How to Be a Helpful Critic

I had a big post planned today on the women of Supernatural, but I’m sad to say a beloved cat of mine passed away this morning. She was 19—we’d been friends since I was 8—and lived a happy life, but I’m obviously heartbroken all the same. So instead of new content today, I’m reposting one of my most popular posts of all time, which originally ran in December 2010. Enjoy!

I’ve been thinking this week about how writers help each other. This thread over on Reddit, specifically this comment, made me wonder if we’re doing ourselves any favors.

While I realize that there are writing groups who help and support one another, many writers who try to help other writers do more harm than good. I’ll be bold and throw something out there: inexperienced critics fall into two camps, neither of them particularly helpful. We’ll call them the enablers and the hypercritics.

Enablers encourage bad habits in other writers in order to justify their own bad habits. I tell you it’s okay that your first novel will be 300,000 words, because then it makes it okay that my book will be 200,000 words. We’re so nice that we hurt each other rather than help. The enabler will tell you that your space-vampire-steampunk-erotica is really good and that the world needs more space-vampire-steampunk-erotica, just like it needs more space-werewolf-steampunk-erotica, which, incidentally, is what they’re writing right now. Or they’re the people who are so timid in their criticism that they won’t tell you when something doesn’t work. I know it’s hard to hear, but sometimes things just don’t work, and saying, “It didn’t work for me,” doesn’t help the writer. Critiquing is already so subjective that saying, “It’s probably just me that didn’t like it,” gives the writer an excuse to say, “Well, that’s just him. Other people will appreciate it!”

Hypercritics attack other writers to make themselves feel better. I call your work a load of crap because that makes me superior to you, and if I’m superior to you, then I’m definitely a better writer than you, and I’ll get published way sooner than you do. Hypercritics will also latch onto your use of voice in first person and trash it for the fussiest reasons, because they’re insecure about their own first person voice, or they don’t like first person, or because that’s the only thing they feel confident enough about to criticize.These are the people who, once published, tell you how impossible it is to get published, and talk about ‘wannabes’ and ‘professionals’ in a condescending tone of voice. There are writing forums filled with hypercritics: avoid them like the plague. Yes, it’s hard to get published, and yes, it’s good to be realistic, but don’t piss on someone’s dream!

What kind of a critic are you? I’ve been known to act as both. I tell people it’s okay that their book is too long because my book is too long, and I make fun of people who attempt a ‘literary’ voice because I’m not brave enough to do it.

And look: I just hypercriticized my criticism, but it’s okay, because I don’t have a lot of practice.

2 thoughts on “How to Be a Helpful Critic

  1. I think it is hard to *not* do either of those things (and yes, I’ve done both). When I got my writing coach, someone with years and years of experience in the business – on both the published side and editing side of things, I was shocked to hear her voice the same things all the inexperienced critters over on were mentioning. The added bonus with having the coach was that she then told me how I could improve. Again, what she said wasn’t any different from all the other advice I’ve gotten, though she couched the advice in better terms, but she *made* me work on those things so I could improve. Also, by only getting one person’s feedback, it allowed me to focus on just one problem and not all of them at once.

  2. I am so sorry for your loss. Losing a life companion, such as your 19 year-old cat, is like losing a child. It’s not easy. So be kind to yourself, and grieve in whatever way helps you to feel better during this difficult time.

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