Are You a Critic, or Are You a Writer?

As usual, I have been having myself a good laugh at other’s expense over on the website that hosts a huge chunk of my works. I have been reading the very over-the-top argument and certified rant regarding a certain newly Hollywood popularized trilogy. To put it bluntly, aside from the writer of said rant going on about how badly written the books are, the originator of the post apparently also insists upon picking apart the entire symbolism of the storyline. This whole jaunt into critiques has me once again shaking my head and wanting to make a few points in regards to not only writers, but readers as well as critics who insist upon putting their two cents worth into the unraveling of a storyline.

First I would like to point out that the originator of the post/rant has made two very common mistakes in the critiquing process that most critics make but that every critic should have better sense than to make in the first place. In critiquing, the rules are simple, and I have pointed these out on many a post in regards to the matter.  The rules that have been broken that the poster in the rant I am referring to are as follows:

1.  Attempting to pick apart the symbolism in a storyline that you did not write. 

Here is how this works.  Unless the author specifically details every single aspect of the symbolism in a novel/storyline, he who did not write the novel is only guessing. Don’t guess. You can debate and discuss amongst yourselves all you want, but to openly try to tell others what the symbolism actually is in the story is not only incredibly presumptuous, but shows your lack of experience as a writer if you are one, and your lack of intelligence as a critic if you are just an avid reader. By doing this you have also simultaneously broken another very important rule when it comes to critiquing a story:

2.  Do not presume to know what the author is thinking or where the author is going with a storyline. 

Again, unless an author sits down and spells out every single last detail, no one will ever know every single last secret to the symbolism in a storyline. Chances are there is even symbolism in the work that the author was not even trying to make and are just happy coincidences. Many times over there is symbolism and references that readers will –think- the author was trying to make when he/she had no intentions of making such symbolism in the storyline in the first place.  To be brutally honest, you are not the author, so stop acting like you know what he/she was getting at, what the symbolism is all about, and what the author was or was not trying to accomplish.    

Critics and readers are notorious for trying to figure out what an author was getting at, trying to accomplish, and trying to unravel all the intricate symbolism of a story. Writers naturally want to do this because we have very curious minds and want to try to spread everything out into a neat little line. Again, debating such things are fine; I often enjoy myself a good debate with other authors on what was being conveyed in novels that I have read. It’s a good intellectual exercise to see what others think about certain storylines, to see how writers can read the same novel and find so many different aspects in the symbolism.  Where writers should tread lightly, however, is when they get so full of themselves that they think they actually know what the author was thinking. 

It is when we stop looking at storylines as authors and begin to try to analyze every single detail that we forget what it means to be a writer, to create the storylines and weave the intricate web that will have others trying to figure out what we were thinking at the time and what we are trying to convey with specific scenes and characters. In the end, writers should either be critics or writers, but never both.  Because it is when we stop writing as storytellers and begin writing as critics and editors that we lose not only our creativity, but the respect we have gained as a purveyor of creative literature.

More on Critiques of the Written Word

 

As authors who pour our hearts, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into our art form, we do not take well to criticism … of any type.  After all, no one likes to hear that someone does not like something that they not only put so much time, energy, and effort into, but basically put a part of themselves into as well.  And let’s face it, even constructive criticism is still negative no matter how nice you try to be about it.  So with this thought as my basis I decided to expand on criticism of the written word.

First off, I would have to say that the single most important thing to remember as a critic, and as a reader of a story, is that your dislike of a story for any reason aside from grammatical and spelling issues is your fault, not the author’s. And even the grammatical and spelling issues cannot be laid fully at the feet of the author as authors are, after all, only human, as are their editors and proofreaders, and no amount of spell checks and all the editors in the world will ever catch 100% of grammatical and spelling errors.  So, if you do not like a story, it is neither a reflection of the author’s ability to write nor their ability to be a good story teller. The dislike of the story rests solely on the reader.  Unless you come across 300 pages of text-speak,  a never-ending wall of text, or something that looks like it was typed by a five-year-old and no one even gave it so much as a courtesy proof-read, anything else (writing style, storyline, genre, etc) that you say about a story is your opinion and as such has absolutely no merit and should never be used as a basis for a critique.

With this thought in mind, allow me to expand.  When it comes to critiques, do not second-guess an author or assume that you know where a story is going. You are not the author; you do not know what drives the characters, the storyline, or the author’s reasoning behind events.  It is insulting and disrespectful to assume you know more about the storyline than the author.  As I have said so many times before, do not assume that you know how to write another person’s storyline better than the originator of that storyline.

Do not question an author’s writing style.  I have said this so many times on so many blogs and articles that it is getting redundant, yet I am still getting ‘critiques’ on my writing style.  An author’s style is their trademark; it is what sets them apart from all the tens of thousands of other authors on this planet.  If you are going to critique an author’s style, the heart of what makes an author unique, then stop. Don’t bother wasting your time because the last thing an author is going to do, is willing to do, or should ever be asked to do is change that part of them that makes them their own unique writer.  If you don’t ‘get’ an author’s style or do not like it, then either deal with it or don’t read it, but don’t criticize it.

Also, do not assume that you have the right as a reader to demand changes to an author’s storyline or their style. You can make suggestions, but since it is the author’s creation and their copyrights that we are being given privy to, it is ultimately their choice as to the style and storyline of the work at hand.  Again, just because you think it would have been better if the storyline had went in another direction does not give you the right to demand that an author change it, or even bring the suggestion up.  Again, this goes back to assuming that you know what an author is thinking or where they intend to go with a storyline.  For all you know, some insignificant character or point in a storyline could be picked up ten novels down the road.  So stop assuming and just go with it, or don’t read it, but don’t bring it up.

And perhaps the most important rule in providing critiques is to always, always keep in mind that there is an actual person behind these stories and novels.  The authors have created something special to them, put down a piece of themselves, and are allowing us the privilege to take part in something very close to their hearts.  To criticize their work, even when you are trying to help them, is to criticize the person behind the work.  Always think of how it would make you feel to hear your critique regarding something that you spent so much time on. Authors are not faceless entities or some pseudonym printed on the cover of a story; we are living, breathing human beings with real emotions. To trash an author’s work is to trash the author, and last time I checked, if this happened in the real world, chances are it would result in black eyes, broken noses, and a restraining order.

Critiques? Don’t Make Me Laugh!

If you have ever posted your written works on forums or websites that allowed comments/reviews, then you have probably come across such stellar critiques as:  ‘Great!  I loved it!’  ‘Really good!  I enjoyed this!’ You may even be familiar with such opinions as ‘That sucked!’  ‘This was a piece of total crap!’  ‘I hated this!  You call yourself a writer?’

We have all been there.  You come across such comments as these on your written pieces and you think, ‘Well, that’s great.  I’m glad you liked it, but exactly what did you like about it?  Why did you hate it?  Why did you think it sucked?  Why do you seem to think that I cannot write?’

As writers, our readers are our life’s blood.  We like to know what it is that we are doing that they are getting so much enjoyment out of.  Likewise, we like to know what parts they are not taking a liking to.  For the most part, writers with any amount of time and experience under their belts will take the opinions of readers with a grain of salt.  However, for some reason, writers of all experiences seem to pay too much attention to the ‘critiques’ that other writers give.

Writers make the worst critics.  In all honesty, they really have no business dishing out advice to other writers.  I know what you are thinking:  “But they write!  Who better to give advice on something other than a professional that has done this?”

Were you asking for medical advice from another medical professional, I would say that you were correct.  But writing is, for all intents and purposes, an art form.  Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader.  Writers are already extremely critical of their own work, so one can only imagine how hard they are on other writers.  They also have egos to rival that of any rock star.  We already think that we are the best writers ever.  So how can anyone who is never satisfied with their own work and who already thinks they are the know it all and end all of writing possibly give out unbiased judgment of another artist’s work?  In short, they can’t.

Writing is a very personal and very expressive form of art.  Writers can spend years cultivating ideas, putting their blood, sweat, heart, and soul into a piece of work.  No one, no matter how many published novels they have, how great of a writer they think that they are, no matter how many years of experience they have, can look at a piece of written literature and not inject some of their own style into it.  In other words, we are set in our ways.  We have our own style of writing, our own likes and dislikes, and our own opinions of what makes a good piece of literature great in our eyes.  They are nothing but opinions, and as such, they have no place in the critique of other writers.  Just because we think a piece would sound better if it was written in our own personal style does not mean that others share this view-point, nor does it mean that the piece of literature would, in fact, be an overall better piece of work if it were changed.  Not everyone wants to read poetry that goes by strict rules of rhythm and rhyme.  Not everyone wants to read a murder mystery that has all the loose ends tied up.  Not everyone wants their vampire novels filled with spontaneously combusting walking corpses that uses mind tricks to make their victims fall in love with them.  If everyone wrote like everyone else, then the literature shelved in libraries across the world would have no meaning.  So what if you have a published novel.  I have four.  So what if you have been writing for fifteen years.  I have been writing for twenty-eight.  And what I have learned in all that time that the only person who can make my writing better, is me.

In other words, critiques by other writers are pretty much useless.  There is only one thing that will ever make a writer any better at their craft.  And that is lots.  And lots.  And lots.  Of practice.  Think of it this way.  You can have the recipe for baking a cake memorized down to the letter.  You can have other bakers give you ideas and opinions all day long about what will make the cake turn out better.  You can read books and articles until your eyes are sore, but until you actually practice making that cake, all the opinions and critiques in the world are not going to do you one bit of good.  What matters at the end of the day is that you have put forth your best effort into what you have created.  Always remember that what you write in ten years is going to be different, and possibly better, than what you write today, because as a human, you will grow not only as a person but as a writer as well.  Don’t be afraid to try new things, and never be afraid of failure.  After all, even the world’s bestselling authors have been known to produce the occasional piece of crap.