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As a counterpoint/companion to the other recent questions about dealing with critiques, this one is intended to assess our current view of questions, now that we've got some experience with them.

So here's the place for you to share your observations. Are critique questions an important element of the site? Or are they more trouble than they're worth?


Here's some points you might want to mention (though obviously, bring in whatever you've got!):

  • Are critique questions adding valuable, useful content to our site? If so - explanations and examples are welcome. If not - can they?
  • To what extent do you feel that the definition of a "good critique question" is clear and well-understood:
    • to yourself?
    • to the Writers.SE community?
    • to newcomers wanting to write such a question?
  • Do you post critique questions for your own work? If so - are they helpful? If not - why not?
  • Do you feel that we've done a good job adjusting the concept of a critique request into the StackExchange Q&A format?

We're also looking for more input into recent individual Meta questions about critiques - please take a look if you haven't already:

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I don't have too much to say on this, but--

Critiques may be the single most useful thing this site has to offer for the poster of the question, but I feel that no future visitors will ever obtain anything useful from looking at the error-filled/awkward writing of someone else. We look at good writing to learn, not mediocre/bad writing whose problems are oftentimes so fundamental that for third-party readers they offer no insight into the art of writing. Many of these questions have no value to posterity.

So it's a double-edged sort of a deal.

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    are we a museum for saints, or a hospital for sinners? I disagree that "many of these questions have no value for posterity." They may not be Googleable, but seeing a really good edit to a struggling piece of writing can be very instructive. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 18 '12 at 10:17
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    Relatedly, I think analysis questions of the form "why does this writing work so well?", while arguably critique, are much more valuable. They start from the good product and work backwards rather than starting from something weak and working up (via multiple answers/comments, so not necessarily easy to follow). – Monica Cellio Apr 18 '12 at 12:54
  • @LaurenIpsum nice turn of phrase there, I've never heard that one before. I do agree that seeing a really good edit to a struggling piece of writing can be instructive, but I have to wonder how anyone would ever find these questions unless they were looking through old questions for the hell of it. – temporary_user_name Apr 18 '12 at 14:17
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    @aerovistae - true. What if we emphasized the issues, and formatted these questions as "how do I fix [problem]" where the text to be critiqued is there example of the problem? It's not much of a stretch from current critique questions, and in many cases might be a Mayer of editing the title. Or is that just a band-aid? – Neil Fein Apr 18 '12 at 15:48
  • What if it isn't a specific problem? Take alexchenko's questions for instance (I'm thinking most of us are familiar with those). He's oftentimes asking us to point out anything/everything that may or may not be wrong, and oftentimes it involves wording, and that's not a knock; I'm just saying. – temporary_user_name Apr 18 '12 at 15:56
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    Yes, but look at some of the answers he gets: suggested techniques about how to rewrite a piece with no dialogue, or with all dialogue (which I thought was fascinating and useful). I usually dissect every choice I make in my answers to him so the reasoning is clear. I think it's possible for others to learn from that. However, I take your point about browsing old questions, and we may need to address it with a tag or a title fix. (and I saw the saints/sinners phrase in an Ann Landers column years ago. Can't take credit. :) ) – Lauren Ipsum Apr 18 '12 at 16:08
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My general sense is that critique questions are working poorly for us, and that this is unlikely to improve significantly, barring a drastic change.

I'll get the obvious issues out of the way first:

  • Site guidelines aren't enough to keep questions focused. Partially because they're not very visible; a random newcomer won't know to look for them. And partially because judging what constitutes a single focused question is really tough - it's tough for long-time members; for new members poking around the site without knowing Writers.SE and Stack Overflow, it can be nigh incomprehensible.
  • Finding an appropriate focus is extremely difficult. Once the guidelines are properly understood, it's still very hard to ask "the right question" about your piece. The focus guideline basically demands a diagnosis and asks for the cure - but the diagnosis might be wrong, or maybe OP's asking because he hasn't managed to find a diagnosis that works. For this reason, critique questions can easily go astray - either by asking the wrong question, or by getting answers that try to address larger issues that OP doesn't ask about.
  • Over-localized. Critique questions are, by nature, of little interest to anybody besides the OP; this can lead to cruft on the front page, numerous questions with indistinguishable "Feedback on story beginning" and unsearchable content.
  • Appealing primarily to newcomers. I might be wrong here, but I think most interest in critique questions will be coming from amateurs, whatever the site's expertise level may be. Amateurs go, Cool - these people will tell me what to fix in my writing!. Meanwhile, more experienced writers will be more wary of posting work for public critique; they also usually have no lack of friends and contacts who they rely on for feedback. I don't have any problem with some (or even many!) amateur questions, but if the entire tag is geared primarily for low-quality questions, that's a problem.

But there's a larger issue here.

Are our critiques doing what critiques should do?

What is a critique meant to accomplish? Why are writing critiques so helpful; why is it so important for us to incorporate them into our site?

Critiques are the fundamental form of mentoring in writing. Two major reasons for that are:

  • A critique is an attempt and an opportunity to capture the effect of a piece on a reader. The whole point is that the reader can react to anything in the text - not necessarily to what the author thinks is good, or bad, or important. It's nice that the author wants to improve the fluidity of the battle scene, but that's irrelevant if the reader thinks the entire fight is pointless and the characters should get back to smooching already. An insightful reviewer will notice issues that the author would never think of - both flaws and virtues.
  • Fiction needs to be read as a whole. You can examine a small piece of it, but it's inherently non-modular. You can't possibly critique the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey without having gone through all the movie up to that point. The dramatic showdown between the Sicilian and the Man in Black has been built up to for chapters, and relies on the particular tone and atmosphere of the rest of the book. That's why critiques take the entire piece, and review it in its entirety - because that's what it takes for the reviewer to understand the piece, to be able to give constructive advice that's tailored correctly.

With Writers.SE's current guidelines, we miss both of these. We're left simply offering our opinion about a specific issue in the text - which may be helpful, of course, but it's hardly the comprehensive critique that the author would presumably find most valuable.

And you know what? There's no shortage of review forums and critique circles and the like. When it comes to getting a critique of your work, Writers.SE simply can't hold a candle to the competition. If getting critiques at Writers.SE requires a gamut of rephrasings and contortions, while other venues are actually dedicated to providing critiques and some of 'em do it pretty darn well, and they're all offering ten times as much bang for your buck, giving you a real critique instead of taking one cherry-picked question - well, then Writers.SE does not seem like a very good place to focus on critiques, does it?

Conclusion

So I think that's where I am on this. I think that it's in our best interests to either find a much, much better way of dealing with critiques, or else take them back off-topic. The present situation, where critique questions are an odd quisling that newcomers stumble over again and again, does not seem tenable to me in the long run - if we don't find a way to improve it, I don't think it's going to improve.

I know there are members here who strongly support critique questions, and to these members, I apologize if I'm coming across as overly negative. I recognize the value of providing a place on our writing site to post your own writing, and I would truly love to hear more about the value and potential of these questions as you yourself see them.

The reason I am posting, and so critically, is because I strongly feel that we've missed our mark with critique questions so far. Now, that might simply mean we notch another arrow and try again. But to do even that much, we need to know what we're aiming for.

  • A point I should mention - all of this is nothing more than my own personal opinion, and far more as a user than as a moderator. I'm putting all this out muchly because I want a sense of where everybody else is on these thoughts. I hope that's perfectly clear :) – Standback Apr 18 '12 at 21:49
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    >Fiction needs to be read as a whole. - That's just not true. You are mixing up things. If you want to find holes in a story, yes, you have to. But that's not what critique questions want to solve. Remember, editors need three pages (or even less) to decide if a book is good or not. There are a lot of things beside the story which can go wrong. – John Smithers Apr 19 '12 at 11:33
  • @JohnSmithers: Editors aren't trying to critique a work; three pages are often enough to confidently reject it, but certainly not enough to give thorough feedback - not even on the first three pages. As for that's not what critique questions want to solve - do you mean our critique questions? Because I think that, generally speaking, that's what somebody asking for a critique wants. Whereas, for our critique questions, I'm frankly often uncertain what we're trying to solve. – Standback Apr 19 '12 at 12:28
  • "Site guidelines aren't enough to keep questions focused" - That's true of all questions; we often do a little tweaking or ask for more information on many question types. – Neil Fein Apr 19 '12 at 13:57
  • "Finding an appropriate focus is extremely difficult" - You're essentially saying that asking the correct question about your piece is hasrd - but if you read through the official Stack Exchange guidelines, you'll find the same phrase over and ober: Asking a good question is not supposed to be easy. – Neil Fein Apr 19 '12 at 13:59
  • "Over-localized" - Agreed. I suggest we try looking at these as, rather than pieces of a specific work to be critiqued, an example of a problem that others may encounter. Not "how can I make this work less boring?" but "how can I have a section of my novel work when nothing happens for a long time?" with an example. – Neil Fein Apr 19 '12 at 14:06
  • "Appealing primarily to newcomers" - This needs some numbers, I think. But if so, it's a problem. This would run counter to trying to build an expert site. – Neil Fein Apr 19 '12 at 14:07
  • Standback, three pages are enough to give thorough feedback. Not on the plot/story, but enough for a lot of other writing issues. Issues which you repeat again and again. Telling instead of showing, overuse of adjectives, no conflicts, etc. – John Smithers Apr 19 '12 at 14:22
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    @NeilFein: A lot here to respond to; I'm continuing over in chat: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/3161/… – Standback Apr 19 '12 at 17:27
  • Have replied over there. – Neil Fein Apr 19 '12 at 20:07

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