Frequently Asked Questions About Critiquing Fanfic Stories
The Peacekeeping Mission of Debate, Discussion & Critique in a Public Forum
A FAQ intended for use by LOISCLA-GENERAL-L and the Lois & Clark Fanfiction Archive
This FAQ page last updated Dec. 31, 2017
Introduction to debate/critique
Disagreement in a public form is going to happen. Whether we choose to fortify ourselves with "thick skins" or to attempt to sit in on the sidelines and watch the action flow by, praying to our own personal deities that it'll never get near ourselves, any number of otherwise civil discussions can quickly escalate into an all out cyber-tomato-tossing contest if folks aren't careful. By careful, we mean tactful about the way they advance their thoughts, suppositions and critical analyses.
There are rules of engagement for every different kind of circumstance. For the purposes of a fan creative writing and/or discussion forum, we're going to suggest what we feel are the most all-round fair and considerate (under these said conditions) rules for what can probably aptly be termed a "literary leisure play area."
Let us start with some basic facts of FAN FORUM communication.
Essential rules of discussion & critique
A. There is no such thing as a PROFESSIONAL FAN — Likewise, there is no such thing as a PROFESSIONAL FAN (fiction or editorial) WRITER. No matter what is being written, whether a creative piece of prose, or someone's editorial take on a discussion, it is wrong to assume that the person writing: i) wants to be a paid professional writer or ii) cares whether or not s/he misspelled the word "anecdotal" in paragraph four of his or her article/story.
B. BE COURTEOUS & RESPECTFUL. The person you're debating with DOES have feelings. Never assume that just because a computer screen and 50,000 miles of ocean separates you from another writer, you have been given licence to treat that person as if they were a machine, instead of a person using a machine to communicate very human ideas.
ASK before you offer negative (even constructive) criticism on their creative work; is the person willing to receive it? This isn't Random House Books — no one is being monetarily compensated to share their mind as either an editor or an author. Likewise, there's nobody out there compensating folks for hurt or abused feelings because a self-appointed critic has decided to be "brutally honest" with a fan's creative work. "Brutally honest" is usually "brutally selfish." Be considerate of others, first and foremost.
The following is an excerpt from Peg Robinson's "Mannerly Art of Critique" (originally posted to ASC c. 1997)
"There are two basic approaches to crit, and one of them doesn't work well in an environment like [a fan creative forum]: That's the approach of the professional critic reviewing and evaluating the professional artist. The attitude of the pro critic is 'anything goes'; his persona is that of the Watchdog, defending the purses of the consumer and the high ideals of art; and his motto is 'I calls 'em as I sees 'em...and if you don't like it, take a hike.' The professional critic is loyal to the consumer, and to the world of art as a whole, and he or she owes no particular consideration to the artist. The critic is there to protect the world from trash, shoddy craftsmanship, and trivial sensationalism. It's an unpleasant but honorable calling when practiced by an ethical and competent master of the art. Granted, there are a lot of vicious, pompous, meshugenah schmucks plying the trade; but many a critic, be he or she ever so spiny and ill-tempered, is hoping to ensure a better and brighter world. But for all his or her curmudgeonly virtues, a pro critic is a BAD THING to set loose on a band of amateurs — particularly unprepared amateurs who are honorably trying to pursue their education in the safe shallows of a supportive and interested community of peers. When amateurs finally decide to make the break and go pro they'll be appropriate game for the Big Game Hunters — in the meantime it's best to treat them as a protected species, and let them develop some size and scope before cutting them down to size.
"That leads us to the second approach to criticism. This is the approach of the teacher, the editor, the workshop director, the dramatic director, the friend, and the peer.
"The idea is that the work and the artist are both still 'In Progress.' Comments are intended to help and support the artists, give them insight into their own work, provide a clear and accurate view of the responses the artist has generated, to make suggestions on areas of potential improvement, and provide information regarding the standard assumptions, skills, and craft of the trade. Negative comments are as appropriate as positive ones, but they should be expressed politely, they should probably come in moderate doses, and they should be aimed at specific and clear-cut problem spots in a story or consistent patterns of failure in a series of stories. The idea is to make it easier for the writer to see her own work clearly — not to hurt her, make her ashamed, or to confuse the heck out of her."
C. BALANCE every negative comment you offer with a POSITIVE counterpoint. Every author craves feedback, and sometimes that feedback may entail a few points of constructive criticism. However, the old adage "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" DOES apply! No matter how many "constructive" points you may wish to bring up with the author, always preface these with at least a few points of what's GOOD about the piece of work. Don't assume the author already knows, or it would be a waste of bandwidth. TRUST US, it's always a good idea. Arguably, you should have at least ONE good point for every ONE criticism you offer. If you find you have nothing good to say about the piece of writing at all, then ask yourself WHY ARE YOU WRITING to the author about it? It can't be to help them improve when you've got nothing good to say about the work as it is. No one is that generous.
D. DO NOT CRITIQUE SIMPLY TO DISPLAY YOUR OWN ELOQUENCE. No one likes an arrogant know-it-all. If you don't really care about whether the author improves his/her work at all, or if you're more concerned with showing off to a few hundred people just how much you know about the semi-colon, DON'T BOTHER. Reread your critique BEFORE you send it off to the public forum. If it's more about you than it is about the author, everyone will know, and you won't make any new friends by it.
E. ALLOW DISAGREEMENT. The person you're having a discussion with can and does have the right to disagree with your point of view. Disagreeing with another person should NOT in any way, shape, or form, constitute an AD HOMINEM attack. For those unaware, the definition of ad hominem from the Webster's English dictionary is: "marked by an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made." In other words, "NO FLAMES OF ANY KIND." If you attack another person's character, ethnicity, personal intellect, background, or social standing in any way, you may be removed from the list/discussion without warning.
F. EDITING vs. FEEDBACK — what does it all mean?
"CRITIQUE," in its purest form, has become almost an arcane practice, and certainly an esoteric one. A true critique is what you'll find in creative writing classes and on technical/creative writing forums in cyber space that are there mainly for writers who hope to improve their skills enough to become professional writers. However in the "fanfic" arena, they're all but nonexistent. Mainly because not every fanfic writer wants to become a pro, and because fanfic itself with so many shortcuts built in, doesn't always make the best stepping stone to pro writing. "Feedback" should not and is not an opportunity to re-edit and rewrite someone's finished work.
For the purposes of this FAQ, we wish to define a difference between what is to be considered FEEDBACK and what is otherwise EDITING. The primary adjudicating factor is INTENT.
Are you commenting on an author's overall story or any portion thereof, as a reader? Or are you attempting to assist the author with their style, grammar, punctuation, etc...?
What's the difference? To do the former, one may almost always email the author privately and let them know how their story made you feel. However, to do the latter, one should ALWAYS ask permission FIRST. Even for private EDITING. You may find that without permission, an author is either hurt or insulted (or both) by your attempt to edit their work in an unsolicited manner.
NEVER EDIT without permission. And offer FEEDBACK only if you feel you have something of constructive use to say.
You may find that, while most authors on this list enjoy receiving FEEDBACK and will indicate as much on their work, whether they choose to receive their feedback publicly or privately, MOST authors on this list are NOT likely to enjoy an EDIT of their story, in any format, unless they've specifically REQUESTED as much, first.
G. FACTS vs. OPINIONS. 2+2=4 is a FACT. Dean Cain is HOT is an OPINION. Facts are generally not disputed. Opinions ARE. Do not assume that simply because 95% of the rest of the forum may share your opinion, it is all right to berate or use an ad hominem attack against another person.
Likewise, if you are stating an opinion, a good idea is to always preface it with some form of qualifier. "It has been my experience that…" or "IMHO (in my humble opinion)" or "I believe that…" all of these are examples of an individual putting forth their OWN thoughts and ideas. Simply because we're all on a LOIS & CLARK discussion list does not mean we must all believe that Dean Cain is HOT, for example. The issue may be up for debate, but the integrity of those who are involved in the debate is NOT.
H. A DEAD THREAD is a thread which is closed by the LIST MODERATOR (Mom), at which point posting further on the subject may be grounds for your immediate removal from the list without notice. Know when to concede an issue. There comes a point in time in ANY debate when further discussion is moot, and only leads to repetition. It is NOT that important that you have the last word!
Bow out gracefully with something like: "I'm afraid we'll simply have to agree to disagree." We guarantee you, if you handle yourself that way, people will RESPECT you for it.
If you still feel there is more to discuss, it is then your prerogative to email the debate participants PRIVATELY and continue without subjecting the public forum to the thread any farther. A list moderator will not close a thread unless it becomes tiresome (to everyone), repetitive, or otherwise antagonistic. Any form of direct attack will be cut off without warning.
Fanfic criticism: Who should do it & when
A. AUTHORS: Please INDICATE on your creative work, if you intend to post it to a public venue, whether or not you desire criticism, constructive or otherwise, and to what extent. An example might be:
"All forms of comments and/or criticism are welcome PRIVATELY at firstname.lastname@example.org"
"Comments welcome PRIVATELY at email@example.com, please no negative remarks or flames."
"Comments, suggestions, criticism, welcome PUBLICLY or PRIVATELY. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org"
If you DO NOT indicate your preference on your story, we will assume that it is OPEN to public remarks of any kind! Please be aware of this, and please mark your work accordingly.
B. ANYONE may offer comments. Don't assume that only the seasoned pros out there are able to intelligently comment on a piece of writing. If you feel you have a suggestion or comment to offer any given discussion, even a newbie can add their voice and enrich the debate. We welcome all new input, so long as it is courteous and respectful to the rest of those in the forum. Please make sure your comments will be welcomed by the author, and if so, post away!
The following is an excerpt from Peg Robinson's "MANNERLY ART OF CRITIQUE" (originally posted to ASC c. 1997)
"Only crit those who have INVITED crit, or who have given you permission when you ask. If they impose limits, like 'I'm new at this, go easy,' respect those limits. If they ask you to avoid particular types of crit, or conversely to pay particular attention to an area they are working on, respect those requests, too. It's not a bad idea to consider writing and asking permission to do a serious public crit even if the writer HAS asked for that kind of feedback… and be prepared to at least give some idea of what you want to say. It isn't that the writer lied when she asked — but people change their minds, and even the most sincere find themselves quivering when the reaction they get is worse than they had really expected, so try making the extra effort in the interests of peace.
"…try to be sure not to leap out of the shrubbery and ambush a writer who was not expecting crit, or not expecting 'serious' crit. No matter how naive that lack of expectation may appear to you, the fact is that there are two very different schools of thought as to what one can and should expect when making a public posting — and it's best to assume the worst and compensate, rather than reduce a writer to tears or rage because she was not prepared for crit. Treat it as a 'multi-cultural' issue, and know that the two schools of thought are not in agreement, and need to work hard not to hurt each other inadvertently.
"The point is not to 'win out' over the writer. It's to help. If you make a point, and it becomes clear that the writer can't use it, either through her failing or yours, or just because it doesn't fit at the time, and it isn't merely a matter of her misunderstanding what you were saying, then stop pushing it. I'm serious. More damage has been done in crit by 'I'm going to win you over or go down trying' attitudes than by anything else short of true malice."
C. DO NOT ASSUME CONTROL of another writer's piece of work. By that we mean, do not send that writer criticism in the form of a laundry "to do" list, and do not rewrite their story for them "better" and send it back. Doing so will only rob the writer of his/her artistic input in the piece of work, and that is not the objective of constructive criticism. Offer questions, advice in a subjective manner, and support in ideas only when asked to do so.
D. WORK with the writer only in so far as s/he WANTS the assistance. If you begin with a writer who invites the critical help, and that writer then begins to waffle, or suggest that they no longer appreciate the input… STOP. Never assume that a yes in the beginning gives you absolute free rein to do as you see fit from that point on. As difficult as it may be, if the author lets you know s/he doesn't want the advice anymore… back away and let it be.
Define “fair play” in criticism & debate
Aside from the obvious (and everything else we've managed to impart thus far), there are certain tenants of fairness in discussion and feedback which we wish to address not only in terms of how a person should conduct THEMSELVES while participating in list discussion, but in terms of how we must deal with the occasional (unforseen) act of random rudeness and/or e-terrorism.
A. RUDENESS/INSULTS are bound to happen from time to time. There will always be those who don't care, or don't know any better, who choose to converse with others in a negative and/or abusive manner. Profanity and personal insults will NOT be tolerated on this list or within the context of any discussion/creative piece of work. There are other ways to communicate clearly and effectively, and there is no reason for us to employ vulgarity in order to get our opinions across.
When someone FLAMES another person, or disregards the rules of engagement set forth in this FAQ, s/he will be removed from the list without notice.
B. DEALING WITH RUDENESS is simple. Ignore it. Do not respond to it, do not strike up a counter attack on the list.
It is easy for people to become insulted and/or affronted by the appearance of profanity, spamming, flames or other sorts of negativity violating the rules of this list; however, responding to it will only FEED the aggressors. Silence is golden. Pretend the offenders aren't there and they will be far more affected than any 100 angry response posts might make them. If we are to band together and defend our own, let us show that solidarity by shutting out the problem in the best possible way. IGNORE THE OFFENDER.
C. HURT FEELINGS are bound to happen from time to time. Some people have thicker skin than others, and some people are offended by phrases as simple as: "I completely disagree with that." So how do we decide what's "fair" and what isn't?
First of all, a DEBATE ISSUE stands on its own. Even if it is YOUR idea, the fact that someone or a group of someone(s) may disagree with your IDEA does NOT mean that these persons are disagreeing with your right to exist on the planet.
Try to take each comment with a grain of salt. People's points of view are fallible, and by no means are they able to set you on the course of the rest of your life without your very participatory consent. By that we mean, YOU decide what gets to you personally and what doesn't. And no one can (or will) protect you from dissenting points of view. These are a part of life and a lively part of any public discussion forum.
Generally speaking, if you KNOW you are easily hurt (and you should know that about yourself, if you're honest), then the best course of action is to AVOID DEBATE and request as little critical feedback on your creative work as you feel you will be able to accept. You may also opt to only request positive feedback.
D. DEFENDING FRIENDS in a debate situation is iffy at best. Make certain, when you enter the debate, that you are prepared to become a very active participant if you defend another person's ideas. People WILL think that you have something of value to add to the discussion and they WILL address you directly.
Be prepared to BACK UP what you say. If you have only entered the debate to make your best friend feel better, then you've entered for the wrong reason.
Individuals may take care of themselves. If they cannot take care of themselves, or are easily hurt, they should not enter into public discussion. It is NOT your responsibility to bodyguard anyone else or their point of view. We discuss IDEAS and CREATIVE CONCEPTS here, not people specifically.
Critique and Debate are tag team competitive sports, and you will be drawn in, like it or not, if you make your voice heard on the issue. Posting about the issue is an invitation to enter the discussion.
E. SPAM. No chain mail, FWD: mail or petition mail of any kind will be allowed on this list. Failure to adhere to this rule WILL result in your immediate removal from the list and your subsequent inability to resubscribe.
F. CAVEATS on messages must be used when posts are not of specific interest to the purpose of the list: Lois & Clark. While OFF TOPIC posting is generally frowned upon, there are sometimes instances where an off topic idea becomes of interest to more than a few members of the list and posting it would then be condoned. In those instances, you MUST preface your SUBJECT heading with OT: for off topic posting, TAN: for posts which are offshoots of another thread and may deviate slightly from topic, and SPOILER: if you are going to spoil either your own story, or some other L&C related piece of media before it becomes widely available.
In a nutshell, use common sense, tact, and diplomacy and you'll be fine. Fan discussion forums are about like-minded individuals getting together and sharing their ideas, stories and creative muse collectively. They are not about making everyone into professional authors, or automatons.
While there may be those individuals out there for whom professional aspirations are their ultimate concern, the goal of the fan discussion and creative writing forum is not to create such individuals, nor to cater to their form of critical feedback. Individuals who wish such critical feedback should get together with others who feel similarly and do so PRIVATELY.
That said, HAVE FUN! That's what it's all about in the end. No judgments, and no expectations other than mutual respect and consideration for your fellow discussion partners.
This FAQ was compiled on 04/18/99 by Demi (of the L&C Fantasyland Pages), with the input and assistance of Kathy Brown (former L&C Fanfic Archive Editor-In-Chief and LOISCLA-GENERAL-L List Mom), Farah Meitzen Chisham (original LOISCLA-GENERAL-L List Mom), the administrators of LOISCLA, and the many varied voices of the members of the Lois & Clark Fanfiction Listserver.
It was revised September 2000 (for use in the revised Fanfic Archive and Fanfic Listserv FAQs).
It is intended for posting on the LOISCLA-GENERAL-L Fanfiction List and for use by the Lois & Clark Fanfiction Archive.
Excerpts from Peg Robinson's "MANNERLY ART OF CRITIQUE" (originally posted to ASC c. 1997) have been cited with permission by the author to freely distribute her words as necessary. The complete essay may be located by visiting the alt.startrek.creative newsgroup and looking up: "THE MANNERLY ART OF CRITIQUE."