Once Upon A Time...

If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.

Critical feedback, and you!

by LJC

Once upon a time, writers understood the difference between constructive criticism and a flame. When critical feedback was given, good writers used it to try and improve their work. Bad writers ignored it, as was their prerogative. But there was no crime in daring to say that something in a story was not working.

Today, if you give critical (i.e. negative) feedback on a piece of fan fiction, no matter what the forum, or the fandom, there is likely to be at least one person who will inform you that "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," in order to spare the crushed feelings of the writer. More often than not, it is in fact the writer herself who makes the request.

Gather 'round, children, LJC has a life lesson for you: All fiction is judged by the same standard, regardless of the motives or intentions of the writer.

There are not separate rules for writers who write because it is a fun social activity, as opposed to writers who are interested in improving their work and their craft. Nor should there be. By limiting your feedback to spare the feelings of the one group, you are in fact condemning the other, not to mention condemning the audience to be forever bereft of better fiction.

The cardinal rule of writing is that the quality of the work should come before the writer's ego. Always. Period. There are no exceptions. If you write for fun, that's fine. But if you intend to share your work by publishing it—whether that means posting it to a mailing list, a newsgroup, a web site or your home page—you are opening up your work to constructive criticism. What you do with that criticism is up to you: you can use it to improve your work, or you can ignore it completely. It's up to you.

However, no one should have the right to insist that all feedback be positive. The mere idea is ludicrous, yet in these increasingly "politically correct" times, this attitude has become widespread online, to the detriment of all writers and fiction. By insisting that "negative" feedback be sent privately or not at all, you are robbing the author as well as every member of that forum of the chance to learn, grow, and become better writers. As a writer myself, and editor, and reader, I abhor the notion that the fragile egos of lowest common denominator must be catered to, at the expense of the rest of us.

A writer's goal is to tell the best story they are capable of telling. Anyone who writes merely for the gratification of receiving positive feedback to stroke their egos is not a writer. Is that an elitist attitude? Yes, and I make no apologies for it. This column has always and will always assume that someone calling themselves a writer is in fact willing to put in the hard work that goes with the title, and able to at least try to suffer the slings and arrows of constructive feedback without crumbling like a paper doll at the first sign of criticism.

Okay, down to the nitty-gritty of it. First of all, let's explain the difference between a flame, and critical feedback.

A flame attacks the author or the work in a way that is derogatory, inflammatory, and insulting.

However, if someone tells you that something in your story is not working, they have not "flamed" you. If they advise you to work on either the mechanics of writing, or your plotting skills, have issues with the dialogue or structure, they have not flamed you. If they believe that the characters are not acting in a manner consistent with the series you are writing about, they have not flamed you. In short, just because they said something "bad" about your story, that does not mean they are making an attack upon your person. Learn to separate your ego from the story. It's difficult; no one ever said it wasn't. Our stories are like our children, and we want to send them out into the world and learn that they were cherished, rather than reviled. But if your kid eats paste, dude... your kid eats paste. Not telling you so doesn't change the fact.

Of course, one's taste in fiction is subjective. Everyone has different personal tastes, and if yours do not coincide with the reader's, that does not necessarily mean that you are right and she is wrong, or vice versa. Authors should use constructive criticism to examine their work from a new perspective, and gauge for themselves if the feedback has merit and the work should be changed. It boils down to whether or not you think changing the story would make it a better story. However, while some things are subjective, others are not. Spelling is not. Grammar—with very few exceptions—is not. Canon is not. Learn how to distinguish objective feedback from subjective.

And for all you folks giving feedback, you're not off the hook here either!

All feedback should include a "why." Simply telling someone that her or his story needs work, without explaining why you believe that to be true defeats the purpose of giving feedback. Also, I am of the opinion that saying "This sucks," and nothing actually constructive makes you a whiny asshole. Saying "this sucks, and here's why, and here are some suggestions of how you can make it not suck," is proactive, and useful, and therefore justifies your existence.

Our goal in giving constructive feedback should always be to try and give the writer the data she needs to improve her work—if your goal is simply to insult the writer, cut her down, and blast apart the work itself with no regard for actually improving it, then you are using your role to simply satisfy your own ego. And what's more, it makes it harder for the rest of us.

Okay, so here's a distillation of what I'm trying to get across here:


  • If you write for entertainment, that's fine. But once you share that work, be prepared for critical feedback. If you can't handle it, then don't share in a public forum such as a newsgroup, website, message board, or mailing list.

  • Be able to distinguish critical feedback from a personal attack, or "flame."

  • Use critical feedback to objectively look at your work, and see if it can be improved. Do not reject it out of hand, simply because you didn't hear what you wanted to hear.

  • Armadillo hide is your friend. Try and grow a thicker skin, and don't take criticism of your work so personally.
  • Readers
  • All feedback should include a "why." Whether it's what is working, and why, or more importantly, what's not working, and why, it's the why that actually is useful.

  • Do not rip apart a writer's work just for the sake of being deliberately cruel. No one learns anything if they're so pissed off they reject your feedback out of hand, and if you're grandstanding just to puff up your own ego, you're wasting all our time.

  • Assume every writer is here to learn, and willing to listen. Better to give someone constructive feedback and have them ignore you, then not give feedback and have them never know they could have done something to improve the quality of their work.

  • Separate your thoughts about the work from your thoughts about the writer. If she's your best friend, or your worst enemy, you're not here to discuss the writer—you're here to discuss the writer's work on its own merits (or lack thereof).
  • Everyone
  • Banning critical feedback merely to coddle anyone's ego, or spare a writer's feelings, does more harm than good, and undermines the entire fan fiction community.

  • If a writer has the courage to share her work in a public forum (and websites—unless they are password protected—are public!), then she can use that same courage to receive critical feedback without falling apart, and in fact use it to improve her work. That strength springs from the same well, and we should be helping people reach for it, instead of keeping them forever in the dark where they will never learn and improve.
  • An excellent resource for both writers and readers is The Mannerly Art of Critique by author Peg Robinson. In the three years since its publication, it has become a part of the "Frequently Asked Questions" for the alt.startrek.creative newsgroup, and Peg herself encourages its distribution across the internet, in the hopes that it will help teach readers how to give feedback, and writers how to use that feedback to improve their work.

    LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

    Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts