Perhaps you’ve seen the link over there on the right side for writing.com. As the name implies, it is a Web site for writers, but it is really quite a bit more than that. There is a vibrant and active community there, a whole bunch of people dedicated to helping each other out.
I registered over there some time ago, but I haven’t been that active. Yes, the whole ‘doesn’t play well with others’ thing raises its ugly head again. Lately, though, I’ve been dropping by the site every now and then. An important part of the community is the system that allows writers to critique each other’s work. I posted one thing there a while back, some writing that was not in my usual style, and I wanted feedback on whether the new style was working. One critique gave me some very valuable feedback, and I subsequently improved the piece quite a bit. I also got several other helpful if much briefer comments. So the system works pretty well, and there are a lot of generous people online.
There is also a lot of bad writing there. (Of course, I’m sure people have read my stuff and said “Wow! That’s crap!” plenty of times as well. The difference is I’m crappy on purpose. Loathe it or hate it, my writing is the way it is by design.) Posting poor writing there is perfectly OK; the whole point of the site is to help writers get better, and no one was born a good writer. That the people are there, asking for feedback, is admirable. That they accept criticism gracefully and even say thanks after you pick apart their work is awesome. So, I have decided to find an inexperienced writer and critique their work once or twice a week. It’s kind of fun finding a bit that has a good story buried in it and an author’s voice struggling to get out, and provide concrete advice and encouragement. Keeping the number down allows me to spend some time on them and get really detailed, and hone the language of my posts to demonstrate my points.
I could not imagine grading papers that way, day in and day out. Hats off to those who do. If I make any impact at all, it will be tiny compared to the good a teacher can do. A couple times a week is all I have in me.
Although I think I may have put my foot in it this morning. Not too badly, but it’s easy when you are criticizing someone’s work to take on the “I know more than you do” tone. I find myself particularly susceptible to falling into that voice when the critique recipient (critiquee?) is a high school student. You know how well teenagers respond to know-it-all adults without any credentials. I think overall I balance my advice, but today as I wrote my criticism I made comments about “as you become more experienced” and stuff like that, only to later dig in and find out the guy’s 35 and has been writing for years. All the more important he sees that his prose has a ways to go, but perhaps the message could have been delivered differently.
I am also a little dismayed at the number of badly flawed stories that receive perfect scores from other reviewers. I suppose the logic, especially with younger writers, is that if you toss them a five-star they’ll be encouraged and eventually figure out their errors on their own. This strikes me as a violation of trust. Here is someone specifically asking for constructive criticism and instead being told that everything is fine, when it’s not. Someone’s tag line in another forum: friends don’t let friends write crap.
Oh, well. I can’t change the world, or even the rating inflation at writing.com. I can only make sure that any advice I give is wrapped with the proper balance of humility and authority, and hope it helps someone.