Elizabeth Moon on Criticism

In my daily perusal of the writers’ forums I stumbled across an excellent post by Elizabeth Moon titled, “Constructive and Destructive Criticism.”  Read it.  It’s good.

And it just so happens that lately I’ve been thinking about the nature of story critiques and advice.  Maybe because I feel slightly frustrated that my Betas aren’t harsh enough with my stories.  Or because I sometimes think about seeking story critiques on one of the forums, but know that if someone went through and identified every single passive voice construction in my story as an error that I’d be seriously annoyed.

(Yes, I agree that you shouldn’t use passive voice too much, but I’ve seen people comment that they’d eliminate any use of “had” in a story.  Any use?  Any?  I forgot where I saw it now, but there was a published author (perhaps James McDonald?) who talked about how you might use a passive construction to deflect the focus of the sentence.  And there’s always using “had” because something in the story happened before the moment in the question.  But I digress.)

Anyway.  I stumbled across E. Moon’s forum post and thought it was an excellent read.  For me it highlighted the difference between what I would call technical criticism (missing commas, etc.) and story criticism (bottom line – does it work?), but really there’s more to her post than just that. (So read it.)

A few quotes for the non-link inclined: 

“Since the ‘rules’ for writing fiction can disagree, depending on which expert you’re reading, this means that nearly everything has mistakes to be found and pointed out.”

“But everyone who’s read manuscripts knows that ‘without mistakes’ does not mean ‘great story.’ A string of perfect sentences, flawless in their construction, may express…nothing much.”

“…we also know, from experience, that a good story can be killed by a relentless concentration on mistakes, if the writer (or the critic) doesn’t know where to stop–if he or she breaks what wasn’t broke, in the process of trying to fix everything. Anything that breaks the story (or the writer) is destructive criticism.”

“Until the story itself works, no amount of cleaning up the surface will work–shining the grill of a car with no engine doesn’t get the car moving. And telling the owner to ‘polish harder’ still doesn’t get the car moving. Descriptive criticism (‘There’s nothing under the hood’) is constructive; prescriptive (‘You should use a different brand of metal polish’) is not.”

“If the story needs a passive construction on page 17, or an archaic spelling…then that’s not a mistake (not a bug but a feature.) The alert critical reader will notice, but consider these things in context. Do they help or harm the story as a whole?”

I’m going to stop here before I end up quoting the whole post.  Go read it.  It’s good.

And, on another note, while I was cleaning my office today I ran across The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card.  It’s a good book and what gave me the idea to structure my novel as a milieu story.  (I CANNOT pronounce that word, by the way.  Milieu.  There are lots of words I can’t pronounce – the curse of someone who learned most of their vocabulary via reading.  The nice thing about spending time overseas – people don’t realize you can’t pronounce things!  Anyway.  Back to the point.)

Interestingly, I happened to open OSC’s book to a page (p. 120) that discusses “The Dangers of Workshops and Classes.”  Track it down at a bookstore if you want the details, but the titles of the individual sections are “We’re a family,” “Rapiers and scalpels,” “Is it Thursday again?”, “Lope de Vega syndrome,” “I liked the old version better,” and “You’re mismatched with the group.”  It discusses different problems that can crop up in workshops/classes and how to fix them.  Worth the read.

There is a connection between the two.  The discussion thread related to E. Moon’s post involves a discussion about workshops or crit groups which is what reminded me of the OSC chapter.

Both good reads.  Bottom line – don’t let someone else’s criticism kill your story or your desire to write.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of opinion or style.  In a later post, E. Moon makes a good point:

“…if three non-professionals (not pro writers and not pro editors) stumble over the same thing…then I need to do something. One professional triggers the “take a hard look at it” (this will be someone I know and whose judgment I trust) and two are an absolute giant screaming warning sign. But nobody can fix it for me…I have to figure it out for myself. I’ve had a lot of one non-professional negative comments that were directly contradicted by the next email I got and my editor. I shrug those off; personal taste means some things aren’t going to be to a given reader’s satisfaction and it has nothing to do with how well they’re done.”

Hmm.  Perhaps it’s time to add a fourth item to my list of “writing advice”?  Write.  Read.  Think.  Have Confidence in Yourself.  (Too bad that doesn’t shrink down to one word…)  I don’t know.  I think that one would then need a compliment like, Listen for Common Denominators.  (Did I just veer into Mathland there?  Compliment?  Denominators?)

I’ll have to give this one more thought…


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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