Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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A reviewer might wield any number of tools in the process of reducing your writing to Swiss cheese. Some critiques follow a predefined method; others are loose and free. Some discuss only broad narrative elements (the "Macro"), while others leave the Macro to others and focus on immediate grammatical or stylistic elements (the "Micro").

Regardless of the manner in which your work has been reviewed, however, you should first run the review through a series of questions before you change your writing--a review of the review, so to speak. It's especially important to ask yourself these questions when you've received a review of an isolated chapter of a much longer--and most likely uncompleted--work. Writing is, of course, an attempt to communicate, which is why following basic rules of grammar and punctuation is always advisable; if readers can't understand what you mean, or if they have to consciously recast your sentences in their minds in order to follow your story, then it's time you revisited the basics. But when Joe Q. Reviewer jumps in at Chapter 41 of your latest pseudo-medieval fantasy novel, he doesn't know what occurred in the first forty chapters, he doesn't know your characters or your world, and he doesn't know where your story is heading. In all likelihood, he has little sense of you as an author. So when should you heed his advice, and when should you ignore it? Sometimes good, solid advice will seem terrible at first blush; other times advice that won't help at all--and may even hurt your writing--will seem spot on. My advice is that no matter how logical (or illogical) a reviewer's suggestions may seem, always ask the following questions before either implementing or dismissing his or her suggestions (and these are good general questions to ask no matter what's been reviewed, even a completed short story about to be sent to Asimov's):

1) How much do I know about the reviewer?
a: Is the reviewer representative of my audience?
b: Do the reviewer and I share similar tastes?

2) Have I already given thought to the points the reviewer has raised?
a: Has the reviewer considered my intentions before criticizing my execution?
b: Is the reviewer attempting to hijack my story?
c: Is the reviewer pedantic?

3) I don't agree with a reviewer, but am I just being stubborn?

Let's explore these question further.

1) How much do I know about the reviewer?

Always ask, "Where are this person's opinions coming from?" I always chuckle when I see Americans sternly instruct British or Australian or Canadian writers to change their S's to Z's.

1-a: Is the reviewer representative of my audience? (And why that question is only the beginning.)

Let's say you're a workshop member who writes hard science fiction. You post a hard sci-fi story to the workshop and then look for something to review. Since you enjoy a good fantasy story every now and then, you review the first sword-and-sorcery yarn you stumble across. A few days later, you discover that the author of the fantasy yarn has left you a return review. You happily click to the proper page and begin reading. Initially you're disappointed by the 1's and 2's he gave you for ratings, but knowing that taking a few knocks is all part of the learning process, you go on and study his review carefully. It turns out that this reviewer doesn't read hard science fiction and never has; in fact, he doesn't seem to like it much, as sub-genres go. Consequently, he complains about your "Star Trek-like techno babble," claims your story has no emotional content, not enough sex, whatever. A little put off although you know you shouldn't be, you sit back in your chair and consider how to react. Should you change your story to suit this reviewer's tastes? Well, no, not necessarily. In fact, probably not, I'd say. But does it follow that the reviewer is "wrong" and that you shouldn't listen to him at all? No, it doesn't necessarily mean that either. And there's the rub.

Although it's important to know your audience and to judge if a reviewer qualifies as such, ultimately a reviewer's reading history and to-buy book list are ineffective guides to determining whether to take his or her advice. Unfortunately, the onus falls on us, the authors, to decide if a suggestion concerning our writing should be heeded. And although it's a convenient shield against criticism, striving solely to please some vague subset of readers you've deemed your "audience" will only limit your ability to learn and improve as a writer.

Asking the following questions will help you decide what advice to listen to, and what to ignore.

1-b: Do the reviewer and I share similar tastes?

Let's say you're a narrative stylist. You use dialect, sentence fragments, and single-word paragraphs. You write with a poet's flare, because you don't consider prose to be defined by the fact that it's not poetry. There is, of course, an audience for good stylistic fiction, if salability happens to be among your criteria for determining what's viable, effective writing. Along comes a reviewer with his red pen, his memories of harrowing English classes, and his well-worn style manuals spread out on his desk. This studious reviewer explains--always backing himself up with quotes from the same books his English professors infuriated him by quoting--how your style is "wrong," how it should be "corrected," and how he knows just the manner in which to make your writing "work." Should you, the proud stylist, change anything based on such a review? A difficult question, to be sure. But don't crumble beneath the weight of such a review simply because you can feel that weight. Think about it; make the decision for yourself. Thousands of brilliant risk-takers have had their confidence driven into the ground by overly studious--though usually well-meaning--reviewers. Unable to defend against the onslaught of "oughts," they fall in line, and begin to write flatly, grammatically, and in a way no one wants to read, because it's boring. Why is it boring? Because these gifted writers are not being true to themselves. They want to be free. They want to let their vision and their imagination soar.

Allow yourself room to discover your own voice. Some people will help you down that road; other people, however, will try to waylay you en route.

2) Have I already given thought to the points the reviewer has raised?

If a reviewer raises a point you never fully considered, it's time to stop and think--always. But what if he acts as though he's hit upon something you clearly missed, even though you didn't miss it at all?

2-a: Has the reviewer considered my intentions before criticizing my execution?

Beethoven continued to write music even after he went deaf. When he used dissonance in those later pieces, what do you imagine the critics of his time had to say? "Poor old Beethoven," they whispered, "he can't hear how awful that sounds!" Time, however, has been kinder to those masterworks. Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing; those instances of dissonance were hardly mistakes. Joseph Conrad was a Pole by birth. He didn't set foot in England until he was twenty-one. Consequently, when his difficult, challenging fiction was published, it was "interpreted as an amateur's or foreigner's clumsiness" (Guerard, Introduction to Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, pg 7). We can't all be Beethovens or Conrads, of course, but if a reviewer appears to have failed to consider your intentions before criticizing your execution, weigh his interpretation against the interpretation of several other people (at least) before you change a word. Reviewers often can't avoid the temptation to critique what a thing is not, rather than what a thing is. Has the reviewer faulted you because your tasty little orange happens not to be an apple?

2-b: Is the reviewer attempting to hijack my story?

There are two levels on which a reviewer might attempt to rewrite your story for you: the Micro and the Macro.

The Micro: Be wary of anyone who suggests you change a phrase you wrote to a phrase of their choosing when the two phrases say and mean different things. Be wary of any attempt on the reviewer's part to tell you how to actually write your story (not how to think about it, but how to write it). I don't mean you shouldn't listen, just that you should be wary.

Remember, in the shorthand of copyediting (which is dominated by marks of correction and deletion), there is also STET, which essentially means Leave as is, or sometimes Don't you dare make that change! I once heard the story of an author who, after receiving an overly intrusive copyedit, returned her manuscript to her publisher plastered with STETs and with Write your own damn book! scribbled in the margin.

The Macro: Be wary of anyone who seems to think they know your characters more completely than you know them. For better or worse, only you can know what your characters think, how they feel, and what they know or don't know. As we become better writers, we learn to represent our characters with greater subtlety, clarity, and truthfulness. But no matter what stage you're at with your writing, the characters are yours. (Again, I'm not advising a preemptive strike against any reviewer's suggestions, only that you be wary.)

The same can be said of plot and setting. This is--again--especially true when you receive a review of an isolated chapter of a novel. What does Joe Q. Reviewer know about your world, your characters, your plot, when he jumps in at Chapter 41? Where the Macro is concerned, he can do little beyond comment on where your narrative dance-steps are leading him. But like the "Is the reviewer representative of my audience?" question, this criteria alone--that a reviewer has changed the meaning of a sentence, or that he's not familiar with the plot--are ineffective guides to determining whether to dismiss a reviewer's suggestion. The onus remains on us.

2-c: Is the reviewer pedantic? (And do I want to write like him?)

As is true of most words, "pedant" has more than one definition. When I say it, I mean "a person who insists on strict adherence to formal rules or literal meaning at the expense of a wider view" (definition #1 in The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition). University writing courses do at times churn out pedants. But beware, the pedantic come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be difficult to spot.

Most people, for obvious reasons, don't appreciate being called pedantic. They've probably learned a harsher definition than the one I prefer, such as: "A pretender to superior knowledge" (Addison), which is not what I mean... necessarily. (It sure sounds fantasy, though, doesn't it? Put some capitals in there and we've got a rogue sorcerer on our hands.)

Here are a few telltale signs that you're dealing with someone I'd call pedantic:

  • He falls back on (in whatever words): "It's a rule. I didn't make it up."
  • He piously quotes style manuals as though they were Gospel truth rather than a list of suggestions. In other words, he enshrines rules of thumb.
  • He criticizes you for using techniques that a thousand wonderful authors use to great effect every day.
If someone wants to write in a manner I'd term "pedantic," that's well and good. Plenty of wonderful authors are out there writing pedantically even as you read this essay. We all need to find what works for us. But what these people are potentially doing is closing doors of expressive power, sacrificing the "wider view" on the altar of "formal rules" and "literal meaning." A book tells them that colons have no place in modern writing, so they reject that cool, versatile little mark. Another book tells them that tags on direct interiors (= a character's inner thoughts) are unprofessional, so in order to avoid them, they force themselves to twist around every sentence where a tag would be the most natural thing to use. In other words, they conform to what they perceive to be The Rules governing effective writing.

But that begs the question, what is effective writing? Can you cultivate a narrative voice by memorizing every style manual in your local library? (Bear in mind that style manuals are like the Gospels only in their tendency to contradict one another.) No, of course you can't--not by that alone, at any rate. An author has to work long and hard to establish his or her own narrative voice, his or her own style; it can't be borrowed from Strunk & White or Modern English Usage or The AP Stylebook. These books either serve a specific function that has limited relevance to writing fiction (e.g., The AP Stylebook is for Associated Press journalists), or else the books are merely planting guideposts on the road to establishing personal narrative aesthetic. As a fiction writer, the only rule to live and die by that you'll find in any of these books is Strunk & White's maxim, "One must first know the rules to break them." Don't be cowed by reviewers simply because they're able to back up their suggestions with quotes from old books sporting venerable titles. Instead, go out and read those books for yourself, decide for yourself what's worth adopting and what's better left to the journalist or the writer of corporate memos.

3) I don't agree with a reviewer, but am I just being stubborn?

This essay has concentrated on establishing criteria for dismissing suggested changes to one's writing. That's because I've seen greater harm done to writers and their writing by their having taken suggestions than by their having ignored suggestions. Thrusting into the harsh light of criticism what often feels like a textual rendering of our hearts and souls can be a traumatic experience, and fragile writers especially should have a methodology for evaluating difficult reviews: they can then let the arrows that come winging down their data-lines dent the armor of these questions rather than puncture the flesh of their creations directly.

The fact remains, however, that example and suggestion--such as those one gathers through online reviews--are among the greatest instruments available for improving one's writing. They rank right up there with Practice and Dedication. Consequently, it's of no small importance to also ask yourself whether you disagree with a reviewer simply because you're being stubborn. Although it can be helpful to arm ourselves with a battery of questions to help facilitate scrutinizing a review as studiously as the reviewer has scrutinized our writing, wise writers don't hurl those questions at a review simply to offer cover while they run and hide. A "claim of style," Ellen Key Harris-Braun, co-founder and CEO of Online Writing Workshops, LLC, wrote in an e-mail to me, can be a "misused refuge of the stubborn," allowing touchy writers to "hide their faults." If you're to reap the enormous benefits of online writing workshops, then you must be receptive to suggestion and commentary in whatever form it comes.

Hesitate before deleting substantive reviews, even if you don't agree with what they say. Just as it's often beneficial to leave a short story in your drawer for a few weeks before editing it, it's often beneficial to let a review sit for a few weeks before reevaluating it. Writers are often superb rationalizers. When we put our minds to it, we can rationalize even the most horrendous authorial decisions. But often those rationalizations lose their power to convince once the imprint of the story in question has been lifted from our neurological grooves and we're able to see the story with fresh eyes. The struggle between authorial doting and critical knuckle-slapping will never end. Nothing has ever been written that is immune to criticism. Even if you were Miguel de Cervantes or Hermann Hesse or Stephen King, it would still be possible for a dedicated reviewer to make Swiss cheese out of your writing. All we can do is machete our way through the wilderness of critical opinion and hope we come out the other side with something worth reading. Ultimately it's a question of balance. Don't be a sapling, which bends at every push, but don't be an oak either. Stories should not be written by committee, but neither should they be written in seclusion, cut off from all sources of conscientious criticism.