Internet Criticism: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

A Graffiti ProtesterAnybody creating on the Internet will have to face their audience sooner or later. This is particularly true if you’re using a blog – and yes, most of us do, whether we’re artists, writers, or musicians.

Now the problem with all this is that writing and feedback simply don’t mix. Writing is best done alone, with a cup of coffee at your favourite desk, and a cat curled up at your feet. I look for feedback only after I’m done with a story – and even then I have to be careful who I ask. I have five friends whom I ask for feedback. Each of them gives me a specific type of criticism – some I go to for their clarity, and others I go to just to gauge their reactions (these people are my Average Joe testbeds). I’m sure all of you have your own teams of feedbackers – these people may consist of your professors, your spouse, or your bestest friends. And these people are people you trust.

Now imagine an online situation, where you blook your story and this unknown dude comes up and says: “hey I like your story but can you please do this: *insert*” Or he comes up and he tells you how to improve your writing. The second is okay – hey, we’re all learning, aren’t we? – but the first is downright horrible. And the worst kind is the one that comes up and tells you: “I absolutely love your story. The way you handled this blah scene was amazing, and the way you construct your blah blew me away!”

The effect of all of this is to paint the writer into a corner. All writers have egos, and all bloggers have bigger egos than writers. We only take criticism from the people we know and we trust, and this applies to life as it does to writing. The first kind of comment distracts you from your story, the second kind annoys your ego (if that’s inflated this is a bad thing for said reader) and the third risks you doing something other than storytelling (like – I don’t know – showing off?).

On top of all of this is the simple fact that Internet criticism is propelled by the lowest common denominator. Youtube comments, for instance, are at monkey level. And blogs attract like comments: thinking blogs attract thinking discussion, self-help blogs have this ethos of helpfulness about its commenting section, and blogs that diss celebrities have equally mean feedback.

So what does this mean for us? How can we write and not be detracted by all the chatter coming back?

My solution is, unfortunately, multi-pronged. I would suggest finishing the whole damned story offline, edit it, bounce it off your circle of feedbackers and then blook it, and I would think this the best way to do blog fiction (feedback can come at the end of the story, at a comments page). But not everyone follows this model. Some of us come to blooking because we want to create never-ending novels, and another attraction to the medium of blog fiction is the flighty feeling of cooking up a story under heat of reader anticipation.

So my other suggestion would be to create an ethos on your site that promotes chatting with the author, but not monkey level communication. You can do this through many ways – for instance a commenting policy telling readers what not to comment on. But the best thing to do, I believe, is to interact only with the things you are comfortable with – the themes in your story, for instance, or a certain character’s ability to deal with tragedy, etc etc. Salinger said a good novel makes you feel like you want to chat with the author who wrote it – but the important point here is to keep it to a chat.

I no longer comment on writing when I visit a blook. Long experience has taught me not to, because it is disrespectful of the other writer’s process. So I keep it to discussion about the themes and ideas brought up in his or her story, or I ask her about the characters, and certain points of the story I might not be sure about. I would suggest other blook readers to do the same.

One last thing before I close on this topic: can online feedback ever help? And the answer is yes, absolutely. But the caveat is to get to know the people commenting first – to read their writing and understand their views and to trust their opinions. And then wonderful things can happen, and constructive feedback that doesn’t bring out the ego-lion in you can start coming back and forth. Part of my feedback circle is the Chawlk writing community, and I know and love and trust the people there, even if I’ve never met them in real life.

So writing online can be a real challenge, especially if you don’t plan to finish it and write in solitude beforehand. But, like all things, practice helps. And if you ever start thinking yourself Shakespeare – bounce off your feedbacker circle. They’ll kill you and you’ll be better for it.

Now go write. And leave me a comment.

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Category: Learning To Write · Writing · Writing Web Fiction