To critique or not to critique (of the unsolicited kind)



Spoiler alert: I firmly belong to the not camp.

A post just crossed my dash that put the worst taste in my mouth. I don’t want to reblog it, but I do want to address the contents because I think the subject is super important.

The post basically boiled down to: fanfic writers are thin-skinned babies “these days” because no one can take constructive criticism. In “my day” we all sent page-long critiques like the dedicated heroes we were! It made us better writers! Moreover, if I didn’t like something, I told the writer all about it! It was my job!

Hold up, what?

I’ve been posting fanfic online since 1998. Twenty years. Pre-archives. And “in my day” we had betas if we wanted/needed/asked for them (whose critiques didn’t have an audience). We said “concrit welcome” if we actually wanted constructive criticism. We did not show up unannounced to point out a work’s flaws because that is rude. Look, I am an editor. People pay me real money to edit things for them. I would rather cut off my own fingers than burst into someone’s comments and start “critiquing” their work without being asked first.

Here’s something that needs to be addressed: fanfiction is real writing, yes, but it is, by its nature as something that isn’t monetized, a hobby. As in, a thing people do for fun. A thing that hopefully brings both authors and readers joy! The story an author posts is a gift; how dare anyone rip a gift apart in front of the gift-giver and all the other party attendees? How entitled and ungrateful can you be? Fandom is not a frigging battleground where authors learn to harden themselves for war. It’s a hobby. Done out of love and enthusiasm. 

Yes, some fanfiction writers (certainly not all!!) aspire to be original fiction writers. They may use fanfiction as a training ground. They may want or benefit from constructive criticism. Still, they have to ask. They have to start the conversation. I know (think?) it’s harder to find betas these days, but it’s always worth asking around if real critique is what you want. Put “concrit welcome and even begged for” in the author’s notes and hope someone takes you up on it. 

Some fanfiction writers with original fiction aspirations still don’t want criticism about their fic. Fic may be their fun-writing outlet. It may be about instant gratification (and there’s nothing wrong with that; we’re not in the business of denying ourselves pleasure out of some moral superiority here. It’s fandom). It may be the place where they post to get around their fears of showing things to others. It may be the place they take risks they wouldn’t in their original work because the stakes are lower. When you work on your original writing all day, every day—often putting that work through far more vigorous and exhausting paces than fanfic sees—the last thing you want is someone showing up during your time off to point out a frigging comma splice or shift in POV.

The point is unless someone asks for critique, you don’t know what’s going on with them. Maybe fic is the only fun thing they have in their lives. Maybe they’re writing in a different language. Maybe they are 14. Or 82. Maybe they’ve never written fiction of any kind before and this is their baby step forward. Maybe fic is just escapism. Maybe they are depressed or anxious as hell and criticism is going to push them over an edge. Fandom belongs to everyone. Not just people deemed “good” or “perfect” or “permitted” or “thick-skinned.” People don’t need to be saved from grammar mistakes or poor turns of phrase or even plotholes so wide a semi could drive through them. Authors sure as hell don’t need to be told when a reader just doesn’t like something. There is no fandom police force in charge of perfection. If critique is so important to you, advertise your willingness to beta. If you do not like a story or think it’s “bad” hit the freaking back button. 

Unsolicited criticism is not helpful. Maybe you just catch someone off-guard and startle them. At worst, you may totally shatter someone’s self-esteem while they are partaking in a hobby they 100% do for fun—and not in pursuit of some unattainable perfection.

Don’t ruin a stranger’s day or week or hobby because you “know better” and somehow think you need to prove it. You don’t.

I ascribe to the same theory in both critiquing fanfic and someone’s appearance. “If the person can arrange it in less than five minutes, go for it”. And what I mean is, is the person’s fly down? Did their mascara leak? Is their skirt stuck in their panties? go for it.

Same with fic: did they write a sentence in a language foreign to them but you speak it fluently and it doesn’t make any sense? You write “Hey love the fic, just so you know “Veux-tu me donner un baiser” means “Do you want to kiss me” and “Veux-tu baiser avec moi” means “Do you want to fuck” and I’m not sure which one you meant”. Because sometimes languages are a bitch like that. Did they switch two names at some crucial point? Or posted the same chapter twice? 

What I mean is: Something flagrant and easy to fix. 

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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