Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

Ursula K. Le Guin by Ursula K. Le Guin

Depending on the Criticism of Strangers

I left this this interchange last fall with an open question about inviting unfiltered internet comments on your writing:

Do you consider it a good idea to offer your work in progress to numerous and/or unselected critics? If so, how do you decide which criticisms are valid and useful?

The responses went from “tried that and found it useless or worse” to moderate endorsement of the practice if done with caution. All the answers were thoughtful and interesting. Here are some bits I thought especially useful in pointing out benefits and hazards, or funny.

Lisa: “Mostly no, especially not a first draft where the main thing is just to get the damn thing down on paper. Later on it may be useful to see if there are patterns in reader reactions, or find where things are unclear. An author might be worried about an issue and targeted critiques can answer whether or not a problem exists. Nevertheless, random critics may not understand your genre, and may try to impose their own styles and tastes. If you don’t have a strong vision of your work, you run the danger of writing by committee.”

John: “An outside view can be important, but dozens of outside views at the same time? It seems like that could overwhelm the creative process and leave you in a worse place than when you started.”

Beth: “I think asking for online critiques (using a password-protected group) is better than not getting critiques at all, although I would much prefer to be part of a local group…. My favorite online critique was for a story where I made a joke about Schrodinger’s cat in a box. The critique I got said something like, ‘You’ve left a lot of loose ends in your story. Like, whatever happens to the cat?’”

(UKL: Beth says some online sites give points to critiques based on word count, the longer the better. What a weird thing to do! In a letter to a friend, Cicero said, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Sometimes I wish all the people writing 600-page novels had more time.)

Zena: “In some ways, looking for advice/criticism can become almost a diversion tactic: I have to find the perfect nugget of writing wisdom/affirmation before I can produce my perfect work; if I don’t find it, then I can’t continue. It’s like waiting for the planets to align.”

Dan: “Stick to a trusted, respected small group of friends who understand what kind of story you want to tell. And use your gut to determine which critiques to listen to. If they seem to make sense, they probably do. If the critiques from your small group are uniform, they’re probably right. Even then, learn to ignore them when necessary. You are the writer, after all. It’s your story.”

Lauren (who hired a teacher in an MFA writing program to critique her MS and got a lot of rules quoted at her): “Maybe we need to ask ourselves what we hope to gain from a critic/reader. Does our ego seek validation? Do our feelings want to be stroked? Do we want affirmation that we have indeed followed all the writing ‘rules’ and will be rewarded by the gatekeepers at the NYC publishing houses? Or do we want to learn if the way we’ve written our story is having the effect on readers that we intend it to?”

Caerwyn: “Sometimes, if I’m not quite sure on the problem, but still feel as though there’s something wrong, I’ll send it to a few friends, and then ‘triangulate’ ideas on how to improve the story by looking at places where people’s feedback overlaps.”

Kate: “… it’s tempting to look for encouragement from someone, so I consider sharing my draft.This usually doesn’t help me finish a story, and has actually stopped a few stories in their tracks.… On the flip side, if I get excited and talk about my story with them, I sometimes feel as if I am done, and have no more desire to actually write the story down, because I’ve now shared it.”

Leena: “Best ideas are born in sauna as a Finn might say. Sweating is necessary! …. Internet is full of trolls, why ask them anything is beyond me. They just want to make soup out of your bones.”

Leena’s reply was the first that came in — a great beginning. I definitely agree that “Sweating is necessary!”

Leading writing workshops, and as a long-time member of writing groups, I’ve learned one thing for sure: that what any such group most needs is trust.

Offering work for criticism, we’re all vulnerable. In a group, self-assured people have trouble restraining themselves from dominating less confident people, who have trouble getting up the nerve to say what they really think. Everybody has to try to speak with full honesty while fully aware of their power to hurt or do damage. Everybody has to listen. Not easy! Yet over and over I saw it happen in the first day of a workshop: a group of total strangers beginning to work together — cultivating mutual trust. By offering it, they earned it. To be trusted is to be empowered.

It’s harder to establish trust in an interchange on the Net (emojis just don’t do what a tone or a glance does) but it certainly happens. On this site, a lot of people have been willing to ask me questions about their writing, trusting me to answer them in good faith, and I’ve tried to deserve that trust — to listen, to answer honestly.

To offer work for critique to an unselected group on the Net, people who remain strangers, is to extend trust to absolute strangers. Some of them will take advantage of the irresponsibility afforded by the medium.

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: Don’t do it unless you’ve considered the risks. Pay attention to any comment that really makes sense to you; value any intelligent praise you get. That’s about as far as trust can take you. Keep an eye out for know-it-alls who make like critics, spouting secondhand rules. And remember some may be there because they want to make soup out of your bones.

This is not the voice of experience. I never gave my work to strangers to criticize in first draft or at any stage. I never submitted a piece to an editor or agent until it was, to the best of my knowledge and ability, finished.

But after all, to submit work, and even more so to publish it — the ultimate vulnerability! – is to invite the criticism of strangers.

All my life as a writer, I’ve handled that pretty much this way: If a criticism makes sense to me, whether I like it or not, I pay attention. If it’s somebody else’s idea of how to write, not mine, I ignore it. If it’s praise, I accept it. And if it’s trolls, I run!

The Second Voyage

All hands on deck! Anchors aweigh! Abaft the scuppers, luff the mizzensail, or something! Here we go again.

I invite questions about writing fiction from people who are working seriously at writing fiction.

And here’s how it works:


Send it via this form.

DO NOT send manuscripts or samples of your work.

Send me one question, of 200 words or less.

(Getting your question down to under 200 words may be part of the learning process. The more specific and exact it is, the better.)

Your question should concern only fiction – stories, novels, of any variety.

A question about the craft of writing fiction, the art of telling stories in prose.

A difficulty, a problem you have met, or keep meeting as you write. A question of technique. An uncertainty about how to write something you want to write. A puzzle: Is it bad if I do X? Do I really have to do Y? Can I get away with Z? My story-boat is stuck on a sandbar, how do I get it afloat again?

No autobiography, please. But it’s helpful to say how long you’ve been writing, and if you’ve published much.

Questions about how to publish, finding an agent, selling a book, self-publishing, marketing, etc etc, will be ignored. We won’t be talking here about how to sell a ship, but how to sail one.


If I have what I think is a useful answer for a question, I’ll post the question and my answer. I’ll keep the answer as brief as I can, but some topics will require or deserve discussion at some length.

If you think you can offer a better answer than mine, or offer a different approach, send it (as brief as you can make it!) and if I think it’s useful, I’ll post it.

If I think a question is a good one, but don’t have a useful answer, I’ll post it, inviting others to answer it. If you have what you think is a good answer, send it to me (as brief as you can make it!) and if I agree that it’s useful, I’ll post it.

And – this is new – if you have an idea about how I could add or do something useful here that I haven’t been doing, please let me know what it is.