Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My Days at, or: Why I Rarely Critique People's Stories

According to this blog's stats, I've somehow managed to accumulate a couple dozen regular visitors over the course of the less than one month which I've been doing this.  So...hi!  Welcome, make yourselves at home, etc.

That said, if you're just here for the reviews, today's your unlucky day.  They'll be back on Friday, but I want to take a minute to rant.  After all, what's the point of having your own blog if you can't use it as a vehicle to express your petty frustrations with the world around you?  Lots and lots of IMO after the break.

My entry into the pony fandom marked the first time in years that I wrote or read fanfiction...but not the first time ever.  In high school and into college, I wrote several fanfics based on various books, under various names.  As far as I know, most of these stories are still floating around somewhere, that being the hub of my previous fanfiction experience.  There are a number of reasons why I stopped participating in those communities (and why I refuse to get an account again), but one of the big ones was that I felt I was unable to leave even the mildest of criticisms on stories, even those that were just objectively bad.

To be clear, I'm talking about constructively critical reviews.  Flaming, the act of leaving a vitriolic post which fails to explain why the reader disliked the story, is something else entirely.  Although I admit that my comments are sometimes unnecessarily harsh, I try to always make sure that they are accurate and helpful.  From the reaction these comments often got, however, you'd assume that I had driven to the author's house and personally pissed in his coffee.

I'd like to run down a list of a few of the most common rebuttals to my negative reviews, both from the authors themselves and other commenters, along with my thoughts on the matter.  Each of the following I encountered on multiple occasions after leaving a critical review.  If you'll indulge me:

Yeah, but everyone else who left a review loved this story!

If it is not already obvious to you that the connection between popularity and quality is tenuous at best, I urge you to go see what movies, books, or TV shows are currently in greatest favor with Joe Public.  The fact that some folks like a fanfic, and in fact like it enough to say so, is not in itself an indication that said fanfic is any good.  Citing a story's popularity as a defense is no different than claiming that Transformers 3 is the best movie to be made this year because it had the highest box office gross.

If you don't have something nice to say about the story, just keep your mouth shut!

I've always felt that leaving a comment on a story I read was the polite thing to do.  If I don't enjoy the story for one reason or another, or even if I do enjoy it but feel that there are elements that could be improved upon, then letting the author know why I feel that way (that's the "constructive" part of constructive criticism, by the way--I have no problem with complaints about such comments as "this story sucks") enables them to improve their writing in the future.  If feedback is strictly limited to positive reinforcement, then what purpose does it serve other than to stroke the ego of the author?

Not that there's anything wrong with positive comments--especially those that identify specific strengths of the story.  But it seems to me that a review filled with constructive criticism is something any fanfic author should embrace, even if they don't necessarily agree with everything the reviewer says.

If you hate this story so much, why don't you go write something better?

Since I often post anonymously when given the choice, I've seen this one a fair bit.  Honestly, I've never been sure how to answer such an obviously fallacious statement.  If the reasons why an argument like this doesn't hold water are unclear to someone, I suspect that any explanation I give will also go over their heads.

Well, I don't care what you think.  I wrote this story for myself, and I'm happy with it!

The essential purpose of fanfic writing should always be the gratification of the author.  Indeed, it's the only purpose a writer should worry about--if they don't intend to make their work public.  But as soon as you post your writing on (or wherever) you have implicitly made clear that you want other people to read your story.  That being the case, you have a responsibility to make sure your story, well, doesn't suck.

Of course, "suck" is relative.  What looks like a flat and boring monologue to me may seem deep and insightful to other readers.  But when the problems I'm complaining about are things like (to use one example which I remember off the top of my head) a character getting shot twice in the chest, then apparently instantly recovering and forgetting that he had ever been hurt, since neither he nor anyone else in the story ever made mention of his presumably serious injury from that point on, and the author plays the "I like it the way it is" card... ugh.  The way you wrote your story is objectively, factually, BAD.  If you really don't care about the reader's experience, why the hell are you posting it in a place where you know other people are going to read and comment on it?

Speaking of things that are objectively wrong, we've come to my all-time "favorite" response to a negative review:

Hey, English isn't my first language/I don't see that many grammar mistakes in my story/I had a proofreader, and HE thought it looked great/who cares if I used the wrong word there!  Give me a break on the grammar!

Most of the things that make a fanfic good or bad are subjective.  Are the characters believable?  Is the premise gripping?  Is the characterization consistent with canon?  There's plenty of grey area when it comes to questions like these.  But then there's spelling and grammar.  With those, you are either right or wrong.

Which leaves me shaking my head in bemusement when people try to 'defend' the fact that their story looks like it was written and edited by a third-grader.  Again, by posting your story in a public forum you are asking people to read what you've written.  If what you've written is unarguably, demonstrably sub-par, why on earth wouldn't you expect to get called out on that?

As far as I can tell, the problem has never been lack of editors.  Every fanfic community I've been part of has been filled with people ready and willing to assist writers in preparing their works for general consumption.  I myself offered to do as much for many, many authors... but I was only taken up on the offer perhaps half a dozen times.  And many of my offers have been met with the online equivalent of an eye-roll and some variant on, "Who cares if the grammar's perfect?"

Maybe I'm old-fashioned.  Maybe I just expect too much out of the authors.  But when someone tells me that they don't care if their story's not the best it can be, I wonder why they bothered posting it in the first place.  If they don't care, why should their readers?


Anyway, these were some of the more irksome responses I got used to seeing (along with the merely vitriolic, including such gems as, "You wouldn't know a good story if it bit you in the ass," and "Go die in a fire"), and as I mentioned this attitude was one of the things that turned me off of fanfiction in general.  I don't expect every author to rewrite their story to accommodate every negative review, of course--an author's material is their own, and they can do with it whatever they please--but the idea that any sort of criticism of a story was anathema was so firmly entrenched in the minds of many of the community members that nothing save unadulterated praise was considered acceptable.  Eventually, I just got fed up with trying and stopped leaving reviews altogether.  Not long after that, I abandoned completely, in part because I no longer felt like I could participate in the community.

The major pony fanfiction sites (fimchan, EqD, ponychan's /fic/, etc.) aren't nearly as bad as  But it seems to me that they've been collectively moving in that direction over the past months.  Even fair and accurate criticisms on these sites (some moreso than others) will regularly draw cries of "Parasprite!" and admonitions to "Love and tolerate."  While some commenters are rightly called out for leaving unhelpful negative reviews ("I hate this story.  1/5"), others are stigmatized for bringing up perfectly valid complaints and criticisms.  An environment like that discourages constructive reviews in favor of mindless praise, which in turn inhibits authorial growth and drowns out high-quality stories by submerging them in a sea of equally-praised but vastly inferior content.

Old habits die hard, and to this day I don't comment on the majority of stories that I read.  I'm trying to encourage myself to leave more notes, and especially to comment more often on stories that I didn't particularly enjoy for one reason or another.

When I do leave a negative review, I hope that the author sees it, and takes it in the spirit it was meant: as a well-intentioned (albiet sometimes a bit irate, depending on the quality of the story) stranger's attempt to help them improve their craft.  I hope they and the other readers who see what I've written don't take it as a personal attack on the author, something I try hard to avoid in my comments.

But most of all, I hope we never come to the point where taking critical comments as personal attacks becomes the norm.  Because frankly, I don't think I have the stomach to put up with it.


  1. Agreed. I think I'm right in saying that we have a fair bit more quality fanfic than a lot of fandoms, thanks to the maturity of the community in regards to criticism and the work of EqDaily's pre-readers (although they let some trainwrecks through every now and then).

    If we ever get to the point were ponyfic becomes a huge circle-jerk like much of the rest of fanfiction on the internet, it'll be a damn shame. Fanfic can be good - that's what bronies have taught me. It deserves to be held to the same standard as original fiction, and it should be appraised in a manner benefiting the reader, not the author.

  2. So very, very true. For the most part I've found the fandom to be *mostly* receptive to reviewing help and the like. I've also edited several big-name stories (some of which, like the last three chapters of Past Sins, I am not too proud of) during my tenure in bronydom. From a quality standpoint I'd say that, thanks to EqD having something that passes as standards, we have an above-average level of quality on the fan fiction side of things. I mean, we even have a good Sonic crossover! What other fandom can claim that?

  3. I helped create - and still participate in - the training grounds on ponychan. The idea there was to help those who sent their fanfics to EqD (where I also pre-read) to fix issues and improve the quality of their writing. Some stories would be fine to go up... but the story in question just deserves the author going that extra mile. When the training grounds started producing that sort of result I was overjoyed. We have and have had some rather caustic reviewers, but even the harsh ones were constructive in their harshness. More than once I've said "you don't have to like how you're being spoken to, but do not ignore what is being said".

    Those who can take constructive criticism and make something better truly make me happy - and quite frankly it's nice that I sometimes feel jealous when an author knuckles down and produces something better than I can do and it receives the praise it deserves.

    Molly-coddling and hug-boxing do nobody favours when you are attempting to actually get your work published.

  4. I'm a little surprised but highly gratified to see these thoughtful comments (honestly, I wasn't sure if anyone would read this post at all). I do agree that the overall quality of pony fiction is higher than in the other fandoms I've been a part of, no doubt for the reasons you all mentioned.

    I hope that the attitude towards fanfiction and reviewership among Pony fans will continue to defy what is the norm in most fanfiction circles. If it does, it will be a credit to both the authors and readers in this community.

    My fingers are crossed.

  5. I can relate to this very strongly at the moment.

    I am in the process of completely revising and overhauling my story due to criticisms made on both Eqd and on FFN - some very helpful, insightful and polite, some utterly appalling, verging on flames. I certainly didn't ignore the points made, though I have ignored the personal insults that came with them.

    It made me realise that although I had begun the story lightheartedly as a way of amusing myself and others whilst I'm out of work, others don't see it quite so flippantly.

    I agree with all of the above. I feel that if someone has taken the time to firstly read your story, and secondly take the time to make thoughtful suggestions for positive change, then you've been granted a privilege. You can now fix it. Or not. Either way, you've been informed.

    I do wish, however, that some reviewers could remember that the authors are in fact breathing, feeling humans, and not soulless emotionless robots.

  6. Congrats on the sudden popularity increase! This site does good things.

    All things aside, I like how you take the POV of the reviewer, rather than the author, as most people usually do. Having written a bit and read A TON on, I've experienced what you've seen, and realise that a good review is a godsend. Even if it reduces your writing to rubble and spits on the remains, you learn something useful.

    With all the mindless $@#& (97%, I believe) that is on, one learns to sort out the rubbish very quickly, and lose patience with low-quality stories so quickly that reviews are so rare.

    I'm wondering, what stories are you commenting on? 6-stars? Those authors are usually smart enough to recognise good reviews when they see it.
    Also, I really hope character wars and our "Love and Toleration" won't begin to tear this fandom apart...because that could totally happen right now.

  7. It really is heartbreaking. Tell someone what I honestly feel about a piece of work, point out what, specifically, I think is wrong with it, and the wolves descend.

    All the while, I find myself wishing someone would do the same for me. Someone completely honest, ready to dig into the deepest cracks of what I've written and tear it apart.

    I've never written fan fiction before. I never had much respect for it as a whole before Equestria Daily showed me some great ones. Now I'm starting work on one, and really, this is why. The hope that someone will let me know everything I do wrong.