Advice For Those Critters Out There Who Want to Give Better Critiques

Okay, here we go! I’ve been a member of Scribophile since 2006. So, a warning, I have a potty mouth, nanner, nanner, nanner. Therefore, if you are easily offended by colorful metaphors of a profane variety, close your eyes.

You listen to that warning and suggestion? I hope so. You know why. Because I prefaced my writing here with it. That’s something that, number one, you should pay attention to. Because every writer has a certain criteria they are looking to have adhered to. If you ignore that very first suggestion, then that’s on you, buddy. You can’t make a comment saying, ‘Why are you cussing so much!? I don’t like that! It offends my delicate sensibilities!’ Well, then. I did tell you. But, apparently, you can’t read. Which, funnily enough, is something every writer should be accustomed to. I’m a very blunt, to the point person. I don’t mince words. I get right in and express my thoughts. I don’t give two shits about how offensive my perspective might be. Because, I’m not just approaching my thoughts as a writer, I’m also approaching them as a reader. 

Here are some of my favorite authors: Stephen King, Connie Willis, Timothy Zahn, Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, Douglass Adams, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and KJ Parker (aka Tom Holt). What do these authors have in common? They write stories because they’re driven to. They are as different from one another as water and vinegar and yet I adore so much that they all write. It also demonstrates something else, their approaches to writing are astronomically as far apart as can be. Why is this? Why do they write so differently? Why do they have different audiences? Can’t they see that writing has one way, and one way alone to present!? Well, it’s because they write so differently that I like them. Because, they write from the heart, follow their characters, challenge the status quo of what ‘good’ writing actually is. Each and every one of them has a unique voice that gives so much characterization to their works. And each one of them you can pick up a work and say, ‘Oh yeah, so and so wrote this.’

Why bring this up here, you might be wondering. Well, it’s because of one unique trait that every one of those mentioned authors hold that hopefuls on this site seem so profoundly lacking of: a seasoned READER. Every single one of these authors write because they love to read and be taken into other worlds. And yet, on Scribophile, so many potentials seem unable to recognize that one basic goddamned tenet, read, damn you! Why won’t it read!? And it’s a question that’s been brewing in my mind in the many months since I’ve been back on the site. In fact, I originally left back in 2007 because of the incessant need for writers to rewrite other writers’ works without leaving any actual constructive feedback.

I think part of the problem lies in Scribophile’s directives that any commentary left needs to be, ‘actionable feedback’, which seems to baffle a good deal many writers. Apparently, actionable feedback from the majority means rewriting the work in question via red inline edits and then suggesting the author in question could be better served by not being: overly wordy, too descriptive, not descriptive enough, too much dialogue, not enough dialogue, this dialogue should be written this way because I don’t think they’d talk like that, I don’t need to know this, why don’t I know this?, I didn’t read the previous postings but who’s this guy?, you should tell us who this is and get into their backgrounds (in chapter 20!), stop using parenthesis!, you should use parenthesis, etc etc etc. And the potential ends up falling into this trap that narrative can only be written one way. The way they learn in creative writing. Yet, I wonder, would they make this suggestion to Stephen King and Connie Willis? After all, they write completely differently with different inflections and conditions in the story. So, what is the proper way to write? Well, isn’t THAT the million dollar question?

Here’s what I think, there is NO proper way to write. You write how you write and express what’s in your mind. There are no rules for that. Yes, grammar plays a role. But here’ s my feelings on grammar: they’re the final paint job on the work. Imagine, if you will, you’re building a car from scratch. Let’s say a vintage 57 Chevy, because those will never go out of style! You find a chassis you can use. And then an engine. You start building it up over the years, trying to get the gearing just right. But then you want to know, will the engine start? So you start trying to get that engine to start. But, it just won’t. So, what do you do? Well, call over a few mechanic friends to see what the issue is! You set the timing just right, see how tense the torque will be, build the crankshaft to specs nobody has seen before! Haa Haau Hooo! But, you’re not going to build the body around it without testing the engine first, are you? I mean, you have to make sure the sonuvabitch will even turn on!

That’s the process of writing. That’s why we’re here. We’re testing our engine. Seeing how it runs. Too many people are concerned about the final finish. However, how are you to get to the final finish without guaranteeing a strong, powerful engine? That’s the base story that we’re looking at here. Our first few drafts are our engines. We want to know how that story functions. Yeah, the grammar is shit, the phrasing ridiculous (by all means, point that out! But tell me, does it purr?), but tell me how the characters are. Tell me how the plotting moves the tale forward. I don’t CARE if I wrote, ‘…and they walked down the trail looking left and right hoping not to see the beast lurking in the dark…” instead of, ‘…The trail was dark and ominous as they huddled together, eyes darting in all directions, praying that the beast wouldn’t show it’s deformed face.’ That’s for after, AFTER, when I know the story works. That’s the paint job for when I know the story is purring so good all I have to do is add a few coats of prime language and gloss it over with beautiful metaphors. The story as a foundation comes first and foremost.

So, how can we be better critiquers here on Scribophile? Well, I’m no expert, but I know what I want. And it’s because of my wants I started critiquing a certain way. I no longer do red inline edits because I think it’s just disrespectful to the author. They know the voice they want to convey! My role is just to express how I felt as a reader! So I don’t delete and edit and rewrite. It’s disgraceful and pretentious! If I was a published author, I wouldn’t need to be here fleshing out my final work! I mean, I guess I could self-publish, but I don’t feel like that validates me as a writer (and that’s just me. You want to self-publish, more power to you and good luck!). I want that contract. I need that publisher saying, ‘Yeah, we want you.’ But, even if I was, I still wouldn’t do it. Because that’s discouraging to up and comers.  If you’re here, you want support and ideas on how to flesh out that miraculous tome that might be the next Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings,  or just anything by King. And that’s where my suggestions come into play.

1- Don’t assume you know everything. Just like all of us here, you’re trying to be recognized for your own writing skills as well. Acting like a jerk and saying, ‘I wouldn’t have read this if not for the Karma Points’ isn’t doing you any favors. Be constructive, and polite. After all, you are building a relationship here. Trying to get others to read your work as well. If you’re rude, they won’t be coming.

2- If an author has guidelines on what they’re looking for in regards to their work, pay attention to that. Closely. Don’t dismiss them and do what you’re going to do anyway. Because that will just anger the author and make you look like a chump. They went out of their way to say that they’re looking for A and you seem content to only offer Z, which is nowhere near what they want. Stick as close to the author’s desire as possible. They’ll appreciate it and, without a doubt, return the favor.

3- Stop trying to rewrite the work as if it is your own! It’s not. Offer up what you see that’s flawed from a reader’s standpoint. When you constantly try to rework someone else’s story as your own, you only demonstrate that you aren’t interested in what their voice is. You’re only there for the Karma Points and not for helping the author develop further. This is a serious issue that hinders many critiques.

4- If a title says the chapter presented is: ‘Hollywood Is Self-Righteous Part 1″, the conclusion drawn must be that this isn’t the whole chapter but merely part of it. A part of a chapter is put up because of the limitations of Scribophile’s desire that works be no longer than three thousand words long. This is for pacing and concentration. If you like the part you’re reading, then read on to see how it finishes. Leave commentary on how the work made you feel and how it works on the narrative level. Don’t pretend like this is the first posting ever in this series. It’s frustrating to be in chapter 30 part 3 of a novel and to hear, ‘we don’t know who this is. Your reader wants to be let in on the dynamics of your characters. Describe them, explain who they are, walk us through their lives.’ If you’re saying this in chapter 30, you obviously haven’t been reading and you obviously didn’t pay attention to what the posting was to begin with. Take the time to get caught up with the narrative before commenting, or, if that isn’t an option, consider how the work is presented outside of the fact that it is part of a large narrative. Every good story should be able to hook a reader from the get go wherever they start in the story. Your job is to express how successful the author is in the endeavor. Not make it look like you’ve never read a book in your life.

5- Stop worrying about grammar! Yes, grammar is important. But it’s generally the last thing on an author’s mind when trying to flesh out a novel. If you want to be helpful, focus on the narrative as a whole and offer up advice on how it can be tightened up. We all know that our works can be prettier than they are. But if the sole focus is grammar, we’ll never know how the story works in general. Absolutely point out where things can be better written, but do your due diligence in also looking at the story as a whole. You are here because you want to be a better writer. There’s no better way of improving your writing than being a solid critiquer. It gives you insights from a reader’s standpoint you might not have thought of if not for taking the time to review someone else’s tale. This makes you more aware of balance and structure more than anything. Take the time to review a work and be thorough with it rather than dismissive. You’re not just benefiting the other author, you’re benefiting yourself.

6- Whatever you think writing is supposed to be about, toss it out. It isn’t. Writing is personal expression and no two people will ever write exactly the same way. This is due to the fact that we all have unique personalities and attributes. Yeah, we can better spell and more cohesively present our works, but at the end of the day, we’re making art. It isn’t specific, it’s interpretive. Which is why so many authors you have read have gotten away with some entirely egregious bastardizations of writing conventions. You write for yourself first and foremost. If you let anyone get in the way of that, you’re sacrificing your own word for the sake of committee. Stay true to yourself and be always aware that you won’t make everybody happy. You should come first in the narrative. So do that and your potential audience will follow.

7- When writing up a critique for a fellow Scribber, focus on the intent of the piece. Don’t think you can just come along and rewrite it for them. Highlight the piece and say this worked and that didn’t. Offer your suggestions. But don’t pretend that yours is the final word. Focus on how to help your fellow writer be a better author and not on how you can uplift your ego. We all struggle in being better writers. We don’t need people to sit back and claim they’re superior because they self-published on Kindle. That helps no one and only serves to alienate authors from a potential career and all because you think you know everything about writing because you took a creative writing course in college. Writing is an art, it isn’t the sort of skill that you learn from a professor. It’s a creative endeavor that takes a lifetime to master and a mind that is open to infinite possibilities. If you think that there is a narrow set of rules for the art of writing, you’ve already stifled your creativity. You’ve already eliminated your ability to advance and grow. Listen to your fellow authors, take advice with a grain of salt, and always, always, always read and continue to add to your retinue of literative devices.

In summation, those are my most basic ideas for advice for critiquing on Scribophile. Look to help advance an author’s work not hinder it. I’ve seen too many times other writers tearing down someone’s work because it doesn’t fit their narrow definition of what writing means. Language is always in a state of random evolution and it will never sit still long enough for any real ground rules to apply to it. Write how you want to write. Tell the story you want to tell. Show us the situations that your characters are going through in any number of ways. And don’t sacrifice your vision just because a bunch of writers thought it didn’t work the way they thought it would. Every classic story had its huge share of detractors and they’re only classic today because the authors stuck to their guns and made the best tale they could by themselves. You can please some of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time. Wise, sensible words. It’s your voice that needs to be heard, not the combined din of the masses. Write it, shake off the cobwebs, and then put it out there and see the results. 

This site exists to put a spotlight on potential issues, but it can’t write the story for you. Be honest with yourself and be a solid critiquer. People really like it when you’re honest, concise, and deep delving like a spelunker for their works. Because when you take the time to be a thorough critiquer and offer up honest and true advice, other writers will take notice. So get in there, work through the piece, offer up how it made you feel! Stop trying to write it for them! Give them the synopsis of if you would actually purchase the work in question and why. Because, in the end, we are only made better by those who take the time to care about the narrative and share how it works overall. Giving a lackluster, ‘eh, you could’ve said this or that’ and then rewrite it to your specs, only says you don’t really care about what you’re reading.

And that, my friends, makes me sad. So be a good critiquer and offer up actual, useful advice to the potential writer. And don’t pretend you know it all, you don’t. None of us do.

Thanks for reading and good luck to you all!

~Timothy S Purvis

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