Being a Part of a Writing Community

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

When we started Toasted Cheese, the critique forums were very popular. This was in large part because the editors put a lot of their own time into giving feedback. Our hope was that by leading by example, by showing writers how to give good feedback, they would eventually take over from us and become self-sufficient. Ultimately, our goal was for us to be dispensable at the forums. One day, we thought, our members won’t need us anymore because they’ll be able to rely on each other.

That’s not what happened. Instead, as the editors became busier, and weren’t able to spend as much time giving feedback, writers continued to post work and request feedback, but few gave it in return (those who did: we appreciate you so much!). The less feedback that was given, the fewer new requests that were made, until posting at the critique forums slowed to a trickle and died off.

We loved giving feedback—that’s how this whole thing started—but no one can give and give and give indefinitely without being refueled. Eventually, you burn out. Other things, things that do reward you for doing them, take priority. If you want someone to keep giving, you can’t just take take take, you have to give back.

I know some writers are reluctant to comment on others’ work because they don’t think they’re qualified. But if you write yourself, if you read, then yes, you’re qualified! It may take some time to figure out how to articulate your thoughts, but just like writing fiction or whatever your genre of choice is, the only way to get there is by practicing. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Others shy away from critiquing or reviewing because they don’t want to “waste” their limited writing time commenting on others’ work. But I will let you in on a writing secret: giving feedback is one of the best ways to improve your own writing. When you read your own work, you are blind to many of its flaws. When you read others’ work, those same flaws jump out at you. Feedback, critiques, reviews—all of these will give you insights that you can put into practice in your own writing. The time you spend on them will never be wasted.

Our reviews editor, Shelley, receives many review requests from writers with no connection to Toasted Cheese. An existing connection with TC is a stipulation because Candle-Ends is about supporting our writing community. You have to put something into it before you can get something back. If you’d like us to review your work, there are many ways you can establish a connection with TC—one of those, of course, is by writing a review of another writer’s work.

10 Tips for Posting at Writing Forums

Jam & Judicious Advice

I want to post a story (poem, article…). What do I need to know?

  1. Read the posting guidelines before posting at a new forum. Leave a space between paragraphs; it makes it easier to read online. Spell-check your post.
  2. If you’re posting an excerpt from a work-in-progress, say so, and ask for a general critique, not a nit-picky one. NPC on an unfinished first draft is a waste of time for both the critiquer and the writer. What you really want is encouragement (yes, really!). Get your first draft down before you start asking others to tear it apart.

I posted yesterday (or 2 days ago or…). Why hasn’t anyone replied?

  1. Everyone (including the forum hosts) who critiques your writing is volunteering their time. Realize that their own writing, other work, family and friends, etc. come before critiquing your work. Have patience. It may take a week, or even two, for everyone who plans to critique your piece to do so. Also remember that hosts are there to keep the forum running smoothly, not to critique each and every piece of work posted.
  2. In general, shorter posts and posts requesting general critiques will receive quicker responses than long posts and posts requesting nit-picky critiques. If you post 10,000 words and ask for NPC, don’t be surprised when you get fewer critiques than the person who asked for GC on a 300-word flash fiction piece. Decide what you really want/need: a quick reply, or a detailed response.
  3. How often are you requesting critiques? If you’re posting more than one piece per week for critique, reconsider. People need time to see your post, read it, think about it, then write up a critique. If you post a second or third piece within the week, people who were considering or in the midst of giving piece #1 a critique may decide not to bother because they feel you’ve already moved on. A week isn’t a long time in the greater scheme of things. Pace yourself.
  4. Consider the busy-ness of the forum in question. Is there one story waiting for a critique or twenty? Realize that it’ll take longer for any one person (i.e. the forum host) to get back to you on a busier forum. Everyone needs to chip in. Which leads us to #7:
  5. A critique forum only works if everyone who requests critiques also gives them. While waiting for your piece to be critiqued, take the time to critique others. It’s the best way to show your appreciation for the critiques you will receive and to garner more (or faster) critiques of your work in the future. If you’re new to critiquing, check out our critiquing guidelines.

Someone critiqued my story! I’m going to change everything she hated right now.

  1. STOP. Don’t rely on a single critique to shape your story. Wait till you have three or four responses and then compare them. Something one person may hate, another may love. Look for commonalities between critiques.
  2. After you’ve had a piece critiqued, wait a few days (at least). It’s best to let the initial sting of criticism wear off before editing. Time will also help you resist the temptation to try to please every critiquer by incorporating every tidbit of advice. A critique is a guideline, not a rule. Use what feels right; discard the rest.

Wow, this place is great. I don’t know how I can thank you!

  1. If you like Toasted Cheese and want to give something back, please consider volunteering as a co-host at one of the forums.We’d like to see two co-hosts for each forum, with each individual co-hosting at no more than two forums. That way each forum would get the attention it deserves and no one person would be overwhelmed by his/her hosting responsibilities. When we’re short hosts, Toasted Cheese staff each have to cover multiple forums, and it’s not always possible for us to respond as quickly or as often as we’d like. The forums are just a small part of what we do at TC, and other aspects of the site sometimes take priority. Speaking of other aspects of the site… Is there a writing topic you’d like to expound on? We welcome queries for our Absolute Blank section (articles on writing). Do you have finished work slumbering on your hard drive? Our quarterly e-zine takes submissions year-round.

How to Copy & Paste

See: How to Copy, Cut, and Paste for Beginners


Common Acronyms & Abbreviations

See: English internet slang

Conquering the “But I don’t know how to critique” Blues

Jam & Judicious Advice

RELATED ARTICLES
Dance Naked
The Critique Zone

Worried that you’re not worthy? Well, worry no more. At Toasted Cheese, our motto is, “If you can read, you can critique.” Remember the majority of reviewers, editors and agents are not writers themselves, they’re readers. They read and evaluate. And so can you!

First, stop bashing yourself for perceived deficiencies. If grammar is not your forte, don’t stress yourself out trying to fix someone else’s. Instead, comment on something else — plot or character, for example. Use your strengths.

Next, ask yourself some basic questions about the piece you’re critiquing. Be honest. At this stage, the critique is for your eyes only.

Did you like it or not? Why? List some concrete, specific positives and negatives to help you organize your thoughts. An example of an positive would be: “Your dialogue was believable. It sounded realistic.” An example of a negative would be: “The ‘moral of the story’ line at the end was too preachy and obvious.” (Stuck? Check out the list of critique questions for ideas!)

Would you like to read more of the story / this writer’s work? Why? Here you might say: “I’d like to read more because the main character was fascinating.” or “I don’t want to read more because the pedantic, passive voice writing style made me feel like I was reading a term paper, not a story.”

What changes would you suggest to the writer? Why? Some examples: “I’d clean up the spelling mistakes and typos because I found them really distracting.” to “I’d use ‘she’ in place of the narrator’s name at times, because using her name every time is annoying, especially when she’s the only person in the scene.” to “I’d change the scene where the main character jumps off the cliff because that wasn’t realistic since he’d just declared his love for life in the previous scene.”

Finally, organize your notes so that you can show them to the writer of the piece. The purpose of a constructive critique is to help writers improve their writing, so it’s important to be honest. Don’t say a story was “Great!” if it wasn’t. If the writer knows their story wasn’t great, they won’t ever trust any feedback you give and if they happen to think their story is awesome, you’re just setting them up for a bigger fall when they send their not-so-great story off to a publisher before it’s ready. At the same time, a critique should avoid being cruel, so even if you thought a story sucked out loud, please don’t say, “This really sucked!” Instead, concentrate on specifics and on finding solutions for problems.

Start off with one or more of the things you thought the writer did well. Remember, saying something positive is possible, even if overall, you really didn’t like the piece. Then, share the things you thought detracted from the story along with your suggestions on how to fix them. Suggesting how to fix the problem is what makes it constructive criticism, so do try to give a suggestion for each. Wrap your critique up with a positive statement or two, for example, “I can’t wait to read more!”

Just like any skill, the more you critique, the easier it gets. As a side benefit, critiquing can give you valuable insight into your own writing, so give it a try! At Toasted Cheese, you must critique at least two pieces for every piece you post at a critique forum.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Critiquing

  • ACCESSIBILITY: Was it easy to follow the action, what was going on and why?
  • APPEARANCE: Were there too many errors? Typos? Grammar? Punctuation?
  • CHARACTERS: Were they human, fascinating, unique, flawed?
  • CONFLICT: Was it confusing? Did it exist?
  • DIALOGUE: Did everybody have their own rhythm, tone and style?
  • ENDING: Was it clear and satisfying? Do you know what the characters will do in the future?
  • LEAD: Did the opening have passion? Style? Pace? Depth? Energy? Does each chapter have a lead and an ending?
  • MOTIVATION: Why did the characters do what they did?
  • ORIGINALITY: How fresh was the story? Was it a new take on an old theme?
  • PACING: Did the story flow smoothly? Were there too many high points and low points?
  • PLOTTING: Were you surprised by the choices the characters made?
  • SETTING: Were the mood and tone good?
  • STRUCTURE: Does everything happen in order? ie. What if that scene were there, for example?
  • STYLE: Does it sound like the author?
  • SUBTLETY: Was the message too preachy?
  • TONE: Did the theme stay consistent throughout?

The Critique Zone

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between beginners and experts, and it lies between the pit of writers’ fears and the summits of their knowledge. This is the dimension of feedback. It is an area that we call… The Critique Zone.

Imagine if you will a critique board with a host who lives to give stark feedback. Add to this equation a writer who titles her post “Stark feedback please.” The thin black line blurs between yin and yang. The twain shall meet.

In the aftermath, the echoes of the wounded writer rise from her once-proud story. Shards of dialogue pierce narrative. Clichés twist around scarred characters. The host turns toward the cry that mysteriously surfaces behind her. What malevolent force penetrated the idyll that should exist between critiquer and critiquee? Signpost ahead: “Next stop: The Critique Zone.”

Insert dramatic music here.

In the Critique Zone, there stand two people: the writer and the editor. Displace either and the zone ceases to exist. As writers we stand on one side of the abyss, yearning to reach across and have our work seen. Yet we fear the possibility that we could plummet into the chasm. As critiquers, we toss out the rope with the warning that it won’t be an easy journey. So who’s to blame if the writer crashes and burns?

When I see “stark feedback” or “nit-picky critique” in a post title, my blood turns effervescent. It’s harder for me to give general feedback than a line-by-line critique. So I sit for a few hours and pore over a story with my [cut](add){COMMENT} style. After I’ve had my say, I post the feedback.

Tact has never been my strong suit. I admit that I’ve had my fair share of writers say, “That was harsh” and not always to my face. Those who have been able to do so have earned great respect from me because each one has added, “and I needed that.”

I write. I get critiques. I don’t always agree w/ them, but I know they’re meant to be helpful. In my experience, no one critiques simply to be mean. The purpose of sharing our writing for critique is to improve it. For me as an editor to say, “Don’t change a thing” is not only a lie but it’s a disservice.

It is difficult to share your work. It is equally difficult to devote time and energy to giving critique. Critiquers have their own neuroses that writers might want to keep in mind.

Apprehensions of the Critiquer

  • I don’t know enough about…

…grammar or character or dialogue or setting or scuppernongs or whatever your particular insecurities are.

As the saying goes: if you can read, you can critique. If you also write, all the better. Even if all you can say something as simple as “I thought this really sounded like two people talking.” Like anything, the more you critique the better you get at it.

You might find that although you feel you are weak about mechanics, you have wonderful plotting skills. Think of your strengths as a writer. Focus on these in giving your critique. As your confidence improves, so will your critique.

  • I don’t have time

Yes, you do. Even if you only have a few moments to glance over it quickly and say: “It grabbed me.” “The hook needs more oomph.” “How do you pronounce that name?” “Is there more to this story?” Simple comments like these can be extremely useful. The writer may be most concerned about the opening lines, iffy about using the name or concerned that it’s too short.

  • What if I hurt her feelings? Or worse, what if I make him mad?

This is a very valid concern. It happens. For the critique-giver the best advice is probably to be gentle but honest. Phrases that can help keep you and the writer on the same side include: “I do this” “have you tried” and “in my opinion.” This reminds the writer that you want to be helpful. If even one of your comments comes across as an attack, the writer may become defensive and close off to suggestions you make.

If a writer asks for NPC or SF, they should expect NPC or SF. However if they say they are “new,” “sharing for the first time” or “putting my head on the block,” chances are good that UPOP is more in order. Use your best judgment.

Any writer worth her salt knows when a critique is written simply to be mean or as a personal attack. Most critiques I’ve seen do not fall into that category. Read over your critique before posting or sending it. If your feelings are strong about a story, it may be best to wait before giving your opinion, whether you plan to criticize or praise.

You’re a reader, not a psychiatrist. Writers must develop a thick skin if they plan to publish. A writer may be hurt or angered by your opinion. They might disagree. They might come back and tell you all the reasons you’re wrong. They might not use a single one of your suggestions. As long as your critique is given in a constructive spirit, these are issues for the writers to handle.

  • I have nothing to add.

That’s fine. Tell the writer, “I have nothing to add.” What do you put in that empty box?

  • Tell the writer specifically what you liked. {“This character was so real to me.” “I could practically smell the salt air.” “My favorite part was…”}
  • Ask questions. {“Where did you get this idea?” “Is this based on someone you know?”}
  • Compliment her. {“Your language is great.” “I wish I could create a setting like that.”}
  • Ask for more of the same story or more of the author’s work.

There’s nothing wrong with intending to do SF and having it come out as UPOP. The trick is to give reasons for your praise.

Frustrations of the Critiquer

  • Rebuttal

There are few things more irksome to me, as an editor, than a writer coming back to rebut the critique. This is not the same as answering questions or clarifying a misreading. What tweaks my cheese is a writer who has an excuse for all her bad choices. It also conveys an attitude of “but it was perfect the way it was.”

For a critiquer, this might prompt a “why did I waste my time?” In future exchanges the critiquer is also likely to say, “What’s the point? She’ll just throw it all back in my face.”

As a writer, if you feel you must respond to critique, keep in mind the time and effort expended by the editor. Thank him for the effort. If you must defend your choices, give reasons and not excuses. Ask questions. If it was a poor critique and you’d like to lash out, ignore it.

If your critique is challenged, resist the urge to rebut the rebuttal. Some writers say they want critique but the moment they come back at you, you know better. Smile. Nod. Grit your teeth silently.

  • Retraction

“Well I didn’t really want that nit-picky a critique.” This is from the gung-ho writer who cries, “Stark feedback please!” Then when she gets it decides what she really wanted was UPOP.

Anyone offering work for critique is doing so because he wants to improve, regardless of whether he is writing for publication or writing for himself. Remind yourself that that was your understanding before tackling the work. This is something for the writer to deal with, especially if his goal is publication. Better to hear it from a friend with the best of intentions than a publisher or agent after believing the work is “perfect.”

  • I can’t say anything nice

We’ve all read pieces that made us want to respond with “This sucks—n/t” or “You know what would help this story? A match.” But we can’t. Yet the maxim of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” can’t really be applied in this case. What do you do if you think a story is so beyond repair that nothing can save it? You have options.

  • Be general. Let the writer know you appreciate the effort. Congratulate him for taking this first step.
  • Relay your own issues with dialogue, setting and so forth. Tell her how you’re solving those problems. Stay constructive.
  • Ask questions. Get the writer to explore the piece.
  • Share a few tips. I do this fairly often, no matter what the quality of the story. For example: a fabulous story can be full of passive voice so I might share my tip to do a “search and destroy” on was/were.

One “note” I’d like to put here: if you see comments like these in a critique, do not read it as “this sucks.” General comments also come in extremely handy when a story is excellent, as I stated earlier.

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of dialogue, a dimension of character, a dimension of narrative. You can withstand critique. You can give critique. You can accept critique and reject it. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of words and ideas, of writers and editors. You’ve just crossed over into… the Critique Zone.

Dance Naked

Absolute Blank

By Tawny McDonald (Butcher)

My first year of university, I signed up for an introduction to literature course, thinking that my high grades in high school English would help me breeze through. The first thing we read was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and shortly after that, we were assigned our first essay.

Looking back, I’m sure that the professor must have dealt with her share of smarmy students who made As in high school and entered her classroom with egos that touched the roof. So when she handed out the assignment, she also handed out a healthy dose of reality. “If you want, show me your first drafts,” she said. “I’ll tell you where to improve.”

I wrote my essay and brought it to her, confident that I was going to blow this woman away. “Wow,” she would say, as she read my prose. “This gal is a genius!”

Of course, that’s not what happened. I still have my journals from my university days and the entry on the day she handed back my first rough draft reads as follows:

I really despise my English teacher. I gave her my essay to read over today and she told me it had no direction, it didn’t have a thesis and therefore, she had no idea what I was trying to prove. (Also, I had no purpose!) She said she read my opening sentences for each paragraph and found nothing—she couldn’t see the point in reading the whole thing.

Pretty harsh feedback, certainly not very nice, but it was honest. Looking back, I realize two important things. One, she was telling me what I needed to hear. Two, if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have bothered asking for the first drafts.

Dealing with critique is one of the toughest skills to acquire as a writer. Our writing, after all, is something that is very personal and, often, the result of a lot of hard work. But the writing is the easy part.

Handling critique happens in three steps. The first thing you need to be able to do is share your writing. The person with whom you are sharing will critique it. Receiving the critique is your next challenge. Even harder is accepting it.

Step One—Sharing your work

Before you can receive critique you first must share your work. For even experienced writers, this is perhaps the hardest step. Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.'” That fear is quite normal and it’s a tough fear to overcome.

It’s like undressing in front of someone for the very first time. They’re similar in that you first worry if your audience is going to like what they see. You worry that they’re going to notice those little flaws—that your sentences wobble like your knobby knees and your dialogue drags like your saggy bottom. You get past that only to worry that your audience will tell you what they don’t like and that can be the most devastating of all.

Make it easy on yourself. Find someone you trust. If you trust this person, you will know that they have your best interests in mind. This person will tell you what you need to hear and they will be honest with you. You will feel comfortable with them and when it comes time to share your writing, you won’t be able to get it to them fast enough.

The Second Step—Accepting the critique

When you receive critique on your work, it’s hard not to take it personally. This is your writing after all, something that you invested a lot of time and effort into. It is a reflection of you, your exposed, naked body. So when someone critiques it, we really feel their words.

In an ideal world, every word that we write would be perfect. Sentences would be flawless, paragraphs immaculate. Our readers would fall at our feet, utter words of awe.

There are writing sites out there that promote this kind of atmosphere and they are often successful. After all, who doesn’t like to receive constant praise? UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only Please) is nice—it helps to fluff the ego and makes you WANT to write—and any writer can accept that kind of praise quite easily. But it’s not critique and it won’t help you improve as a writer. It’s someone telling you that you’re not fat when even you know you could shed a few pounds.

The opposite of UPOP is ROTC (Raked Over The Coals) critique, a brutal massacre of your writing. It’s the person who has an ego the size of Texas and who thinks that any writing but theirs is a waste of time and paper. This person could say things like, “You’re such a dumbass, you shouldn’t be ALLOWED to own a pen and paper.” When you start to cry, they tell you to quit blubbering and stop writing while you’re ahead. I’m sure there are people out there who are like that; fortunately, I’ve had the good luck not to run into them. Hopefully, you won’t either. But if you do, don’t feel like you have to put up with their abuse. According to Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, “No one should talk to you like this. If you write a long piece, and it is your first, and you are wondering if it’s publishable, and it isn’t, even by a long shot, someone should be able to tell you this in a way that is gentle yet not patronizing. So that you are encouraged—maybe not to pursue publication, but to pursue writing.”

This brings us to the third kind of critique, which we need as writers who want to succeed: Nit Picky Critique, or NPC. We need someone to take an objective look at our work and point out what’s good and what’s not so good. They’ll point out character inconsistencies, inaccurate details of your setting, comma usage that is embarrassing to watch. They might growl at you when you mix up “its” and “it’s”. They might be so blunt as to say, “Sorry. Nope. Doesn’t work.”

This is the type of feedback that you want. Feedback like this is what makes your good work great. It might sound harsh to you and some of it could sting and cause you to prickle up, but it’s what you need to hear. Wipe your tears, take a deep breath or go for a walk. Calm down and read through the critique again. You’ll see that the person who critiqued your piece had your best interests in mind and is trying to help. Understand that they think your piece has potential or they would never have bothered going over it in the first place. The person who is honest and tells you what your work needs to improve is the person who wants you to succeed.

Step Three—Responding to Critique

Regardless of the type of feedback you receive, it is usually polite to respond to the person who took the time to read your work. Drop them a line or call them up and tell them thank you. These people worked hard at helping you and they deserve that much. If the critique was a mere UPOP, you don’t need to say anything further. If the critique was ROTC, still thank them and consider Lamott’s advice to “ditch the sucker”. If the feedback was the third kind, NPC, thank them and do your best not to get defensive. According to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering The Craft, “it’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticized not to be on the defensive, eager to explain, answer, point out—’Oh, but what I meant was…’ ‘Oh, I was going to do that in the next draft…’ ”

Don’t succumb to the “Yeah, But” syndrome. Take the opportunity to ask them to clarify some of their comments or to inquire about what they thought of certain parts of your piece that they didn’t address. Use the critique to your advantage, understand that their comments are just suggestions and you don’t have to use them. After all, as LeGuin points out, “Always in the last analysis, you are your own judge, and you make your own decisions.”

I remember looking at that first draft with my professor’s notes written in red pen in the margin. The anger and devastation that I felt, and the humiliation was like standing naked before someone and having them laugh and point and call you fat. I can still recall that strong temptation to run to her office and pound on her door. I wanted to lay on her floor and thrash my legs and flail my arms. I wanted to throw a tantrum. Instead, I took deep breaths and calmed down. I went home and vented in my journal.

Even then, I knew she was right. One line followed my tirade against my professor:

I guess I should be grateful—I know what changes to make.

My ego was wounded—let’s be honest, deflated—but I was still able to see her critique for what it was. Since then, I’ve been dealing with critique in the same manner. I still share my work thinking that it’s the best writing ever and I still bristle when I get it back with red notes all over the place. I’m still tempted to yell, “YEAH? OH YEAH?” But I don’t. I breathe deeply and go for walks. I accept the critique for what it is. These three steps have helped to establish myself amongst my peers as a writer that is both dignified and gracious. The same can be said for any writer once they’ve learned to deal with critique.

Be brave. Share your writing. Keep a stiff upper lip and recognize critique for what it is. Learn to be grateful and how to be gracious. Acquire these skills and no matter who your audience, you’ll be able to dance naked.


References

Ban Breathnach, Sarah. “Owning Your Talent” from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1995.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing & Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises & Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Or.: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.