rather than a negative.

If I posted in the shark board, I should expect all guns blazing. However, if I posted here I wouldn't expect full in-depth crits. I want to know does something have potential, float your boat or should it end in the trash.

All just my opinion of course


As FF said, the review my work board is meant to provide a space for those who haven't developed a thick skin or who may be venturing out for their first critique. Everyone remember how scary that was? I would hope that board would be used to encourage and instruct.

The shark critique board is for more in-depth and possibly harsher feedback.

I do agree that work should always be edited and polished before posting for review on any board.  I also believe that one can be both honest and kind.

If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner.
Tallulah Bankhead

Jo Bannister

Excellent responses, everyone.  And maybe you're right, and we should make more allowances on the novice board.

I suppose I can only speak for myself when I say I learned nothing from people who were keener to encourage than correct.  I was still spelling WAS as WOS when I was maybe seven because a kindly teacher didn't want to discourage me.  It took my dad, possibly the least literary man in history, to point out the error - and boy, did I feel stupid!  I couldn't believe that someone whose job it was to teach me how to write hadn't mentioned such a glaring error.  But I never spelled WAS wrong again.

We are not children.  We are above-averagely intelligent adults who are all interested in writing.  But it's an interest that will never set flower as published work if we don't crack the basics.  Forget about pacing, forget about character development, forget about showing-not-telling - get the mechanics right.  Grammatical errors in the first few paragraphs will condemn the best writing in the world to the slush pile in any publisher's office that I know.

Anyone here - anyone - can learn the rules in a couple of hours.  Why a writer would handicap his chances of having people read work that has taken him months or years to produce for the sake of a bit of study, I simply don't know.

But thank you all for your thoughts.  I'll try to be a bit more tolerant.

Still, all the kindness in the world won't make WOS an acceptable alternative to WAS.


You hit the nail on the head. Until you were taught, you knew no better, someone without English as a first language must feel a lot like you seven year old self  ;)
Don't take life too seriously, none of us get out of it alive


I was on the board of a 1,200 member calligraphy organization. I was dedicated to the art. Board members had endless conversations similar to this one. New members and those not as dedicated complained the accomplished artists were holding the novices to impossible standards. True believers said if a novice can't take getting juried out gf the exhibition or cut from a masters class too bad. England's own Donald Jackson, Scribe to the Crown Office and President of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators came to Minnesota regularity to teach master classes. He listened to the tales of woe each side was presenting. His comment was we should all contribute what we can and help one another. Sure there are those who will never rise to the highest standards but we are educating them to be our best audience. That was eons ago and probably nowhere near his actual words but that's the spirit. 


When I began participating on MWC John Yamrus Helped me with line breaks, he was very critical but he also went so far as to correspond with me by email about my poetry. What could I offer him in return? I bought his books.



I think, like most things it's a matter of degree.

Someone posting a piece in the review section, IMO, does not think the work is ready for a publisher. And I don't think they would find a comment like "a publisher would reject this after the third paragraph" especially helpful. I'm not saying your assessment isn't correct, but for someone new to prose writing, submitting to a publisher is probably not even on their radar. 

I think what they are looking for is more on the lines of; is the writing ok, is this interesting, does the story make sense, would you continue reading? Most of the time when just starting out a writer will go through many iterations and total rewrites until they get their footing. A lot of people are just trying to learn to write a semi-cohesive story. That in itself can be very difficult, and harder for some than others.

I understand and completely agree that no one here should feel like they should be an unpaid editor. No one is expecting a line by line edit. And if they are, well, too bad.  ;)

But I think they are looking for encouragement and to hear that there's something, some potential, something worth pursuing.  They can improve, but if they are shut down right from the start, it will be harder for them to do that. It's super easy to get discouraged and stop writing. Is that what we want for our fellow writers, to just tell them they suck and should give it up? Of course not, but our words have power.

People post in the gentler section for a reason, it's an admission that they are unsure of themselves and their writing and probably that their skin isn't as thick as someone with more self confidence or greater experience.

So in that case, I think the burden is on the reviewer to temper what they say on that board. I'm not implying that anyone should be dishonest or give false praise, because that doesn't help anyone. But I think that golden rule of finding something positive to say along with all the hard truths could go along way towards encouraging writers to continue.

And if it's so bad that you can't find a single positive thing to say, then maybe you shouldn't comment right then. Silence can speak volumes.

And it goes without saying that this is just for the "Review my Work" board. The shark review should be no holds barred, and bare knuckle.  :)

All my opinion of course. And you know what they say about opinions.  8)


I cringe at the harsh crits on here sometimes, but etiquette prevents me from commenting on them.

I'm still a novice writer - wrote my first word of fiction in March 2016. I began posting on Absolute Write, and was instantly slaughtered by the 'old hands' on there. I was told (in no uncertain terms) that my writing was so poor that is was actually wasting the time of those who critted it. I didn't know how to punctuate dialogue, I head-hopped continuously, switched tense at random, filtered and plagiarised, and it was all terribly over-written. Worse than anything I've seen on here.

Luckily, for me, there were two or three kind souls that pointed out these things and explained the rules (rather than just telling me to go read a book). It took them just a couple of minutes each time they did so - as it takes us just a few minutes to explain a 'writing rule' to a newbie. Soon, my writing began to improve, and now two years later I'm officially and traditionally published (albeit only short fiction).

I think newbies need treating gently, not just politely. The harsher crits should be saved for those that should know better (i.e experienced writers). IMO, MWC was already in its death throes long before the spammers took over. It just wasn't nurturing the newbies, and they weren't sticking around.

Just my tuppence' worth.



It appears the promoting part of "promoting improvement or development," the definition of constructive, is forgotten at times. Without it, a critique takes a nasty turn for the newbie or timid.

To pounce on an opportunity to say the writing is horrible... How is saying your grammar or content stinks instructive or promoting growth? While Getting Started isn't there to blow smoke up skirts, it also isn't there to cull those with less experience and knowledge by withholding a modicum of kindness.

Fortunately, if your feedback has the reputation of being delivered with a sledge hammer, there's a place for that. But Getting Started isn't it.

Quote from: Jo Bannister on February 12, 2018, 09:52:46 AM
Anyone here - anyone - can learn the rules in a couple of hours.
I chuckled at this. If only the rules were so easily learned. I see rules debated every day—even on weekends—by people who know the rules (for one, proofreaders). Even style guides don't always agree. Need I mention the serial comma? Or is that Oxford comma? Or series comma? Argh. They can't even agree on a name. Add exposure to a writer that goes against the grain, like Cormac McCarthy's lack of punctuation, and a newbie's work not being up to another's standard is understandable, especially those whose native tongue isn't English.

On a side note, it's remarkable how often this subject comes up. It certainly was frequently discussed/debated in the other place. And here boards have been separated by harshness of critique. I think we'd do well to stop rehashing topics like this one for the umpteenth time. Focus more on the community side of things. Dare to disagree, then let it go. The mods can do their thing when a line is crossed.


Quote from: Jo Bannister on February 10, 2018, 04:26:41 PM
OK everybody - tell me I'm wrong...

I would. But only if I really meant it. So, I'm sorry, but you'll have to accept the fact that I agree with you.

Quote from: Dawn on February 10, 2018, 11:52:59 PM
Let's remember also that people can have 'natural talent' without knowing the rules. Writing isn't just about 'rules' it's about passion and learning.

I remember a man who definitely had a natural talent but not much knowledge of the rules. On top of that, his spelling was atrocious. I had a lot of back and forth with him, privately, and we developed a bond. A friendship, I think you can call it, even though we'd never seen each other face to face.

In our conversations I was always honest with him, but also careful to be gentle and kind. He was eager to learn, and I enjoyed helping him master the art of writing. I think I learned as much from him as he did from me.

He wrote a book. It wasn't perfect, but I bought it, read it, and enjoyed it. I still treasure it. As I will always treasure the time I was given to spend with him.

Quote from: Firefly on February 12, 2018, 10:15:01 AM
You hit the nail on the head. Until you were taught, you knew no better, someone without English as a first language must feel a lot like you seven year old self  ;)

I don't. And I don't think I ever have. I wouldn't be writing in English if I did feel that way. You have to have a good grasp of the language you're writing in, or you'll simply not be able to rise above the level of a seven year old writing his first essay, short story or poem.

You have to understand, no one forces us foreign writers to write in English. It's a conscious choice, and if you make that choice, you'll have to be prepared to do what it takes to write well in your chosen language.

I could have chosen to write in my own native tongue. In fact, I still do that too, though not quite as  much anymore. And there are places out there on the web where you can put up your writing in your own language and get feedback from your peers. All in your own language.
Daan Katz, Author - Where the Magic Happens
Join my facebook group Daan's Magical Worlds


 I think the most important thing is to ask ourselves what it is we're trying to achieve with a critique. Is it to encourage people to write in the first place, and then to improve that writing? If so, is harsh criticism or 'just being honest'  going to help with that? Writers shouldn't be handled with kid gloves, but neither should they have their enthusiasm crushed over a simple lack of experience.  Is our goal to prove we know more about writing than others, or to be the grammar police? If it is, that is valid too I guess, but if what we want is to make this place a welcoming resource for novice writers and a place experienced writers to pass on their valuable knowledge, like others have said , honest opinion needs to go hand in hand with kindness. As for punctuation, yes it is important , but personally, I'd hate to think someone who could tell a really great story gets put off writing simply because they get called out for making mistakes with apostrophes. Perhaps, at the novice stage, we should focus on the content rather than the presentation. :)

Mrs N

Sometimes it's difficult to gauge just what is being asked. I remember my first ever competition entry. I just expected to win. :D :D :D
So it is with first time posting. It is harsh enough to learn the not everyone likes your work. First big lesson.

There are so many aspects to writing that can go wrong it can overwhelm a new writer. (Or not so new.) So I like to think any crit I give will be honest (otherwise there is no point) clear, and offer plenty of room to come back to me for clarification. I would hate something I said to stop another person living their dream. My opinions are just that...opinions.