If you're a dreamer, a wisher, a liar
A hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean buyer
If you're a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin
Come in...come in...
~Shel Silverstein

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Unwarranted Praise...

So, something has been bugging me for awhile now. I debated on whether or not to blog about it, but I finally decided I needed to.

Here's the situation. At one point, while visiting various blogs, I came across one with a writing sample. It was something from the person's WIP--I'll call them Smith. And Smith's writing had a lot of problems. Too put it bluntly, it was bad. Not bad in a subjective kind of way, either--to where maybe I thought it was bad but someone else might like it. No. It was riddled with mistakes that anyone could see--abundant overuse of adjectives. Empty phrases. Lack of character development, unbelievable expository dialogue, a lot of purple prose,  a confusing set-up that made it impossible to envision where the scene was taking place etc...etc...

Every mistake was something that would've been easy to correct. Every mistake was the same kind of thing almost all beginner writers do. Despite the amount of mistakes it was easy to see that Smith has talent. What Smith needed was someone to go over that writing sample and give an honest opinion on exactly what was wrong with it. Because, how else do we learn, right?

Yet, Smith got over thirty comments on this particular sample--and every one of them said how great it was.  People talked about how well Smith writes. People said the scene was emotional. Intensely moving. There was raving. There was gushing.

 And nobody--not one single person--pointed out any mistakes. I thought about pointing them out myself and decided against it. The way I saw it, Smith just had thirty comments saying how great the writing was. If I came along, said it wasn't great and started pointing out all the things wrong with it, I'd have looked crazy. After all, everyone else loved it.

Except for that they didn't. They couldn't have. There is absolutely no way thirty or so writers read this sample and not one of them picked up on the amount of blatant mistakes in it. So, basically--they lied.

And I don't understand why. I assume they're trying to be kind. Everyone is so worried about offending people nowadays. And I understand that nobody wants to hurt someone's feelings. But being honest should never be offensive. And it's not a kindness to make someone think that what they're doing is good when it's not. Smith just lost a chance to learn. Worse, all Smith's mistakes were reinforced as the right thing to do. And I just don't get it.

So, if someone can explain it to me--please do. Have you ever said nice things about someone's writing, just because you couldn't stand the idea of hurting their feelings? Have you ever had people say things about your writing that you later found out weren't truthful? And how do you think I should've handled this situation when I came across it? Any opinions here would be great...



38 comments:

  1. You handled it exactly how I would have done: not posted. I will always praise if I believe it is warranted, but I will never lie.

    By lying we do more harm than good.

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    1. I completely agree. It really surprised me to see how many people were willing to lie. Although, it occurred to me after I wrote this that it's possible not everyone who responded with praise was actually lying--it's possible they never actually READ the excerpt, and we're just leaving a comment based on what everyone else said. (You know people do that sometimes!!) haha

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  2. Hi Tamara ... I agree with Donna - but not being an author as such, I don't comment or read people's WIP usually ... it's better to say nothing.

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. I suppose that's usually best. Although, personally, when I ask for opinions I don't mind if the person giving them is a writer or not. Sometimes the best comments are from people who read more than they write. :)

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  3. I would have done the same as you, and not commented. I've noticed this happening a lot on blogs, and it makes me wonder if people do the same to me! If I don't think a piece of writing is good, I just don't comment, rather than saying it's good when really it's not.

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    1. I know, right!! That was my first thought--that I wouldn't post any excerpts online cause I wouldn't want anyone to bullshit me. On second though though, maybe I would post a small excerpt now but I'd definitely link it back to this post. haha

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  4. Since no one else said anything, you were wise to refrain. I'm sure you weren't the only one either. You're right that he missed an opportunity. I'd rather a fellow writer pointed out something was wrong than a reader leave a horrible review on Amazon. It's beyond fixing at that point.

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  5. I've seen what you have seen. I have also wondered why nobody pointed it out. I am the blunt kind. If I see something out of place I say it and I expect the same. I honestly encourage people to tell me the truth, whatever it might be. I tell them "Don't worry on hurting my feelings. I have none." However, I have come to the conclusion there are some writers who don't like truth and they don't want to learn. They just want to hear they are extraordinary writers. I found one. The writing was absolutely AWFUL. I told her about the things she could improve in a nice way. She didn't change a thing, not even basic grammar mistakes. She submitted as is and got published on a e-magazine, twice. I was dumbfounded but learned two lessons. First, there is always a chance to publish even if you suck. Second, don't waste time on those who don't really want to learn anything at all.

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    1. It looks like you and me have been in the same boat, Al! I once did a critique for a girl and, funny thing was, that this girl could write her ass off. I mean it--she was really, really good. Beautiful writer.

      BUT--she wasn't perfect cause, you know--nobody is. (shhhh...don't tell her that) haha. Anyway, she had this really bad habit of going off on tangents. She had a way with descriptions, but she'd spent a whole page on colorful descriptions of things that had no bearing on the plot. She did this repeatedly. And, beautiful writing or not, she was KILLING her pacing. I mean, by the time I got through a page and a half of descriptions, I had no idea what had been happening in the actual story. It was a huge problem for her.

      So, I pointed it out (for a little background, I used to run a website where all we did was critiques. This girl chose to submit to us.) Not only did I point it out, but the three girls I ran the website with did as well. We all basically said the same thing. Beautiful writing, but you gotta cut all the unnecessary description.

      This girl got so angry she never spoke to any of us again. On top of that, she posted a whole thing on her blog very shortly thereafter about how, "if you're going to submit for critique, you have to make sure the writers you submit to are on the same intellectual level as you so they understand your work." Very thinly veiled insult towards us.

      We all just laughed, but man. People are crazy. She'd obviously had so many people gush over her writing that she couldn't take the truth. And honestly, we critted the first chapter. No WAY it was ever getting past an agent--it just didn't have enough action. So, maybe she eventually figured it out through rejections. Talk about learning something the hard way though...

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  6. I wonder if someone in the first couple comments had been more honest if others would've followed suit. I can be really blunt sometimes, so it would've been hard for me not to say something.

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    1. That makes a really really good point. I bet they would've. People do tend to follow the crowd. And nobody wants to be the first to point out mistakes. On top of that it's very possible not everyone actually READ the excerpt. At least some people might've just been commenting off what everyone else commented. You know?

      And yeah, it was hard for me to keep my big mouth shut too. haha. But, like I said, after all that praise, I felt like I'd just look crazy.

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  7. I was asked to read a book once that had a lot of writing problems, most of them with the characters. It took me awhile, but I had to write my honest thoughts about it - yet I tried to do so kindly so as not to discourage her. When i first started to write, not many would point out my mistakes and it bugged me because I KNEW they were there and I wanted to know which ones they were so I could fix them. It was a relief to be told. SOme didn't do so kindly, which makes it harder - but when someone did it because they wished to help me it was the best thing in the world.
    And it bugs me when no one will do the same for other writers. They can help them and not seem mean about it, and it helps writers much more then praising something which really needs a lot of work.

    And there are my sleepy thoughts on it.

    Sadly, I've yet to see Korra because I cannot find it online anywhere. I saw the first episode. I didn't really like it till the end (but my friend said she felt the same way but the show only gets better as the season goes on. I am hoping to find it soon so I can finish it.)

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    1. I agree. I always wanted true opinions on my writing. The first critique I ever got kind of tore my writing up. (Cause my writing was fairly awful since I'd never had a critique haha) But the points the girl made were made nicely, and she made sure to show me what I was doing right. And I was SO excited cause I instantly saw how much her suggestions were going to improve my writing. I went home that night and started a rewrite of the whole book. haha

      Good luck on finding Korra. We watched it week by week as it came out. And your friend is right--it definitely got better as the weeks went on!!

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  8. I would have done the same as you and not commented. I think it's the format it was sent in: public. If the person had privately sent it to me, then I would have corrected the mistakes and sent it back to them telling them the ideas are good but to make the corrections (and I have done this). But doing it in a public forum is hurtful to the writer - nothing is worse than having your flaws pointed out in public. And who wants to be the jerk to does that in public? It's like being a bully. Not that people should lie and say it's great when it's not. Lying isn't helping here, either.

    Anyway....in this case, I say blame the writer for putting it up on their public blog.

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    1. Cant' blame the writer. It was one of those meme things where you talk about your book and then you put up an excerpt of it. :)

      But yeah-- I guess you're right about not being mean in a public forum. I don't know though...if people had done it nicely, and made sure to do the compliment sandwich thing (compliment, criticism, compliment) I think it might've been okay. Definitely better than lying.

      What really shocked me was the smattering of people who went overboard with the praise. In truth, it wasn't that many. Out of thirty comments, I'd say about five of them really gushed about how great the excerpt was. And maybe they were friends of Smith or something so they were biased? I don't know...

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  9. I probably would have done the exact same thing you did. I only hope that if I posted something that was riddled with errors, someone would point them out to me immediately! I'm not writing or posting things because I want people to say how wonderful I am. Granted, that's always a nice feeling, but I see all writing as practice. I hope that each successive thing I write is a little bit better than the last. If no one points out my mistakes, how will I ever improve?

    If someone is clearly not interested in criticism-- even positive, constructive, and kind critique-- I can hold my tongue. I find it sad, though, that anyone would pass up a chance to better themselves or improve their writing.

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    1. I agree. I've worked with people who wanted nothing but praise. I never understand that. How do you grow as a writer if all you want to hear is how great you are?

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  10. When I am reading someone's piece of writing that is posted on their blog, I will only point out its strengths in a public comment. If there are blatant problems with it, I will e-mail them with some fixes, but I won't let them know where everyone else reading can see it.

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    1. That is a very wise choice. I've done the same myself although, in that particular case, I didn't. I just felt that there were so many comments praising it that mine would've been discounted. Maybe not though. I think next time I find myself in a situation like this, I might handle it your way. :)

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  11. There's nothing wrong with the sandwich method--start and end with things that are good (or at least okay). About the best thing you could have done for this writer after all the praise would have been to suggest they find a critique group. And maybe point them to one or two online forums.

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    1. You are right and I didn't think of that. Now I'll know for next time though. Thanks for the idea! :)

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  12. Ooh. Excellent post. I have this issue come up a lot on blogfests. Because I want to comment on all of the posts, but not all of the posts are ... ready for public posting. If the purpose of the hop is critique, then I will critique, but all too often, the purpose is just to share, I guess. In that case, (as in the recent no-kiss blogfest), I will comment positively on what I can (heat level, or funny line, or whatever), but I won't critique.

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    1. I do the same thing. It doesn't seem fair to start throwing out critiques on a blogfest where someone was only trying to share. But, if the excerpt is really bad I'll generally just skip commenting.

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  13. I never give my opinion--or almost never--unless it is asked for, and even then, I may not say what I think. I don't lie either, but there are things not worthy of a confrontation. For example, my sister is having a discussion with her boyfriend and she's very agitated. I don't think she's right but I know, in her state, she'll never listen to me and I'll only cause her to shut me down. So she asks, "am I right?" I answer, "I don't think things are as bad as you are seeing them and you should take some time to cool off before you keep fighting. Let this go and later talk about it. Don't yell." I didn't lie and I think my advise is all she's willing to listen right now. When she is more at ease I can talk to her and she'll listen.

    Now, about others books... I review books and I take it very seriously. If someone asks for a review, I'll tell them the truth about what I think. I'm no expert, so I never get all high and mighty, I just point what I think could be better. I say 'editing problems' but I don't give a list of the grammatical mistakes I found unless the writer asks me for it. So far, nobody has. I don't post bad reviews either. If I can't say anything good about a book, I explain to the writer and skip the review. In my experience, people want to hear good things about their writing. If they don't get good things, they think of you as obnoxious/jealous and will never consider your are actually trying to help unless you are a close friend. That's why I keep my opinions to myself, I don't want to get into a fight with someone and gain an enemy over something like this. Even more so when I know they won't listen to me. Most people aren't open to objectivity and that's a lesson I learned the hard way...

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    1. You make some really excellent points Georgina. And I think giving someone the heads up that you didn't like the book rather than writing a negative review is a good idea.

      Book reviews feel different though, cause the book is out in the world. It's DONE. It can't be changed/fixed. But when someone is posting something that CAN be fixed...then it gets a little stickier.

      In my experience, most writers are grateful for an honest critique. I used to run a site where all we did was critique and ninety-five percent of the writers we got were happy with our honesty and excited at the chance to improve. More than one person I critiqued for way back then now has an agent--so clearly they were able to take people's opinions and work with them.

      You're right though--I've definitely come across those who were NOT grateful. That's the five percent (in my experience)

      I don't normally worry too much about those people though. If that's what they're like, I don't see them as someone I could have a lasting relationship with anyway...I'm way too blunt. Chances are, if I don't piss them off over their book, I'm gonna say something else wrong eventually anyway. haha

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  14. If somebody writes something that's really good, I'll say so, but if there are things I don't like about it, I generally won't comment at all.

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    1. That does seem like the safest bet, doesn't it? Looks like we handle things the same way. :)

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  15. I would hope that if I was "Smith" that someone would tell me where my errors were. But then again, some people can't take the criticism if everyone else is telling them how great they are.
    That being said, if a piece of writing has been posted on someone's blog, and they're looking for feedback, I'll sneak a peak at the comments before commenting myself. If others appear to be giving critical feedback, I feel more comfortable doing so myself. Otherwise, if they're all rave reviews on a piece that is riddled with errors, I'll just skip commenting.

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    1. Well, looks like you are in good company. That's what I chose to do as well, along with a lot of other people who commented here. It seems like the safest course, doesn't it?

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  16. This post is terrible!!!

    Just kidding.

    I agree with you that you're totally hurting the author by not helping them at least be aware of areas to improve. If no one tells them, they'll never know — and you're right, they could go YEARS writing the same way, and by then, it's become habit.

    I had a really good friend of mine (non-writer) who tore into my Beta — in person, no less. It was the worst two hour coffee I ever had, lol. She wasn't even commenting about the writing. Just elements of the story or characters that she hated or didn't connect with. So I said, alright, let's go through everything that you hated, one by one... and guess what, that list really helped me. Even though it was tough to take at the time, it really helped me gain some perspective, and now the MS is becoming 100x better.

    Perspective is like gold to a writer — why rob someone of it?

    John

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    1. EXACTLY. I couldn't agree more. If felt so bad for Smith because every mistake was now reinforced as the right thing to do. What people were doing out of misguided kindness was actually mean when looked at that way. Smith was just robbed of the chance to improve.

      Glad you got some good feedback on your manuscript.It can be hard to take when it is happening. I haven't had too much in person feedback but, when i get something online, I'll read it and give it a day or two to settle into my head.

      Nine out of ten times, things I scowled at and refused to agree with on the initial read-thru end up being solid suggestions when my brain has had a little time to adjust to its rude awakening that my beloved story isn't perfect. haha.

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  17. In that case I will usually say nothing at all and if the person has specifically asked for feedback I will message them privately. The problem with pointing out the actual mistakes I've noticed is that it snowballs and then it feels like thirty people are ganging up on you. For some reason on blogs, I've noticed that people seem to go with whatever the first few comments are. So if the first 3 people said it was great, everyone else just goes along. You're right of course, Smith is screwed and he/she is in for a very rude awakening when they go to query. I try not to publicly criticize other writers but in private I just try to be tactful. Like, "I love what you did here, but let's talk about what you did over here because I think you could make it so much better." It is a shame though. Also I find that if the person did not specifically ASK for constructive feedback, people will NOT give it. So if the person just says here's my sample, that is all, no one will point out the problems. If the person posts it and says, here's my sample, tear it apart, bloggers are more inclined to be honest. But like I said, you're totally right. I didn't have that happen to me on a blog but via early readers many years ago the same thing basically happened and it totally screwed me over so I try never to do this to other writers!

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    1. I guess you are right about it snowballing. I never thought of that. And someone else said the same thing--about people going along with the initial comments. I'm sure a lot of that happened in the Smith situation. I honestly can't remember if Smith asked for a critique or not, so maybe it wasn't my place to think anyone should've given one.

      I guess what I REALLY didn't like was the people who actually gushed--who went out of their way to say how awesome the writing was. Those were the people I really didn't understand. I can only assume that they are friends with Smith and maybe that colored their opinion of the sample to the point where they really couldn't see the things wrong with it.

      I'm glad I blogged about this though. I got a lot of interesting opinions that helped me see the situation through different eyes.

      Sorry you had this happen to you!! That sucks. I kind of had it happen to me too--but it was more my fault than anything else. Basically, it was back in my first year of writing and, when I finally finished my book, I only gave it to family. They all LOVED it. I shudder to think of it. haha

      To this day, my family still swears that first horrible book was awesome. haha. They all love me enough that they're actually incapable of reading something I wrote without letting their feelings for me completely taint the experience. That's when I learned that you can't depend on family to give you an unbiased opinion!!

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  18. Don't critique unless you're invited to. That's the rule I use. I agree that pointing out the weaknesses in someone's work can greatly help them improve and we all want to improve, but some people just aren't ready to hear it. They feel like they'll just crawl under the bed and never come out if someone hates their work.

    I've never quite understood the sensitivity, I'm so consumed with improvement that I beg for criticism of my work, always have. Even as a kid I remember scanning past all the 'well done blah blah' comments on reports to find that one piece of gold - the solution to perfecting. When I post a piece of writing I invite people to nit-pic and although I may not take on everything, I certainly listen. Not everyone is comfortable giving criticism and that's ok too. Just say what you feel and if you think the writer is open to hearing how they can strengthen their work, let them know your opinion, and try to balance it with some piece of hope as well :)

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  19. I always try to find something positive and something critically constructive to say about someone's writing, no matter how good/bad I see it as. Sometimes finding something positive about it feels like pulling out my own teeth, but listing all the flaws without any good can be incredibly discouraging.

    I agree that those who only rave and say, "I loved it," aren't any help. Even if something is really good, there's bound to be a mistake or two that fresh eyes would catch, that could then make the difference between catching an agent or not.

    As I writer you have to develop the skin to deal with this criticism and take it in stride. Otherwise, you put out writing as flawed as Twilight. There, I said it. It needs revision. Deal. ;)

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  20. Yikes. I wouldn't have left a positive comment, that's for sure! I'm not a writer (well, I am sometimes, but I wouldn't say I am cause I'm not doing it seriously) but because I work with so many self published and indie authors I think that honesty is the best rule. I mean if this person thinks their stuff is good they'll publish it and that gives the indie/self published authors that bad rep. Many think it's just a bunch of crap when it's not. I have had people ask me my opinion and I tell them the truth. But when it's a blog post you can't really pick it apart where everyone can see. That person should have left an email address for people to comment in an email where they could be honest. And maybe you should send an email if you can find one, and just give your honest opinion. But I know that would be tough because you don't know how the person will react. And it's not like you have to be mean or anything, you already said they had talent, they just needed to clean it up. I don't know, but it doesn't sound like a good idea to leave a positive comment and flat out lie.

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I love to hear from everyone! Thanks for the comment. :)