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
  • Windvein

    I think you’re fetishsizing writing too much. The whole “Write in seclusion, pamper the muse, don’t let negativity impinge your ART!” that’s getting kind of silly.

    If someone cannot take criticism then they should not share their work and taking criticism means not crying when someone says something mean, ignoring unfounded crits, humbly accepting praise without ego swelling, and acknowledging the ‘good’, as in they may have a point, criticism.

    I’d be interested in what the true serial authors say. I don’t consider myself one because my stories are finite, and completed before posting, but I’m happy with any comments I get. Even the monkey ones.

  • Windvein

    Well that’s a wacky typo. Should be fetishizing.

  • Eli James

    Unfortunately, Windvein, that’s just how I write. I mope in a cave and then occasionally I throw out a manuscript. Can’t concentrate on the story I’m trying to tell otherwise.

    I finish my stories beforehand (like you, and I’m sure many others). And I’m still figuring out how serial writers deal with criticism without affecting the story they’re trying to tell.

    If I find out I’ll jot it down and share it here.

  • Windvein

    Ha! I know lots of people do this. And I guess I do too, but it’s with a grimace. The “first drafts are crap” mantra has been burned into my brain. So I don’t share in progress work because I don’t think it’s fit for consumption.

    I think my studio art classes have desentized me. Haivng your work put before 30 people and then told, “Critique!” and the professor being more than ready to make an “example” out of someone has given me a thick skin.

  • Nitschke

    It’s not too hard to take criticism for me — it’s an inverted compliment. A lot of times, when I read web novels, if the writing could use work (usually I only say so if the author expressly asks for an opinion) or the story’s bad or whatnot, I don’t even take the time to tell the author so.

    After I view it as a compliment, I weigh what they said and if it’s a valid criticsm, I implement it. If it’s not I shrug my shoulders, thank them anyway, and say to myself that I can’t please everybody.

  • Stormy

    I’ve been lucky enough not to get any negative feedback (I’ve had a couple of spelling flubs pointed out and two incomplete sentences), and I was very thankful for that.

    Criticism can be a very good thing – one of the kindest thing someone ever did for me was to tear apart my first novel and give me 12 pages of feedback – it was a champion effect.

    I’ve one of those writers who believe that their work is inherently flawed – if someone likes it, then great – I’ve had a lot more people read through the archives than I ever expected (even if they didn’t comment).

    Comments on serial fiction – for those of us who haven’t finished the thing beforehand anyway – can spark new thoughts and new directions. You shouldn’t bow to every whim just to keep a reader, but sometimes you can meet them halfway.

    As to commenting – if I read something, I leave a comment. I try and look at one or two new serials a weeks, even if I don’t wish to keep reading, I’ll leave a comment on what I have read. (And maybe a review on PU).

  • rabbitchaser

    If you are following the stories in the Penguin We tell Stories experiment I think you will see a good representation of what can go right and wrong with feedback. What’s hard is telling the difference between readers and other characters commenting. Although their are some commenters that leave no doubt.

  • Scott McKenzie

    Couldn’t agree more, Eli. I’m a firm believer in getting fiction down first before sending it out into the world. I also go to friends and colleagues for feedback first.

    It’s not that I don’t trust Joe Public, but if you listen to all criticism and take every comment on board, you end up writing something based on committee approval rather than drawing from your own voice.

  • Eli James

    Sorry for the late reply, guys.

    @Windvein, accepting criticism is still tough for me. I tend to only listen to those I trust, and discredit everyone else. I find this mechanism helps to ground me. Perhaps I should take up art classes too!

    @Nitschke: I like your comment about shrugging your shoulders and letting it fly by (if it isn’t constructive). We really can’t please everyone, though we do try out best to be good.

    @stormy: You write good stuff, that’s why you probably don’t get much negative things. =)

    Criticism can be a very good thing – one of the kindest thing someone ever did for me was to tear apart my first novel and give me 12 pages of feedback – it was a champion effect.

    I think whether we accept criticism is also in part to the motives of the critic. I’ve had somebody do the same to one of my short story drafts, and it was eye opening. I loved him for it. He wanted me to improve, and he was doing it for my benefit – how could I not? On the other hand we aren’t likely to follow advice given by a snarky, jealous friend now, are we?

    @rabbitchaser: to tell you the truth I was thinking of exactly the same thing when drafting out the design for my online fiction experiment (it’s still in the works, so … yeah). They’ve got good implementation over at We Tell Stories. Watch them.

    @Scott: you were the one who articulated that point in the first place, after all. =) Nice to see you back again.

  • Scott McKenzie

    Thanks Eli. Just putting the finishing touches to novel #2 at the moment so I’m almost ready to come out of the wilderness again!

  • Eli James

    Dammit! I just realized rabbitchaser is a fictional character from Penguin’s We Tell Stories. They’ve been leaving easter eggs all throughout - ‘tracking Alice’, ‘Alice Ring 020 8133 8141′ and now … rabbitchaser

    *slaps self on head*

  • rabbitchaser

    Um…I’m a reader not a character. And while there have been points since this project launched when I have wondered who I am, I’m fairly certain I have a real person attached to one of my identities :) and I’m positive I am not an easter egg.

    I ran across your site while following a rabbit trail from their project and I try to say hey and let people know what brought me into their neighborhood when I pass through.

  • Gavin Williams

    I have this funny quirk. As a reader, I can analyze a text to the smallest detail, and be objective. I can even distance myself from books I’m sentimental about: I can point out their flaws, while still acknowledging that I enjoy them on a personal level, because I read it as a child or whatever.

    But when it comes to my own writing, I can’t tell if I’ve done what I want to. Because I can see the whole story in my head, and when I check the written word it seems to say what I saw. So, for me, the only way to know if my written words communicate the imaginative story in my mind, is to show people.

    I’ve finished No Man an Island, my online novel. I finished it probably a year ago. But I had no sense of whether it “worked,” so I post it online one chapter at a time. And when people comment, I learn whether I’m doing what I wanted to accomplish.

    I find it pretty easy to separate the good from the bad. Subjective comments kind of don’t matter: so-and-so likes this, but say-and-say doesn’t. Well, I don’t like romance novels and I enjoy some sci-fi, but not all of it — that’s something personal.

    However, some smart commenters are able to say specifically why they like something, and why they don’t. Then, I can see objectively if it’s something that needs tinkering, or something I want them to like/not like. I can see my authorial intention reflected in their response.

    Readers catch flaws in sentence structure, or clunky paragraphs, and point them out to me because I have this weird quirky blind spot. I can tell when they’re being constructive. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is being objective and helpful, and when they’re trying to be a troll, or contribute nothing of substance.

    We write in caves, certainly. But sharing the story afterwards can help us become better writers, if we’re willing to listen and then sift for the nuggets that help us. It’s the same as the long tail everyone talks about: readers find good stories. Well, writers are able to sift out the most helpful comments and improve themselves to attract more good readers.

  • CrazyDreamer

    *briefly re-emerges from his cave of other projects*

    I suspect that this really has to do with how you deal with other people and criticism in general. Some people can ignore the harmful comments and respond appropriately to the helpful comments with ease, and others can’t. Some people have to write in seclusion and some are completely incapable of editing their own work without a sizable body of criticism from a variety of sources. Personally, I’m the sort who really crafts through the editing process and needs a little feedback to do that. If posting something online in “first public draft” form helps with that, so be it; I can always re-serialize it somewhere more public once it’s been finished.

  • randomawesomeness

    OMGoooood, you’re sooo like awesome!!!! <3 I love the last line, it was like sooo perfect. :D <3

    By the way, I borrowed a line from your text and put a similar one in my essay. Hope you don't mind… I honestly liked the humor in your article. Funny writing. :)

  • Eli James

    There was humour in my writing here?! o.O