Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk)

When I interviewed for my current job, they asked the standard interview question, “What would you say is your biggest weakness?”

I hate that question. My natural impulse is to say something like, “It’s kind of a tie between my porn addiction and my really violent temper.” I am mature enough to resist, but the next impulse is to be honest and say, “You realize I am just going to pick my penultimate strength, saving my biggest for when you ask what my greatest strength is, and rephrase number two as a weakness, right? So, I guess I just care too darn much about my job.”

The answer I really gave them is true: I take criticism well. All I care about is the final product. If someone shows me how to improve, it doesn’t even occur to me that I should be insulted. The challenge for me is remembering that not everyone feels that way, and Bill down the hall may not see the sixty-three changes I made to his five-page document as a friendship offering and labor of love for his benefit.

Which brings us to teh interwebs — and writers’ forums, the great double-edged sword. On the one hand, some skilled and experienced writers participate in writers’ forums. There are also probably some hot lesbians in lesbian sex chatrooms, too. Like the most hot lesbians in lesbian sex chatrooms, many of the people claiming that they are skilled, experienced writers on writers’ boards are not what they claim to be.

There are two distinctions between cyber-Hemingways and cyber-hot-lesbians:

1)    When a middle-school student with a C average spends his afternoons crushing Doritos and Mountain Dew while pretending to be a hot, twenty-three year-old lesbian, he is vaguely aware that he is not, in fact, a hot, twenty-three year-old lesbian. He may, however, believe that he has mastered the intricacies of style, punctuation, and grammar.

2)    Someone giving bad advice on a writers’ board may be (in fact, usually is) doing so with the best of intentions in an earnest attempt to help you.

This would be easier if good writers on writers’ boards were as rare as hot lesbians in lesbian sex chatrooms. We could just ignore the extremely remote chance they exist, assume everyone in there is a middle school boy pretending to be that which he is not, and move on. But some excellent writers and editors are willing to give free advice, and that is a key resource to tap into. I found my critique partner in a forum (after stalking her for a month and realizing she really knew what she was talking about). I was not surprised to discover through our later e-mails that she is an editor in her day job.

Things to think about when getting writing advice from teh interwebs:

  • The person who talks the most on a board does not know the most. However, she almost certainly thinks she does.
  • A person claiming to be “published,” “have a publisher,” “have an agent,” “have ten books published” or anything like that may or may not be worth listening to. People can self-publish anything, and vanity publishers will gladly let you pay them to publish whatever you would like. There are no standards for being a literary agent (something I will discuss in detail in a future post). If I decide I am a literary agent, I am a literary agent.  — There, I did it. I am going to represent my dog. Now my dog has a literary agent. You should not, however, take her advice on punctuation or grammar (although her insights on plotting are surprisingly nuanced).
  • Even experienced writers with good insight can unintentionally give you bad advice on teh interwebs. Many boards ask you to post a first paragraph, first three sentences, or something like that. I stopped commenting on anything but glaring errors on those things, because what seems like great advice for a paragraph standing in isolation may be bad advice for the page. I saw this happen repeatedly – including my own critiques of others’ work – when people would later ask me to look at their manuscripts.
  • Ignore generalizations. People who write action-based, first-person, middle-grade, sci-fi may be certain that all books need to open on an action scene. To Kill A Mockingbird would not have been a better book if it opened with a laser battle.
  • Even if ten people are telling you the same thing, that may only mean that the people who spend the most time on that board have won the argument about whether it’s right.  Plus, even if it’s right for them, it may not be right for you.
  • Having said all of that, there are some highly talented and knowledgeable people who are willing to give you free help. Take it. Then think about it, maybe Google it and learn about the concept they are discussing. Take the advice for a test drive and decide if it is going to work for you. Don’t just blindly make changes to your manuscript because someone told you to.  Learn about the concept she is explaining and then employ it if you think it’s appropriate.
  • Speaking from the perspective of the advice giver, now: Whether you take the advice or not, don’t argue with it.  Feel free to ask a question to clarify, but don’t tell people they are wrong, even if they are. They did you a favor by making a suggestion.  The suggestion might not be right for you. That’s great. If you want to start a 250,000 word manuscript with a ten page flashback that describes a sunrise in passive voice without relating it to the plot or the story — go for it. My job is not to spend my entire day convincing you that is a mistake, it is to encourage you to consider the possibility that it might be.

THE BOTTOM LINE: You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it. If someone is offended because you did not follow his advice, you made the right decision. It was offered to fuel his ego, not as something that may be of value to you.

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4 thoughts on “On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk)

  1. Pingback: The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk) | Michael J. McDonagh

  2. Noticed this, have ya? 🙂 I think overall I’ve seen more harm than good come out of these forums. 😦 I try to mitigate that with my contrary notions, but when groupthink prevails it’s a losing battle.

    Someone elsewhere noted that as a general rule, people start selling their writing after they stop relying on crits to tell them if they’re doing it ‘right’.

    • Thanks for commenting. I often notice the people who preface advice with things like “this may not work for your voice” or “I can’t really know without looking at the whole piece” are the ones giving the advice that should almost certainly be followed. It’s the people telling others “this is the way it is done” who new writers need to run from as fast as possible.

      • That’s why when I crit, I try to see what the author is attempting to accomplish, and judge what needs doing based on whether the piece approached the apparent goal or not. The only rule is “Does it work in context?”

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