I know I kinda touched on this particular critiquing issue the other day in a Facebook post, but I’d like to take the opportunity to expand on it a bit.
For those of you not in the know, I belong to a writing critiquing site called Scribophile. (For all you writers out there, I can’t recommend this site highly enough.)
In the 6 months or so I’ve been involved on Scribophile, I honestly have never had too many problems with the other writers on the site. For the most part, they have been lovely, supportive people, some of who have challenged the way I look at my stories. It honestly has been a real asset in improving my writing.
Since I have been not very well lately, my writing has fallen by the wayside. I also find work takes up a lot of my writing energy, since, well, I write a lot for work as well. So I have been working more on helping others with their stories than focussing in my own writing lately.
How the site works is this: In order to post a story, you need 5 karma points in your account to do that. The main way to build up karma points is by critiquing other peoples’ works. I often try to include in my critiques that the information is my opinion only, and the writer can take or leave whatever they want from my critique. I also offer them the chance to private message me to clarify issues, if needed.
There are varied ways to find critiquers, but one I have been using more than not is going into the groups I belong to and helping members of those groups with their works by critiquing them. I try to give good, constructive feedback (balancing positive with negative), and I honestly have never had a huge problem before with the other writers on the site.
Until the other day.
I saw that a relatively new member of one of the groups I belong to — let’s call her Leslie — didn’t have a lot of critiques on the works she posted. I thought I would be nice and read one of her stories.
The story was about a British couple in their early 60s discussing their seemingly broken marriage before the husband leaves for yet-another work trip. Their discussion bounces between antagonistic to bitter-sweet to accusatory and everywhere in between. The dialogue was excellent. I even told her this.
One of the (minor) issues I had with the story was there were too many crises. They don’t find each other attractive any more. He’s always working. He’s always in another city from her. They’re always moving for his work. Their kids have grown up and live on opposite sides of the world. They should retire. They have no retirement money because he made a bad investment with it. This goes on and on until the final discussion, which I felt was a bit too far, where they discuss their daughter who died in a car accident where the man was driving and the woman was critically injured decades ago. They haven’t spoken about this moment until now.
I found that was just a bit of a leap too far. I said so nicely.
Her punctuation was the major issue. It would have failed any high school American English class. There were run-on sentences, and sentences joined up that either needed a period between them, or a comma with a conjunction between them. She even used “it’s” instead of “its” (as in, she used, “it’s veneer,” which means, “it is veneer,” instead of “its veneer,” which means, “the veneer belonging to it”).
(Bear in mind here that a comma usually indicates a pause of two seconds, and a period indicates a pause of four seconds when reading it aloud. A period also indicates the end of an idea or sentence. I later asked Noel if I was nuts in thinking this, but he told me that he was taught that as well, so either we were both nuts or it is correct.)
To give you an example, not from her writing:
“She lit a cigarette, ‘My mother is a fish.'”
In American English (and I would assume any English), these are two separate ideas, not related, and therefore should be two separate sentences.
“She lit a cigarette. ‘My mother is a fish.'”
This would be different if she wrote: “She lit a cigarette and said, ‘My mother is a fish.'” That works because there is a “she said” before what she actually said.
That was one of her major problems.
To give you an example, not from her writing, of run-on sentences:
“‘I went to the store, it was very busy, I ran into Harry, and bought some orange juice.'”
There is so much going on here that it needs to be separated out a bit. One option:
“‘I went to the store — it was very busy. I ran into Harry there — and bought some orange juice.'”
“‘I went to the store. It was very busy. I ran into Harry there. I bought some orange juice, too.'”
(Actually, there are plenty of ways to write this sentence, but separating it all out by commas is a nightmare to read, on the page or aloud.)
That was another one of her major problems.
So, instead of doing my normal “freeform” critique, where I discuss the areas that I feel the story needs work in separate paragraphs, I picked to do an “inline” critique, where I could correct all the punctuation and grammatical problems with the story.
In no way, shape, or form did I degrade her or mock her, but I basically said that I was making corrections to the punctuation to make it easier to read. My comments also discussed the strong dialogue and the concern about having one too many crises.
I spent quite a while reading, re-reading, taking notes, and then finally critiquing the story. I probably spent about an hour to an hour-and-a-half on it.
Not even a few hours later, she sends me a quite rude message in my personal inbox on the site to state a) she’s better qualified than me — she’s a English as a Second Language teacher! — b) I have no idea what I’m talking about, and c) here is a list of books to show she’s right and I’m wrong.
The main rule of thumb on Scribophile is that if you don’t agree with the critique, leave it. Say “thank you” and move on. I have had a few critiques that have not been good, but I basically say “thank you” in public and on a private message. I have had one or two times where someone asked a question in the critique, and I have emailed them the answer or an explanation, which helped them understand better. Mainly, I do this because if the shoe was on the other foot, I would like to know the answer.
Back to Leslie.
I wrote her a professional reply, stating that I write all the time, and none of the people I have worked with or work with have ever told me I have a punctuation problem. (And every colleague I have in my department not only holds an English degree at some level — currently, I’m surrounded by two PhDs in English — but also are teachers as well.) I also told her she was free to ignore the critique if she felt she wanted to do that, but it would be easier to read if she changed the punctuation.
I also said that I apologized if she felt offended in some way, but she had to realize the rule of thumb on Scribophile, and the default answer is to basically say “thank you” and walk away if you are not happy with a critique. I also stated that I felt her response upset me a great deal, and it was up to her to rectify that if she felt she should.
She blocked me instead.
(And I never thought to sarcastically ask, “If you’re the ESOL teacher extraordinaire, why the hell don’t you know the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’?” Alas, that opportunity gone.)
To be honest, I was more incredulous than angry, but I was upset. I wrote the leader of our group, moreso to say, “Hey, you may get some other complaints about this lady,” than, “Aw, Leslie hurt my feelings!” Some of the people on Scribophile are emerging (or even budding) writers, and to get an email back like that from someone like Leslie would kill any confidence they had whatsoever.
The leader of our group is a very easy-to-get-along-with guy. He just is very friendly, very approachable, very knowledgeable, and I haven’t heard a bad thing said about him. Ever!
He wrote me back to say he was sorry about the experience, but Leslie had got upset (obviously?) by something he did, and she had blocked him as well. As a matter of fact, digging deeper, this woman has a reputation for doing this, and people on the site try to steer clear of critiquing her.
Well, obviously, I didn’t get the memo.
One of the recurring issues in my life is I feel like everything I do is my fault. I stew and stew and stew on, “What could I have done to make things better? To make things not turn out the way they have?”
As I’ve probably said before, “what-ifs” can be a very time-consuming and emotionally-draining thing.
This is one of the issues I have been working on in my counseling: I can’t control everything. I can only control what I do and what I say, and that is all I can control. As long as I feel I said and did the appropriate thing — and I even apologized if she found something I did offensive, stating that that was not my intent, which it wasn’t — that is all I could do.
I did think it through a bit at the time, wondering if I could have done something different, but I came to the conclusion, even before our leader emailed me back, that Leslie has a problem. Leslie is a big girl, and she should try to deal with the world wearing big-girl pants.
Leslie needs to learn to sit back, re-read the critique, count to six-hundred while composing herself, think critically about what the critique was trying to tell her, and, once she has settled down, decide on a course of action other than attack.
Most of all, Leslie needs to figure out this: “If I’m on a writing critiquing site, and I’m submitting my work for others to critique, I need to accept there may be critiques I receive that I don’t like or agree with.” Most of the rest of us on the site have.
(By the way, I did look up the punctuation rules I suggested, just to make sure I was correct, and all the sites I found confirmed my marking as correct. So there you go.)