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Critiquing

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Author: Michael Bard

Every so often somebody posts a public comment about a story that is not entirely nice and not quite as every so often the author takes offense, swears to never post again, orders people to only say nice things, and possibly even leaves the TSA-list. Yes, I do know of one person who has left the list because somebody (it may have been me, or I may just have contributed) said something not nice about their story.

So, first some definitions:

Niceness: A social glue that allows us, as human beings, to cooperate reasonably harmoniously in a society. In my mind this is being polite, treating things with respect, helping out when possible, and generally being a kind person.

Niceness Example: Waiting at the New York bus terminal for the bus to Washington and, when asked by a lady if I have information about the bus schedule, putting all my bags down and getting out my copy of said schedule and going through it with her. (I really need to work on shorter sentences...)

Anti-Niceness: The opposite of niceness (obviously). Being rude to others, hitting or physically damaging them, verbally assaulting or insulting them, pushing and shoving, that kind of thing.

Anti-Niceness Example: Whilst helping the same lady mentioned above, it is announced that the bus we are waiting for is now boarding. Instantly she ignores me, and virtually clambers overtop of me (I'm third in line, she's fourth) to race for the bus. If I hadn't put everything down to help her, then I wouldn't have had to take the time to pick the stuff back up. And hence wouldn't have delayed her. And yes, sadly, this actually happened last weekend on my way to Historicon in Pennsylvania. Fortunately I managed to restrain myself from kicking her.

Critiquing: Commenting on a thing, often by request. Comments can be positive, or they can be negative. But they are always regarding the thing being critiqued.

Now that the definitions are established, on to the actual discussion.

I find the whole concept of critiquing as it is commonly held kind of sad. Often I've asked numerous people (TSA-talk list members, published authors, friends) to critique stories I'm working on. Invariably I first get a long e-mail or comment stating that they don't want to hurt my feelings. That they're afraid it'll end our friendship. That they're afraid I'll end up hating them.

Invariably, I just stare at them for a moment in shock.

I have a simple rule for what is an acceptable critique, and what is not. Any comments on an object that I've created, or own, or whatever, is fine. Any comments on me as a person are not fine.

Acceptable Critique Example: The entire opening paragraph sucks! The grammar is all wrong, most of it is misspelled, it didn't interest me in the least.

Unacceptable Critique Example: You must be incredibly stupid to have written that.

Do you see the difference?

The first example is all about the story in question. It's nasty, doesn't provide any pointers, but at least it tells me something. Yes, a scathing critique of a story can (and has) depressed me for a few hours. After all, I am an individual with emotions. But, it has yet to end a friendship, or change my opinion of a person (other than raise it if they are honest, point out flaws, and offer suggestions to solve the problem).

The second example is insulting me as a sentient individual. It is not about the story, it is about me. And that, I think, is crossing the line.

Now, this would all be fine since almost nobody goes into the unacceptable state, but the problem is that I have the weird belief that other people accept what I accept. I don't give long, apologetic preambles. I simply point out flaws that I can see, and, if possible, offer suggestions to fix those flaws. I used to comment on some stories on the TSA list, but I don't do that any more -- because too many people violently objected to any comments that consisted of anything other than unabashed praise.

Yes, praise is nice. When I'm depressed, praise can and does raise my spirits.

But it doesn't help my writing.

Here at TSAT I believe that the act of submission confirms that the individual is interested in honest critique. [and I share this belief! -- QGL] And that means that they are willing to accept that things in their story may not work, for me anyway, and will listen and think about it.

(Yes, a critique is only an individual opinion -- I could be wrong -- read it, think about it, but don't automatically accept it).

What does all this mean to you, the reader?

A number of things:

1. If you submit a story to TSAT, be prepared to have the story (not you as an individual) commented on negatively. If I only gave 'that's great!'-type commentary, then what would be the point of my serving as an editor? I have accepted and published stories unchanged, and hopefully will again in the future. But, I will continue to point out what I see as flaws. 2. If you toss things to the TSA-talk list (or any list), to friends, or to others, don't take any negative comments on the story personally. They aren't. Of course, if they are comments on you as a person, then feel free to take appropriate action. 3. Look for honest negative criticism. Simply hearing 'That's a Great Story' is nice, but it will never help you improve as a writer. I search, crave, beg, for honestly meant negative comments. If you get comments like that, they will almost certainly improve you as a writer.