Pronouncing Sentence on Someone Else’s Writing…

Yesterday’s “Rag-Tag Daily Prompt” was the word “pedantic.” My blog post yesterday stimulated a great question from Christine at I think her question might be generally interesting since a lot of people writing on WordPress are, uh, you know, writers…

RE: your thoughts on correcting people. This topic has come up for discussion at our house lately. DH was reading and explaining to me, some writer’s guidelines for starting a Writers Critique Group.

“Never criticize. Praise what’s good and question what you don’t get, but never say, this is wrong.”

And I’m saying, “But what if something IS wrong?” Does that make me pedantic?

How does a writer learn if no one says, “You’re doing this wrong. You’ve switched back and forth from past to present tense verbs in your story.” Or “You’ve included WAY too much detail.” Or what about telling a speaker, “You’re pronouncing this word wrong.” (Mind you, I don’t often correct wrong speech unless the person’s learning English. Then they want help.)

Last week I wrote a book review for a story I abandoned because it was so boring. Over-loaded and dragged down by excess detail. One star. A friend gave it four stars, “loved it.” She pointed out the good: the character is getting a new start in life. So there we have the upbeat reviewer being encouraging and Me the Meanie (along with most other reviewers) pointing out what didn’t work. Is an honest review–warts and all–too unkind?

So I’ve been mulling over what is best when it comes to pointing out faults or mistakes — and your post has brought all these questions back to my mind. 🙂

I’m by no means the God of Criticism, but even at 2 in the morning with my phone, I had to answer. The thing is, there is no ONE answer to the question. How a critic approaches a work depends on the actual situation, what you know of the person and their goals. It’s helpful to know where the writer is in the learning process as well as how serious he/she is about what they’re doing.

A writer’s critique group is usually focused on encouragement and building a safe environment for writers. A lot of people want to write, but are afraid. In that arena I think it’s a matter of supporting effort. It’s not a class where someone is teaching writing, and it’s not a group of confident writers.

The first thing that comes to my mind — as a writer — is what I want from a critic. I hire an editor when I have a book in progress that is, I think, nearly finished. It’s important for a writer to know his/her strengths, but also his/her weakness, and that’s one of the main objectives of criticism.

I definitely know my weaknesses, and I learned the hard way. I think writers’ groups are meant to save writers from what I experienced. I learned that there are writing tasks for which I need help. I’m dyslexic which makes proof-reading almost impossible for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to do it. It means I have to try harder and get help. With Martin of Gfenn I desperately needed an eagle-eyed person to tell me — as my high school friend, Ginger, finally did — “There are lots of small mistakes on every page.” That gave me the opening to ask for her help, and she gave it to me. That said, I think proof-reading is difficult for everyone. Every writer knows what he/she MEANS, and that, right there, can make it difficult to spot small mistakes. Serious writers want to know where they need help but…

In a writer’s workshop, a setting that is a lot like a class in which one learns a new language, I believe there’s also a hierarchy of importance. The most important thing is what the writer is saying. If that comes through then it’s 90% there. That deserves praise. It’s respect for the writer. It’s saying, “Your message reached another person.” That’s why we write in the first place so success, right?

Following that, criticism is about how to improve on that success. That’s where a critic needs, I think, to be aware of the general categories of criticism: objective technical errors that obscure meaning, awareness of the intended audience, stylistic issues that make the work less readable (to the critic, anyway), and the critic’s own personal taste.

Christine’s example of switching verb tenses is a legit technical error that can make the work hard to follow. A writer who can’t accept that kind of help isn’t only struggling with writing. Now that I KNOW my (immense) weakness, I’ve become better at proof-reading. I’ll never be the god of proof-reading, but knowing that’s my big challenge, I’ve become more attentive.

This kind of criticism is objective. The others? They can get tricky.

This winter, when I was judging all those books, that was a constant challenge for me and I know that in at least three cases, I couldn’t overcome personal revulsion to evaluate these books on their unique merits. I also didn’t feel I had to. Writers need to be aware of their audience. It’s totally possible that a book/story isn’t written for elderly white people, but a writer with even a micron of awareness is not going to say that in the first sentence, “This is a collection of stories that white Baby-boomers will not be able to relate to or understand.” If I were in a situation where I was critiquing the book face-to-face with the writer, I’d mention this. I’d mention that if the work were worth writing, it’s unfair to it to limit its audience like that. The book deserves the chance to be accepted or rejected on its merits, and that kind of statement makes that unlikely.

All of the books I read that didn’t end up finalists had problems like these. They had overweening technical problems or — for various reasons — they would not have reached the audience they were meant for or they alienated readers. This kind of criticism, like pointing out technical errors, isn’t criticism based on personal taste.

It’s tempting to criticize a work based on what we like and what we don’t like. As I was reading all those books this past winter, there were times when I put a book down thinking (sometimes saying!) “I HATE this!!!” I had to come back to it and endeavor to judge it on its merits, but I also had to acknowledge that never in a million years would I choose to read that book. Thank goodness I had a rubric…

That’s where the critic needs to be aware of him/herself. Thinking the writer has “included too much detail” is an expression of personal taste. There are ways to say that. A good strategy is putting the burden on the critic not the writer, leaving it to the writer to decide, for example, “I get kind of lost in all this detail.” That is an honest statement because it really IS the reader’s trip, not the writer’s.

Personal taste is inescapable which is why every critic needs to be aware of it. One reader faulted my work because I don’t write like Henry James. That’s fine by me. I’ve enjoyed James, but I don’t want to write like that. Read all about it here. Another of my books was reviewed by a reader who thought I was trying to write something else completely and faulted it because I didn’t succeed. I wasn’t writing that other book. I’d never even heard of it. When I checked it out, I couldn’t see a single similarity in content, style or objective. It was weird. That was one of the most confusing reviews I’ve ever read. A writer who’s serious is going to recognize that some critics just don’t completely understand their job which is (as far as is possible) the objective evaluation of a work AS ITSELF. It’s really difficult to do this, but that’s the job description.

I believe that critics should be able to say, “This is just not my thing.” That needs no justification. Personal taste is personal taste. Technical errors and audience alienation are not personal taste, and it can help a writer a lot to point them out. I think the important thing is always to be aware of where the writer is in his/her journey. Tact and kindness go a long way.

When I was teaching, I had a class that really liked me. We were a team together, approaching literature, writing about it, and diving straight into lots of difficult stuff, including a Greek tragedy. One Saturday morning I showed up, and a student, shyly, gave me a purple pen. “I really don’t like the red, Martha,” she said softly. My thought was that she was a hyper-sensitive cry-baby. Who CARED what color pen I used? Well, I for one didn’t care, so I used the purple pen. It meant the world to her that I did. Who was I to judge her? What did I know about her past experience in English classes? To this day I always have a purple pen.

37 thoughts on “Pronouncing Sentence on Someone Else’s Writing…

  1. I appreciate critique on my fiction and poetry. I don’t even mind it on my normal silly blog posts because I want to refine my writing all the time. I’m always learning! That said, I hesitate to say anything to others. You never know when people will take offense, even when they ask what you think!

    • It’s just tricky. I can take pretty much anything except critics who can’t simply say, “This isn’t my thing.” BUT for a long time we’ve been brainwashed into thinking we need to justify what we do and do not like even when personal taste totally irrational. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I don’t like it.

  2. It’s hard for me to take sometimes and I tend to put myself in the other person’s shoes and step gently

  3. I was in Toastmasters for a good number of years. Anytime someone gave a speech. there was always an evaluation afterwards by one member. How can we grow as speakers if we don’t know how we are perceived by our audience? Invariably, there would be grumblings after the meeting about the evaluation, even if it ended on a positive note (the old empathy sandwich). I don’t know, Martha. I think deep down, people think they have done the best they could–be it speaking or writing–and why in the heck didn’t their critique/evaluator see it the same way?

    • I agree, but I also the critic/evaluator SHOULD see it that way (yay empathy sandwich!) but the writer/speaker also needs to remember they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to improve and need an audience to do that. Toastmasters is very good for learning to give constructive criticism, I think. I was in it for a year. My second-ex was (is) very shy (Aspergers?) and it helped him so much. But a speaker/writer has to be receptive. I learned one big thing from my readers. They like my historical fiction OK, but the LOVE my memoirs. My OWN thinking is the opposite. Who knew???

  4. I’m above criticism myself, of course. But if I weren’t, I’d want whatever criticism helped me become better, no matter how brutal. I’m married after all, so I’m pretty numb to pain at this point anyway.

    I do agree with you that 90% of the writer’s intent has gotta shine through, no matter how crappy his/her (usually his, unless it’s poetry) technique is. But that last 10 percent is still pretty damn important. I say, and therefor it’s true, that if the message is blaring forth loud and clear but the writing style is plodding or otherwise indicative of a sub-standard education, the person who crafted it should be corrected in very clear, very pointed terms. And if they refuse to hear it they should be dragged to the town square in shackles, flayed, and their corpse mocked by the townsfolk as a warning to others. And that goes for anyone who proffers a purple pen. You were too soft on her.


    • I agree with you. I meant that it’s 90% (an A-) if the intent comes through the morass of what might be bad writing. Then the critic can at least say, “I get what you’re saying. You’re saying…” Then it’s all about saying it better. The shackles and stuff come when the book is submitted to a contest and the book is so bad that the judge can’t wait until the contest is over so they can put the nasty foul thing in a paper bag and toss it into the recycling bin in the alley. With so many of those books I read I thought, “You have no idea what you’ve said here…” In some cases I had no idea what they’d said, either… 😦

  5. I don’t view myself as being skilled at writing what encouraged me to write was my reading, all the thoughts and observations that I developed while reading needed an outlet. When I started writing I was completely aware that my skills are sub-par but the only method to bring them at par was to constantly write and at that stage I didn’t need criticism because I was committing those errors in order to learn. Now that I believe that I write a little better than I did before, I can always go back to those works and provide critique myself. It’s difficult to proof read your own work but now that learning how to write isn’t a primary goal but a collateral objective I appreciate the sensible criticisms.

  6. Very interesting. I try and encourage people to do art. I think without it people might not carry on. I one had my art in an exhibition critiqued. The reviewer said I needed to work harder if I wanted to achieve photo realism. The review hurt. Because I was not trying to be a photo realist and if the writer of the review had bothered to ask me I would have told them that!

  7. Constructive criticism is always welcome. It is a very difficult thing to accept criticism but becomes impossible to bear when the critique is not of the work but of the person. I’ve been on the receiving end of both types. One makes you better and the other makes you bitter.

  8. It’s a delicate balance – encouragement vs. criticism – even more so if the writer isn’t open to both. Call “constructive criticism” a “suggestion” instead and it may go further. I also think it depends on the content of the writing piece (if it’s personal or not). I still think the mechanics of writing remain important no matter what the subject is – if the writer wants to communicate effectively, right? (now that may be a run-on sentence!) I remember your post about reviewing all those books. And the struggle with that. Whew.

    • I think it’s a really good strategy to make the critique session about communication. That was very effective for me all my years teaching. It really wakes the writer up to the idea that someone is going to read what they write. 🙂

  9. I think it is just as difficult to review as it is to write. Thanks for your suggestions on how to approach writing a review, Martha. I agree with much of what has been said by your readers. So, I’ll leave you with this pearl of wisdom. Fuck autocorrect.

  10. I find it gut-wrenchingly difficult to write a review of another writer’s work. If pressed why, I’d have to say that no impression is permanent, mine included, and I’d feel awful if I discouraged them. What I liked or appreciated in writing at one point in my life is not the same today, and I’m sure in the future my tastes will change yet again. So how useful is my input? Not very.

    Critique groups are helpful when it comes to the building blocks of writing: proofreading; grammar; consistency in tense; other stylistic matters. But to ask me, a nonfiction writer, to critique someone’s efforts in science fiction, or teen paranormal? Useless. It’s not my genre.

    Purple ink is my favorite. It’s the color I chose to sign my own books 🙂 Red is powerful, and harsh.

  11. I only offer criticism when SPECIFICALLY asked for it. I am always willing to offer praise for writing I like, but if I hate it, I’ll just forget to write a review.

    Writers are so sensitive about their work, so even if it’s really bad, I cannot bring myself to say so. On the other hand, if I don’t like it, I don’t pretend I do. I will say nothing, but unless we are dealing with correcting actual facts, I can’t do it. It causes too much hurt. Especially since I’m never sure how good I’m writing either. I just do it anyway.

  12. If I want my writing to be enjoyed by others I need specific help. For in anything in which I strive to succeed, I welcome the tools to make me , or “it”, better. I have only experience in editing young people’s stories~it was pointed and specific. And knowing their hearts and intended message helped the critique/editing conversations flow with better understanding. I used peer-to-peer editing which, at times, lowered the anxiety and allowed for the students to more freely express and examine their work. To this day I wouldn’t expect anything less than specifics from an edit of my own writing. (minus my personal journaling and blogging). I expect cringes from some who read and a “that’s nice” from others. If I ever pursued publishing I’ll be begging for you to edit me ~and I’m ok with any color. 💚

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