Hi, everyone! I wanted to take a shot at something a little different this week. Namely, I’d like to start adding a few nonfiction pieces to this site. Most of them will be largely opinion pieces, but I’ll try to put some good info in here so that hopefully they’re a bit educational, too. I’ll probably do about one of these a month for now, and I hope you enjoy them. This first piece is adapted a little bit from a guide I wrote for DeviantArt a couple years ago.
Sometimes when we’re reading a fellow writer’s work, we really want to leave feedback. You know, let them know we did, in fact, actually read it, and encourage them to write more. If we’re all about the positivity, these comments are pretty straightforward to write. But what if there’s something we don’t like and want to offer suggestions on how to fix it? What then?
The general assumption I go by is if the writer didn’t specifically ask for critique or at least something that suggests critique such as, “I welcome all comments, whether good or bad,” you’re probably better off on the side of caution and keep the negativity off the keyboard. Some sites allow creators the option of asking for more serious critique, and that’s awesome. Hopefully more sites will offer the option in the future.
Assuming the author has indicated they welcome suggestions for improvement, how harsh should you be? Unless you know the author pretty well, the answer I’d say is not harsh at all. In fact, cushion the blow a bit. Here’s a suggestion on how:
Paragraph 1: Write the Positives. What were the redeeming qualities of the story? Put those phrases you liked while reading into a nice list. Mention who your favorite character was and why. If you noticed that you got through large chunks of the story without a single comment, point it out. It means that for those paragraphs, the author was doing his/her job and had your attention. If you can’t find anything you liked, go back and re-read. There is something there. You just missed it.
EXAMPLE: “My favorite part of this piece was your beautiful description. For the first three paragraphs of your story, I felt like I was lost in the forest with your character. I could see, hear, and feel everything that was happening. I especially liked your line about “the butterfly’s gossamer wings.”
Paragraph 2: (Gently) Write The Negatives. Here’s where you look at what bothered you, and here’s where you might have to do a little re-reading to state specifics. When you’re writing up a problem, state what the problem is in a courteous way, state any attempt you saw within the writing to remedy it, and state your suggestion for further improvement. That’s it. It’s in the author’s hands.
“My first impression of Bob was that he was so cruel, it was difficult to like him. But then I found out that his sister recently died, and I felt sympathy for him.”
* * *
“My first impression of Bob was that he was so cruel, it was difficult to like him. Can you give me a hint about why he acts this way? It would help me to sympathize with him.”
* * *
“My first impression of Bob was that he was so cruel, it was difficult to like him. I can’t pinpoint how to remedy this, but perhaps other readers will have suggestions.”
Try not to use this last option too much. Pick your brain a little bit and try to find some suggestion that might help. Do not, however, attempt to rewrite the story in your style. You may love long sections of dialogue, but if the piece you’re reading stands well without any dialogue, then there’s no reason to change it. Also, note that the stated “problem” should never be about the author’s writing in general. Bob may be unlikeable, but that doesn’t mean the author can’t write good characters. Focus on this story. Period.
Ending Line: Sign off on a word of positivity. If you really, truly, enjoyed the story, then say so. If not, just add that you hope your comments are helpful and wish the author the best of luck with his/her writing. This is as positive a note to end on as anything. At the end of the day, writers should be building each other up. That’s what makes the fanfic community great.