It’s been fun going through the nice and nonsensical comments my peers have left on my short stories over the years. Some are helpful, some are supportive, some are mean and some are just plain funny. They’re a great way to remind my fellow writers — particularly those new to having their work critiqued — that everyone’s got an opinion. Sometimes those opinions can hurt your feelings, but it’s important to look past that for any valuable input you can use. Just like when you read customer reviews on Amazon.com, you tend to ignore the ones that just say “Awful product. Never buying from this company again.” because there’s nothing there to advise you on why you shouldn’t buy the product. For all you know, that guy didn’t even read the product description before he bought the thing.
For this bonus episode, we’re actually going to take a look at some more comments left on the last three short stories I wrote. What makes these comments so special? Well, they come from my professor. I’ll go ahead and give him the benefit of the doubt — it’s the end of the year, the loud class next door has been bugging him all quarter, and there could be something in his personal life really stressing him out. This is the first time his comments have proved less useful and — as in the first picture below — a little hurtful.
Instead of launching into a defensive tirade, I want to use these comments to show you all that even professors, who we sometimes put on a pedestal for all their wisdom and experience, can offer less than helpful feedback.
This wasn’t the first fantasy story I’ve passed off as historical fiction for this professor, but it’s the first time he’s responded in this way. This story earned an A, so I’m at least doing something right. But that just makes the threat of a lower grade bizarre. (To clarify, when he said “you’ll start with a C,” he meant that a C is the highest grade I could get if I did everything else perfectly.)
This professor also doesn’t like genre fiction — he prefers contemporary realistic fiction — so I’m taking this particular comment as an opinion of taste rather than objective assessment of quality. Taste should have no bearing on a grade.
For my contemporary story about the married couple that had a miscarriage, my professor generally felt it was melodramatic. During verbal critique, he offered some rather morbid suggestions on how to adjust the situation to be “more dramatic,” such as turning the accidental miscarriage into an abortion forced by the husband. This question about where the husband works that a coworker would make such a callous comment about the wife seems odd, especially given its phrasing.
Sure, I have years of anecdotal proof that people, myself included, can make tactless remarks without thinking. I think we’ve all said things and realized a few seconds later that, gee, I really shouldn’t have said that. But it’s hard to tell if what I wrote sounds more like intentional insensitivity when my only feedback is a quip. It’s important to explain why something doesn’t work when critiquing.
Perhaps the least helpful feedback (as far as clarity on what changes are needed to improve the story) comes on the last story I submitted. Only the professor read it, so I can’t use my classmates’ comments to help decipher what’s “wrong” here. I guess any mentions of giant machines during an alien invasion will bring to mind War of the Worlds, but I’ve never seen any Robo Cop. Regardless, most writing is derivative of something these days.
What’s not working with this feedback is, again, that I’m not being told what isn’t working. Is it the “romantic voice” people have said I write in? Is the presence of a female character — who spends the whole story freaking out and trying not to bleed out from a gunshot wound — to blame for the “woman warrior” feel? What exactly am I supposed to change for the revised version?
As you can see, my friends, comments you don’t know how to respond to can come from anyone. They could even come from you. If you get responses like this, ignore what won’t help you. And if you’re critiquing someone else’s work, remember to explain why you think a change is needed.
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[…] The stigma against writing any kind of genre fiction was very real in my writing classes. Many classmates had similar dreams as me—to write fantasy and/or science fiction novels. We want to write what we love to read. Unfortunately, some professors only wanted you to write what they wanted to read. One even threatened my grade after I submitted one fantasy short story and warned me to never do it … […]