Expert Authority and Critics

I had an exchange with a person I’m sort of “friends” with over on deviantART the other day over critiquing someone’s work.  (Think Facebook or MySpace “friends” here.)

This person’s been a very active, prolific writer for a couple of years now, and she’s grown a lot in the amount of time I’ve known her.  She cowboyed up and joined a couple of online critique groups and watched and learned from the critics.  She stopped writing so much fan fiction from Avatar: The Last Airbender and started working on her own creations.  I don’t read her work – she writes what she calls “romantica” and it’s not my taste at all – but I do read her critiques from time to time.

A little background.

Some months ago, deviantART implemented a critique system, by which artists can rate and critique other artists.  They give from one to five stars on vision, originality, technique and impact.  While useful for critiquing literature, dA – like most other online critique forums and sites – isn’t conducive to providing a method of critiquing a full piece unless it’s very short.  So the critics end up giving copy editing advice and corrections on spelling, grammar, word choice, punctuation, show vs. tell, and passive/active tenses.  Oh, and POV sometimes.

This particular lady has been an active critic on dA for quite some time.  She’s usually first on the scene and goes line-by-line through the piece inserting her “corrections”.  A couple of people have sort of taken her to task on this.  They feel this is copy editing, not critique.  She doesn’t offer much input on story issues, characterization, plotting or anything which requires a larger context to work in.  For one because she can’t with a system wherein authors are submitting their pieces one bit at a time (a chapter, for example, or a scene/partial chapter).

I didn’t know she’d been called out on this before, so when she posted a how-to on critique – giving and receiving – I told her I thought she did a good job, and while I didn’t agree with every point she made, I did think it was a good, useful guide for people.

She got very defensive.  She implicated that because she was part of more than one critique group, she has the knowledge about how it’s done, and this (her method) is how it’s done, period.  And instead of attacking her critique method, why don’t I join a crit group and go crit someone?

I stepped back, reiterated how valuable I thought her input was, and pointed out that not only did I join a crit group, I helped found (a now-defunct) one.  And I wasn’t attacking her critique method, only stating that making spelling, grammar and punctuation corrections is copy editing, not critique, and that I felt critique went beyond the available scope provided.  I explained how critique is generally done in Story, Section, Scene, Sentence and Word scopes, but only the latter three are available when the piece is submitted in small segments.  (There are probably more aspects, those are just the ones I can recall in descending order of magnitude and importance.)

I stand by my statements, and didn’t apologize for them.  She can get defensive if she wants, but the fact is, copy editing is very helpful to writers struggling with those aspects of their writing.  But correct grammar and diction and style and usage and punctuation in a story with huge plot issues and arc problems is useless.  Both weaknesses will get the author rejected.  She also moves from the assumption everyone she reads is seeking publication – something she’s not doing to the best of my knowledge – which is incorrect.

What do you think, writers?  Those of you who utilized crit groups, did you get feedback on your overall story, or just the immediate section, be it a chapter or two or a few scenes?  And if you’re a critic, what do you look for in a piece you’re critiquing?  Less – i.e., a small portion of the story?  Or more, meaning a bigger portion so you can see the larger contexts/problems?

Sound off, everyone.  Let me know.


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ALL rights reserved.


24 thoughts on “Expert Authority and Critics

  1. Oh I like this post! Because I know I could not critque as you are talking about here. I don’t have the knowledge or experience for it. So I would not even try to do that to someone else.

    Me either. And when I DO try it, I generally step on someone’s toes. Most people asking for critique aren’t really interested in hearing critique; they just want to be told how awesome they are. That’s how it was for me as a beginner, and how most people I’ve critiqued have responded, no matter HOW thick they claim their skins are. It’s just … that way, for some reason. Why we keep asking I’ll never know.

    It is frustrating to constantly hear I’ve got a long way to go, but I keep at it, because the two people that critique me (you and Ben) are helpful in doing so. I don’t cringe when I see a post or email from either of you. I take everything to heart and ask a lot of questions because I want to be better. I want to expand my reader base, and someday (as overwhelming as it is right now) I think I would like to be published.

    It is a long, hard row to hoe. I think not enough people begin with learning the language and structure, expanding their vocabulary, practice with writing exercises, creating metaphors and similes, avoiding dependence on modifiers, etc. Basic language is the skill upon which all writing is based. I mean, we’re WRITING here. Learning to do it and do it well before we try to get others to tell us how to do it well would be a major leap forward. Unfortunately not all of us take that route, and then we get our feelings hurt when we’re told we have language issues. It’s frustrating all right — for us, AND for the critics.

    Sorry to hear not everyone can appreciate your words Darc. But know that in this little corner of the world, I appreciate all the time and patience you have given me in my work. 🙂

    You’re welcome. But this isn’t something where I stand on an ivory tower looking down upon all my faithful minions. I’m as guilty of being defensive at critics as anyone. It’s part of growing; how we handle it marks our maturity. I wasn’t too mature when I got my first bit of negative feedback, I can tell you.

    • Minion 😀 That is so me. I guess I’m different because I come into it straight forward, “Spell check is my friend and I know nothing about grammar and sentence structure etc.” However, there is a lesson that Ben has etched in my mind forever, no “ly” 🙂 And everytime I write something I check through to be sure I didn’t use one in error.

      All writers can use help with spelling and grammar. When you’re consistently tagged for doing something wrong, using the wrong word for the usage, punctuating, etc., it’s on the writer to fix the problem. Learning should be that way. Saying “I don’t worry about grammar/spelling/punctuation until later” is a fast way to make sure critics won’t give you anymore critiques, because it looks like you’re ignoring their advice and don’t have a handle on the basics … you know, like language. So taking those steps to show you’ve learned and grown from the last person who helped is something important both as a writer and for the critics who review their work. 🙂

      I guess it’s because you and Ben are not mean and nasty “OMG that was the dumbest thing ever” or “Why did you even bother with that?” You actually help and give examples. Which is so helpful to me. Maybe I am just old school, I don’t know. Either way, don’t let some schmuck ruin your day. They aren’t worthy of being even your minion, much less someone to sweat it over.

      Those examples you cited aren’t critiques; those are insults and have no place in critique. And she’s not a schmuck — I’m sorry if I’ve painted her that way. She’s stubborn and narrow-focused, but she’s doing the best she can to help. I’m just curious whether she’s got it right and I’m wrong, vice versa, or somewhere in between. 🙂 Thanks for the support, too. I really appreciate it.

  2. Hmmm.
    I find it a bit humorous that a “critic” would get defensive about her “critique.”

    I thought it was funny too. And the fact that both instance I saw wherein someone said something to her mentioned how she’s basically copy editing struck me as amusing too. If one person says it, it’s opinion. If a bunch of people say it …

    I am not a member of any crit. group, so can not offer my experiences. However, I absolutely agree with you. If I were to post a piece for critique, I would not want to hear about my grammatical or spelling errors. I would want to hear about the guts of my work–the plot, characterization, etc.

    Well, certainly beginning writers need help with their prose in a lot of areas. For some reason, they don’t see their own words objectively on the page; they see them of equal quality with books they’ve read by their favorite authors. How they cross those wires, I have no idea, but they do. I know because I did it. And for people at that level of experience, copy editing is part of the process, to show them how to strengthen their words and sentences so they can craft scenes, section, and stories. But it’s not the whole and sum of critique — the other aspects are as, or more, important for more experience.

    People tend to get defensive when they realize they are in the wrong. I think you handled this perfectly.

    Well, thanks, dearest. I don’t know about “perfectly” but … meh. It is what it is. 🙂

  3. Those who can, do; those who can’t, critique.

    Hehehe … not always true, but it sure can be. I, however, do both; so does the lady I’m referencing. She’s a good writer in her own right, and tries to help a community by offering input. I just marvel at how STUCK she gets on “my crit group does this, therefore, that’s the way it’s done.”

  4. I have found that when you need to fall back on editing when giving a critique it’s for one of several reasons. The first is that you don’t have enough info because it’s a chapter or a WIP or that there really is nothing to say about the story content wise because it’s either really good or so awful you don’t know where to begin. Nit-pickers are, in my experience, people who don’t really get the concept of revision in the first place.

    The primary reason for offering edits as critique, and not making the distinction, is two-fold in this case: She doesn’t know how else to critique because she’s only been involved in online crit groups which do things just this way is one. (Which is why she’s so adamantly stuck on “this is how it’s done” in her arms-folded, brows-knit, foot-stomping attitude about it.) Secondly, the format doesn’t allow for her to review larger works. Online critiques are tough. And while she argues that the other aspects of what I call critique are left for beta readers, there was also a time not long ago when she claimed she didn’t need to properly spell and punctuate or worry about grammar, because that’s what editors are for. (I gently notified her that she’d never get her work as far as an editor if she didn’t learn those things, and she’s subsequently changed her tune, as you can see, though she’d never credit me with helping her down that road.)

  5. Kira. I knew in the first few lines.

    I forgot you even knew her. 🙂

    I would rather have the “how is the story going” critique than the copy edit. Given time I will find the typos or I can buy a grammar correction program, but only other readers can tell me if the story is good or not.

    True enough, and there is a point to be made about having as much grammar, spelling, and punctuation ready for reading BEFORE getting critique (not after; it makes the critique of other aspects tough, IMO). I think proofreading/copy editing can be done at any/all stages, but critique goes through those stages I mentioned in the post — story, section, scene, sentence, word. At least I think it should.

  6. I think the level of critique should be dependent on the level of the writer. A writer who is just starting out probably needs those line edits more than they need the story-level edit, because language is the foundation upon which the story is built. If the author clearly has a good grasp on the mechanics, then you can start talking about story.

    You think so? She does too, and a couple of people agree with her. I do too. If you can’t write a strong sentence, you won’t be able to tell a good story, no matter how good the story is. At the same time, I think there needs to be limits on that; offering copy editing service as “critique” and not knowing the difference is doing a disservice to the writer as much as it’s helping, don’t you think? The writer has to stand up and learn the basic eventually, right? Or maybe I’m cracked here? You’re better at this critic stuff than anyone I know, so I’ll defer to you on this one, sweetie.

    Of course, a critter should know where his/her expertise lies and offer that, knowing that others will be better in different areas. That lady is obviously inflexible, and hopefully she won’t sway too many people with her “my way or the highway” mentality. Just my humble opinion.

    Mine too. I think she’s being unreasonable, but she does this all the time, with everything. When her crit group taught her about gerunds, everything was gerunds in her crits and comments. She clings to the next thing they teach her. She assimilates it then espouses it everywhere, which in one sense is good, but in another way detrimental, because she goes around with blinders on. Now she’s convinced because her online group does it this way this is the way it’s done and that’s what critique is, period. She knows it all now, and there’s no confusing her with facts. Aggravating.

    • I would add to what I said above, there’s no reason a person shouldn’t do both.

      Absolutely, the more help you give someone the better. But you have to be careful with line-by-line editing because — as you well know — it’s easy to change the voice and style of the author. *Ahem!* Do you know anyone who did that? Hm?

      And at this level, I need story rather than language edits. It’s why I won’t post a chapter at a time any more, because I need someone to tell me how the whole thing works.

      Well, at this point, a live crit group or a good set of beta readers would be more help to you than part-by-part edits. I think I’m there too, though I still welcome typo catchers and minor copy editing along the way too.

      • And I just realized how douchey it is to say “at this level.” Not saying I’m high and mighty, just that I’m not a noob anymore. Everything I say lately sounds like arrogance to me. Maybe I should just shut up about it…?

        Or maybe you can just acknowledge you’re an accomplished writer with a lot of experience too. Either that, or you’re a douche, whichever. 😉 (J/K!)

  7. I just had the same run in with a male online who wanted to link up blogrolls and got pissed because I deleted the 3000 word advertisement he left on Hiawatha about his WWII love story. Then told him NO.

    It takes all kinds. It really does.

  8. All of the workshops or writing critique groups I have ever been part of have been context driven. Copy editing is what you need after your final polish. I’m surprised that someone with strong editing skills doesn’t pick up a dictionary rather than make personal attacks. The definitions are fairly clear. Defensiveness never has been well partnered with learning and growth.

    Well, I think she’s a follower. She loves her critique groups, and since they do it line-by-line, one chapter or two at a time, she’s convinced that’s how ALL critique is done, and doesn’t care what anyone OUTSIDE her group says. ESPECIALLY if they say something OTHER than what she’s hearing from them. So my saying there’s more to critique than copy editing was me basically attacking her religion. And that never sits well.

    • I found this so amusing and immediately thought of this thread – my muse seems to have taken an intermission without asking me first. What do I do? I cannot write so I edit. 🙂

      And editing may be the most important part of the process. Michael Crichton said, “There is no great writing, only great re-writing.” 🙂

  9. I joined an in-person critique group a few years back, but I dropped out after sitting through hours of other authors reading aloud their works in progress. I was just about bored to death. I have never done online critiquing, or received any, but at least we can think and read so much faster online. Verbally, the process is is painfully slow.

    WOW. I’ve never heard of READING ALOUD in a crit group. Generally, I’ve heard pages are exchanged each week, and the critics talk about the things they saw in the pages of the other writers, and then they repeat with the next set of pages at the next meeting. I also understood that big enough chunks are exchanged to give the critics a sense of the story so they can help with arc problems and such. But to sit through READINGS?! Yikes, I don’t blame you for dropping out!

  10. Oh man, I have comments to offer on every one of your posts this week. Promise I’ll catch up!

    Well, I’m glad you’re excited to provide input, but no worries; the posts are there when you want to comment. 🙂

    But on the question(s) raised in this post…

    Never been in an online crit group, only a “real-life” one. And that was years ago — and probably spoiled me for good. It was *great*. But I think it’s incumbent on the writer to make plain what s/he hopes to get from the critique. And it would help if critiquers, too, made plain what they could offer. If everyone’s honest, this way there’s less excuse for mismatches.

    I think that’s the ideal situation for a critique group. Giving input on the manuscript en totem is important — story problems, plot issues and flaws, inconsistencies, etc. And working down toward section problems, scene problems, and finally copy editing seems like the best way to me. But then, Sherri points out that beginners need help with the spelling/grammar/punctuation stuff. I wonder if pointing them to a style guide, spell check and grammar tool would be more beneficial. Getting the basics down before asking for critique; is that viable? I’m so undecided on it right now. I know both are necessary, but I’m not sure at what point(s) each is more important.

    In my old group, we had an unstated road map which each piece was presumed to follow, from apologetically-first-draft to fatal-flaws-ONLY-please.

    That’s a great idea, really. Love that. I think beta readers might be the more appropriate way to go for larger issues.

    I’m with others here: it sounds like you handled yourself just fine.

    Er, assuming you’re telling the truth. 🙂

    Thank you, sir. And, I’ve no reason to lie, JES. 😉

  11. I don’t mind getting either kind of critique… I was in such a hurry to post OOZING MY RELIGION that some mistakes got past me. What made me really happy is that some people enjoyed the story enough they didn’t notice…

    but on the other hand I am glad that some did mention my errors because I am a lousy lousy lousy copy editor.

    I failed English though most of high school and even flunked 9th grade once so I think it may be a minor miracle I can writes gooder english at all.

    So I’ll take a copy edit and I will take a critique… but I don’t think your friend should have become defensive but sometimes not seeing the face of the person your are talking to causes misunderstandings.

    No arguing that point, for sure.

    And I was once in a group that had you read your newest works aloud- this was when I was in my 20’s- once I got into the rhythm of the group I started to see how long it would take the people listening to me to become outraged. If they actually ran from the room it was double points!

    Reading aloud by the writer doesn’t help the writer as much as someone ELSE reading aloud, IMHO, because the writer knows what the prose is SUPPOSED to say and does a grand job of filling in. I’d say the way to do that would be for writers to swap pieces and read aloud. 🙂

  12. I’m not a member of a group. I agree with JES. The writer needs to be clear what he or she wants, and the critic should honor that. Editing for grammar and such is totally different than story. Both are necessary at some point in some order. When I edit my students I focus on the mechanics when they’re mechanics are so bad there is no point in getting to the idea. I focus on the content when their grammar mistakes are minor and easily fixed.

    I agree, I think it’s really hard to GET to the idea if the mechanics get in the way. Really poor grammar and spelling skills make it impossible to SEE story, never mind CRITIQUE it.

    FLEXIBILITY is a wonderful thing. Shouldn’t be an all or nothing.

    Well, unfortunately it is all or nothing online. Most of that is because only portions of the story are submittable when it’s a longer piece. We do what we can within that, but calling copy editing “critique” — and trying to kowtow everyone ELSE into calling it so because “that’s the way it’s done in MY groups” — is pretty … well, wrong. Calling a spade a spade is always going to be my policy I’m afraid.

  13. (Yawn)..oh excuse me..I woke up just as the post ended..thank god would not want to miss the end…wait let me back in an hour..please send out a search party if I am not back….ok ummmmmm not sure what is going on…yeah criticizing is bad…..zman sends…

    • Zman, how come you come back to Darc’s blog if you think he’s so boring? I imagine you’re trying to be funny, but it just seems rude to me.

      • Sherri

        Rude Ummmm NO…just making a social comment to Knyt about how he is long winded. Knyt is by far one of my favorite blogs..but thanks for making me justify my post very kind of you…zman sends and then yawns

      • Whoa there, cowboy. Dane’s my friend, and if somebody came to my blog and called me long-winded over and over, it would start to hurt my feelings, that’s all. Maybe you could think about how you’d feel if somebody joked around with you the way you do with him.

        Plus, I don’t find him long-winded. His posts are informative, entertaining and well-written. If your attention span is not long enough to read an entire post, maybe you really should just nap instead.

        • Sherri

          I do nap..I start to read his posts and wake up right before they end. I often find his posts informative and entertaining. I read every fourth word and often lose my place so I have to start over but hey every one has their crosses to bear ….zman sends

          Well, this is awkward.

          As you can see, Steve, I deleted one of your comments, which was, frankly, out of context with what I actually said, out of line with the tone of Sherri’s question, and just out of line, period.

          As my friend, Sherri and a few other people I have actual relationships with OFF the Internet have repeatedly expressed concern about your comments here.

          I’ve tried to explain to them that I THINK you’re joking. I THINK. I don’t know why you make rude comments about being bored with my posts yet continue to return, but I DO know I don’t think I’m comfortable with this sort of exchange in my comments. Sherri asked you an honest question without malice or venom and you responded with vitriol.

          Because you can’t seem to be nice — which I find interesting since you’re not nearly this hostile on your own blog — I’ve put your comments going forward into comment moderation.

          I’m sorry it has to be this way, but you’ve forced my hand, by jumping the shark and insulting my other commenters … and my friend. If this had stayed civil I wouldn’t have minded as much, but the comment from you I deleted was over the top.

          If 750 words or less is too much for your brain to deal with in a single sitting, I’d suggest you find another blog you enjoy more or which has shorter posts.

          I don’t mean to be so harsh with you, but I’ve had enough; this went too far, and I won’t sit and do nothing.

          Again, you’re welcome to comment and I won’t hold this against you as a person, but all your comments will be in moderation from this point forward.


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