Not Writer Paradise – Reader Heaven

I’ve been discussing constructive reviews with a friend of mine, and giving them some thought over the last couple of weeks. But not just any reviews – ones where you want to give constructive advice to a writer. I’ve covered reviewing before, but this time, I’m going to stick to the desire – or supposed desire – for constructive criticism.

It’s become a theme for me in the last couple of months. I’ve had no less than nine authors ask me for constructive criticism in the last two months – and those are the people who asked me outright, rather than just hinting at me. I do it for some people, but not for all.

So why do I do it for some and not for all?

The problem with constructive criticism is that it’s not all positive. The reviews that I currently give are all positive. Constructive criticism has to tell you what is wrong, where your weaknesses are, and point them out so you can fix them. It is not enough to just be positive – one of the key elements of constructive criticism is, well, criticism. It’s not positive stuff because positive stuff just isn’t targeted help. There are plenty of reviewers who will tell you you’re doing it right, and I happen to be one of them – but I do so selectively with an eye to when I like most of it, rather than if I don’t like much of it.  What I don’t like, what I don’t agree with, I just don’t mention, because it’s not the done thing.

Honing your writing skill is almost impossible in a positive only environment. I know when I write technically, I have to be told to redo a section, or a part, or re-jig it, I’m told what’s wrong and how to fix it. To tell me good, and then I keep going to be destined for ultimate failure. I am not in fact, told only that I’m good – that’s how I got good at what I do. When I needed to use the latest “buzz” words in criminology, or when my research was going off on a tangent, my supervisors didn’t tell me that it was all good. Thanks to them telling me how I was doing things wrong, I’ve been able to help myself, because I know the signs of things going wrong.

From the outside, it looks like this is something that people want. But I doubt that most people actually do. Oh, I hear many authors say that they want constructive feedback, but then I notice those same authors complaining elsewhere that they don’t in fact, like it. That the reader didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, or that the reader chose something that they’re really attached to. Or that the reader picked a bad time when they’re feeling down to tell them that something was less than optimal. Or that they don’t want one thing critiqued because it’s close to the heart, but they only say that after they get the critique.

I’ve seen writers change their own policies on what they want as far as constructive criticism, based on what’s happening at work, what’s going on in their menstrual cycle, how many fights they had with their husband. If you think I’m going to step into that landmine blindfolded as to all your other influences…huh…think again. My constructive criticism doesn’t rely on such things – there are days when I don’t review anything, or pause to review, because I’m not feeling my usual self, and know it.  But while I will hesitate to say bad things about a person who can be readily identified, some people don’t, and will name and shame…and bash. That’s not for me. I’d rather just not put myself through that.

But there’s more than just the personal grief I will get from the various groups of erstwhile defenders of writers.  If I enjoyed the majority of the fic, and focused instead on where the writer can improve – ie. the stuff they need to know – then they stop writing cause I pulled it apart, I lose a writer with potential, who could have improved their style rather than be discouraged from contributing altogether.  If they were expecting only good things, and I have not said only good things, then they’re upset and disheartened.  So I’m left with one less fic to read that would have been fine, and that lowers the aggregate quality of the stuff that’s left. I’m making my reading world worse, by not including one more fairly good author.

Maybe the writer will ignore my advice, and continue to write the way that they want to write…so I wasted all of that time for nothing. Why wouldn’t they – they can always find someone who likes it, and in the long run, my personal opinion means nothing against the positive weight of the majority of your friends reviewing, or the deluge of the ESN hounds. My reviews are worth the same in the numbers game as “That’s hot” and “That’s hot” can be an encouragement to go the way you’ve been going already. It is in fact, easier to go along with the majority than it is to improve at all.

If you want to look around at who loses in this scenario, it’s not the reader – it is the writer. As I go by the much vaunted “Don’t like it, don’t read/review it” policy, all I have to do is click that little red X on my tab, and you are gone, taking your work with you. You’ll keep going down the same path, repeating the same mistakes. The writer will never improve, because they have nothing to improve with. They think everything is wonderful. Why wouldn’t they, when people will review and tell them so? What is their incentive to change when they will get a gushing review from someone, who is not me?  Sure – that reviewer may have only “sex” as their criteria for what makes a great chapter, but they’re still willing to say nice things.

There are writers who’ve told me that but for my reviews, they would have abandoned their stories, but they’re not every writer I review. If I’m positive enough about the writers I like, I get what I want. Those writers who would have stopped but for my reviews have given me what I want, and in exchange I have encouraged them.  That works too for the other reviewers – they encourage what it is that they want. Or I can close that tab, say nothing, and the only thing you note is my absence from reviews – that’s if you care.  In the scheme of things, I’m one reader. What I like and don’t like are really worth little because I am only one reviewer. I am not legion, and I don’t tend to share a lot of attributes with those who will review things I don’t like.

Many writers act as if it’s easily done for a reader to give constructive feedback, and it isn’t. It can take me a while to work out what I liked, and what I didn’t like.  Sometimes it’s only through seeing what I thought was the problem because I’ve seen it as a problem a lot this week, and maybe the problem wasn’t overt enough for me to put my finger on it before. It’s only when I reach critical mass that I can say “Yep, that element, I think, does not work”. In order to do that, I need to have a completed body of work, and that’s not the nature of most fanfic. That’s where all that time I expend goes – figuring out something that I may as well shout into the abyss for all the good it’s going to do.

If something gets under my skin, I might casually hint that this is not the way, but I don’t close the tab. I’ve reviewed stories with Eric ripping underwear, even though it’s one of the principle wrong things that drive me nuts. I don’t mention it though, for all of the reasons in this post. If you don’t take my casual hints, or you don’t get what I’ve responded to positively, you’ve got virtually no chance of getting me to tell you why I started red Xing you instead of leaving a review.

The question you’ve got to ask yourself, is what exactly do I as a reader, get out of your improvement?

I get paid, professionally, by people who want to listen to what I have to say, with eagerness. They pay me actual money that I can put in the bank.  If they don’t like it, they have official channels that they can go through and they have to prove that nothing I said was right. I’ve yet to have a complaint lodged, so I don’t know the actual procedure. I’d even hazard to say that 99% of the time, my students don’t take it personally, as I tell them the way to get better.  If they do complain about me behind my back, my colleagues haven’t made my life hell at work. True to form for most of my life, and ever much to my bewilderment, lots of students love me, even after their final marks.

As a reader in this community, I have the potential to lose a lot by sticking my neck out. If you react badly that I didn’t absolutely adore every word coming out of your mouth, then I will be pulled down for it. Before you say that doesn’t happen – I know it does. I’ve personally had my character assassinated for saying that reporting fics is fine, and I have no doubt that it probably still goes on in certain circles, and I know it goes on to other reviewers. I’ve seen it happen to other people who’ve offered a less than stellar review – or questioned a writer’s motivation. Even if the writer themselves doesn’t do it, other writers and reviewers will do it for them. If the original writer maybe didn’t like to hear it and complained to their friends, my name is mud – and rather than not speaking to one person, there’s now one person who is a little mad at me with her rabid fangirls just hacking me to bits.

So at the end of the day, I’m not terribly invested in making sure anyone can be at their best.  Unlike with my students, I don’t really mind if people who haven’t paid me feel like they haven’t got what they wanted for free. See, that whole “it’s free – be nice” thing works in my favour too – or it should if I was considered equal in theory. That’s the fundamental underpinning of why I don’t leave constructive criticism for people though – because my opinion is lesser than the writer who puts themselves out there.  I am seen as some sort of upstart for trying to help you do stuff, when really, I’m doing something for you for free that other people pay me for.

Without meaning to sound cold, it’s of no concern to me if the writer stays a fanfic writer and never gets anywhere. The writer is there for me to access already, I can read them at will, so I will be getting what out of putting myself out there for them? Grief, lost time and possibly being ignored completely because I dared to say that the story has a faulty premise, characters are bland without the overlay of the original books, or any one of another million problems. I’m not getting the stuff I get at work – respect, support and money.

I pick and choose carefully who it is that I will give constructive criticism to, because if I choose wrongly, I will pay for that mistake more than the author will. I will be the person who gets a whole heap of crap from random people in the community. I watch closely to see the personality of the person who’s asking, I take a bit of time to get to know them. I’m pretty good at understanding others, and I haven’t paid a price yet.

I’ve been debating this point with myself over the last month – reading what people have to say about constructive criticism on forums, because for the first time, I’m thinking about doing something not in my usual pattern. Namely, giving constructive criticism to those who ask for it in the New Chapter contest. As it gets closer and closer though, I get more and more nervous about it, and I think I’m going to back out. I don’t know these people well enough to know if they’re going to go off about me. That’s a hell of a risk to take, and I’m not sure it’s really worth my time and trouble.

The very last thing I usually believe about an author is their assertion they want constructive criticism. Far too many really want only the positive – and that’s all they get. The difficulty for the person willing to critique a story is that those who want only positive and those who want genuine constructive criticism read exactly the same to the naked eye. A writer can say “But I really mean it” – and I’ve read that before, and it was a lie. Since the reader is in the dark until just after their reputation is fly shit, it’s a lot to risk.

That’s a terrible indictment on those who’ve created this culture. When people can’t get something from me for free that I get paid to do. Overall, the winner is me and all the other readers in the positive review culture. Fan fiction looks like it’s there to help writers. But it really doesn’t. If things take a wrong turn I have way more reasons to keep my mouth shut than I do to open it. It isn’t in fact a paradise for writers, unless they like empty, meaningless praise. It’s a heaven for readers who never have to write more than two words to keep the author going down the wrong path.