Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Comment Box Cheerleading

Sometimes chats ensue in the comments that beg to be addressed.  Because, yeah--I care about this community and your thoughts on what goes on here.

So I noticed the comments on the apparently larger-than-normal amount of cheerleading that went on during this month's Secret Agent contest.  Now, it's no secret that there's NO WAY I have to time read every single comment.  Yes, they all come into my inbox.  Yes, I randomly check them.  But I trust you all to a) be good critters and b) let me know (privately) if anyone is being snarky or troll-y.

Because I will kill a snarky critique faster than you can say Embittered Writer.

(Cheerleading, on the other hand, isn't nasty or ill-intentioned.  So it's not something I will ever delete.)

Let me say, first of all, if you have ANY concern about the critique that goes on here, to please email me.  Don't throw it into the comment box (especially a comment box that would be better used as a place to thank our Secret Agent) or grumble among yourselves.  TELL ME.

I may or may not agree.  But I will definitely take your concerns seriously.  Because I want as many people as possible to be happy and comfortable here.  (Yes, I mean that.)

Secondly, I want you to know that, while I believe cheerleading is kindly meant,  I DO agree that it's not the best use of comment box space during Secret Agent contests (or any other online critique session, here or anywhere else).  Here's why:

1.  Critique sessions exist for a specific purpose: To provide USEFUL FEEDBACK for the serious writer.  We all know how vital this is.  And, despite how it may stroke our egos, a string of "This-is-so-fabulous-wait-til-you-guys-read-the-whole-story-like-I-already-have" is not USEFUL FEEDBACK.

2.  Public encouragement does not carry greater weight than private encouragement.  You all know that I am ALL ABOUT ENCOURAGEMENT!  We all desperately need it, and I try to provide it here on a regular basis.  But if you want to encourage your crit partner or writing buddy or best friend whose excerpt happens to be in our latest contest, PLEASE DO IT PRIVATELY.  I can assure you that it will be equally appreciated.

3.  As writers, we should strive to present ourselves professionally at all times.  And constant cheerleading during a session that calls for USEFUL FEEDBACK does not come off professionally.  At all.

4.  Fluffy comments about how awesome you think something is, without a stitch of helpful critique added, provides NOTHING USEFUL for the hundreds of people who are reading these critiques to learn more about what works and doesn't work in their own writing.  Imagine the serious, neophyte writer, reading an excerpt and forming his own opinions about it, but wondering what other, more "experienced" writers might think.  Scrolling through the comments and seeing nothing but a bunch of "Yay, you!" and "Your story rocks, girlfriend!" isn't going to teach him anything.

Mind you, there is certainly a difference between cheerleading and commenting honestly that you think an excerpt was well-written.  Pointing out the positive is as helpful as pointing out the negative.  So please don't think I'm asking you to stop saying nice things.  Heaven forbid!

But I think you all know the difference there.  I love that so many of you are connected with writers whom you genuinely like, and whose work you believe in.  These are powerful, important connections!  But the comment boxes of an online critique session or contest isn't the place for pompoms.

So please bear this in mind when you show up to critique.  Thoughtful crits take time; I view them as a loving sacrifice from whoever offers them.  And that's what this place is about--giving to each other and receiving in our turn.  That's why there's been so much growth here...so many success stories!  This isn't a magical blog with special powers; it's a vibrant community of dedicated writers who are PAYING ATTENTION, WORKING HARD, and GROWING!

And I adore you.  Thanks for listening.


  1. I'll admit, I put in one cheerleading comment, but I also left as much insightful feedback as I could. And I felt like a horrible dream-dashing witch for doing it because much of the work here was praised (as it should've been). You're right though, even though I don't submit, I like to practice my editing eye here, help my fellow authors and see what the Secret Agent has to say about subs. Insightful critique helps us all: agented, published or just starting out.

  2. I would add this: when I see a comment that looks something like "this story is TOTALLY awesome and someone needs to buy it NOW because it will be BIGGER than Harry Potter", I immediately assume that the comment was written by a) the writer, b) the writer's mom, or c) the writer's best friend. Because all three of these options are unprofessional, I immediately discount the entry even if it is fact good.

  3. I didn't appreciate this subject being brought up where it did either. That post was for thanking the agent. Yes, I added my two cents because I was commenter like 10 or something, but still, the agent didn't need to get the brunt of the frustration.

    I understand the concerns, I honestly wasn't bothered by the 'cheerleading'. My entry did have a few 'that was awesome!' comments, but I can honestly say I didn't know most of the commenters. But I see how it can look like I paid a whole bunch of people to come over and tell me how wonderful I am, which wasn't the case at all. And when I commented, if I liked something, I'm gonna say I liked it.

    If I can offer up why I think this round had more 'go you's!' than others, is one another very popular contest site that is exploding right now, positive pom poms are very much encouraged.

    I won't stop being myself when I comment. I'm a pretty enthusiastic person, so when I see something I like, yes... 'Holy crap!' will escape my fingers and land in the comment box. But I will make sure that my enthusiasm will state exactly why I like the excerpt so much, and not just 'that was great'.

  4. Fortunately, my critters wouldn't shake a pompom for me, even if I paid them... and my mother, a card-carrying pompom waver, has yet to get wind of this blog.

    My critique sandwich is "say what's working (in my opinion), point out what I think needs work, and tie it all up with a best-of-luck bow." It's a balance and, as you so rightly point out, Authoress, it takes time and energy to critique helpfully.

  5. Cassie -- You're right to point out the difference between an enthusiastic response from an honest-to-goodness critter and the pompoms of a dedicated crit partner. I would never want you to curb your own enthusiasm while critiquing something you really found well written. In my opinion, that kind of enthusiasm stands easily apart from the cheerleading variety.

    Also, you're making writers smile, which is a good thing. :)

  6. I think writers miss out when they don't add well thought out critiques. How often do you get to compare your own thoughts and opinions to a literary agent?

  7. I was both a cheerleader and cheerled in this contest. Believe me, if I had know that it would have caused so much upset, I would have refrained, and made sure that those who had previously read my work refrained as well.

    I think that discouraging cheerleading in the rules before the next round would probably help clear that up.

    I also want to say this: Anyone who submits a TRULY finished manuscript for a contest like this has gone through a lot of hard critique from their critique partners - the very ones doing the cheerleading in the comments. These critique partners have been through hell and back with the writers giving HONEST and HARSH criticism and helping the manuscript shine. So, giving a little bit of one-hundred percent happy and supportive commenting here is certainly just a little pat on the back after a long, hard road.

    HOWEVER. As I said above. If cheerleading is not acceptable in these contests, and we are ONLY looking for pure critique, I think that should be explicitly stated.

  8. I think it's important to be as specific as possible, in both positive and negative comments. You (hopefully) wouldn't say, "This is awful!" but would instead say, "I don't understand the character's motivation in this scene" or "I'd like more details about the setting." If it's not specific, it's not helpful because the writer won't know how to fix it. Likewise, it's helpful to hear specifically what *is* working rather than just "This is great!" so that the good stuff can be replicated.

  9. May I just say that this blog is totally awesome and every writer should come here and behold the awesomeness of MSFV and her awesomely awesome contests! :D

  10. Janice -- good point!

    Anon -- Thanks for your thoughts. In the almost 4 years of running these contests, this has never been an issue, and I am loath to state something in the rules that sounds so...micromanaging. That's not my style. I've called it to everyone's attention, and I believe that those who are serious about giving good critique will continue to do so here.

    And yes, pats on the back are always a good thing. But I believe, in the interest of professionalism, they should be given privately. Crit partners have already done the hard critting; they don't really need to show up in an arena in which the writer is looking for further critique.

    (Also? If a writer isn't coming here for honest critique, she should probably not enter, as many are turned away each month.)

  11. I think that one of the biggest things to note about cheerleading comments is that it often lowers the amount of helpful critiques a post gets. I, for one, troll the list and look for those posts that have 2 or 3 comments when I add critiques. I want everyone to have a good range of critiques, and try to balance out the numbers where I can. I assume others do as well. So, if a post has 6 comments, but 3 of them are "This was awesome!" posts, then I'll skip it without opening the comments, and it won't get those good, helpful critiques that the contests really provide for all who enter. That, I think, is one of the biggest drawbacks to the cheerleading comments. They feel good, but I'd rather specificity, even if you don't have anything critical to point out. It's nice to know WHAT works, not just a general "this rocks!"

  12. I don't think it's micromanaging at all. I'd seen this blog in the past but thought I couldn't comment because I wasn't part of the contest myself. Once I knew the submissions were open for feedback I started posting. If I had nothing useful to say I didn't comment. I've learned a lot from reading other submissions and the feedback in the comments, and I think it's pointed out what I should look for in my own writing. But I would understand if you closed these posts for commenting only for the agent. As long as whatever guidelines you'd like us to adhere to are posted, I'm fine with it. Your blog, your rules.

  13. I missed out on the craziness that brought this post on, but I will say that I have had critique partners participate in these contests in the past and one in this contest itself. I was objective and gave both positive and critical feedback. This site has provided many writers with invaluable feedback on what works and what doesn't and why.

    I understand why people want to be cheerleaders for their friends/crit partner, but they are not helpful to the process and like S. Kyle Davis said, I will often troll the posts to see who has the fewest comments and offer feedback on those. I would never know if half of the comments an entry has are of the cheerleader variety because I skip over them without opening the comments and that person may lose out on valuable input from other writers because of it.

  14. I'm not sure why some are upset by the cheerleading comments. Putting up work is stressful and it helps to feel some people are in your corner. CPs have already given their crits to the author, they've probably been taken, so there's not much for the CPs to say. There are others who give great, helpful feedback, which is invaluable.

    Authoress, you run an awesome site with super-helpful contests, and I don't think you should worry about the few who are upset by cheerleading. What people take away from these contests is far more than can be undermined by a few grumbles.

  15. Eek! I didn't mean to post as "Anonymous", but it won't let me put in any user details. I'm Laura C.

  16. This was my first time to have my entry posted and critiqued here. Even though I received some positive comments (which I appreciated!!),many readers, including the agent, were misled by my term "water witch" (for dowser) and thought I was writing paranomral, not adult literary. And THANK YOU for pointing this out. Your misunderstanding demonstrated my confused writing. I wouldn't have known otherwise. :)

  17. We all need reminders. Well said Authoress - as usual! I love this blog, always have, always will, but it's easy for everyone to get caught up in the "pick me, pick me" syndrome, and the competition of such can overshadow what this blog is truly about.
    Bound to happen, but good to give a gentle nudge for everyone to put their critter hats back on! Keep on, keeping on! : )

  18. Hm. I’ve been struggling to find the right response to this for the last couple of hours—also as one of last session's cheerleaders. But I wonder if this isn’t a little more complex than critique good, cheerleading bad. (I’m exaggerating here, jic.)

    I agree with your comments about *extreme* cheerleading. A string of replies that consists of nothing more than 'OHMYGAWD THIS IS TOTES GOING TO BE THE NEXT HARRY POTTER!!1!1!!' is... not very constructive for both reader and writer. Especially without sufficient motivation. As you rightly pointed out, one of the most important advantages of contests like these is the learning curve, both in terms of writing and in terms of critiquing.

    With that in mind, with most contests I try to comment on as many entries as I can, exactly because I want to offer constructive criticism. Sometimes it's nothing more than a quick sentence or a few observations, sometimes more in-depth.

    However, sometimes I have nothing to say at all, except 'yay, you!'. Because I know the stories almost as well as my own and I'm excited to see how far they've come. Because I know I can't give an unbiased opinion. And although I will try to point out what I love so much about the entry, on some occasions I don't.

    I know I can choose not to comment, sure. I can support my CPs in private, and I do. But like Cassie Mae said before me, I'm a very enthusiastic person. More importantly, I believe there is nothing wrong with supporting your writer friends in public too, be it CPs or people I recognize from around the interwebs. (Although I do prefer it when people identify themselves as CP/friend.) A normally phrased ‘yay, you!’ can benefit the writer. As far as I’m concerned there’s really nothing wrong with that. Yes, we all have to be confident in our writing first and foremost, but a vote of confidence can help enormously. That has nothing to do with not appreciating honest critique, and everything with acknowledging for example that I, in this case as a reader, wish the author luck and am glad to see a certain entry among the lucky numbers.

    And I dread to equate that with any form of professionalism/unprofessionalism. The awesomeness of this particular community is mostly due to the fact that we can be honest-to-God excited for each other. That we are both willing to give critique and cheer each other on. Sometimes one outweighs the other, but overall the balance is perfect. And neither of them devaluates the other.

  19. I'm glad you brought this up. I've noticed a lot of cheerleading going around, not just on this blog. I often need a good cheer but when I get nothing but cheerleading in a critique session, I am disappointed. I'm not doing this for fun (although it is fun), I want to get better so I can get an agent. Please tell me what you loved about it AND what I can do to make it better.

  20. I think the point has been made and hopefully will sink in. Critiquing is an art and if all you can offer is either unabashed praise or, conversely, withering contempt then BOTH have no place in a critique. So please just move along to another entry in either case. But, if you can say - as one critter suggested - what works, what does not work and what almost worked etc then by all means comment. And even if you have the "Holy Crap" reaction in an orgasm of enthusiasm then please make it worthwhile by saying what you liked and how it provoked your reaction - the pacing, the voice, the word-choice, the imagery, the decription, the dialogue etc. I, like many others have said, move on to the entry that has the fewest crits entered and skip over or discount the ones with the cheering crowds. We are all adults and it should go on fine from here because what is truly valuable is the diversity of opinion. Restricting comments to only the agent is useless because if 5 people like your story for X reason and 5 dislike it for the same reason then you know you have something to work with. If there is an overwhelming consensus that something you love just does not work in the excerpt then you have gotten INVALUABLE feedback. Another commenter was right - there is another contest going on at another site where cheerleading is encouraged and - IMHO - it has devalued the entire exercise and made a mockery of it. Let us please let this fabulous forum be a place where writers learn, grow and are supported through serious criticism. Keep the cheers private. While I'm at it - can we please make "awesome" a banned word - at least for the grown-ups? Thank you for listening and we now rejoin regular programming.

  21. This all reminds me of when I'd do spelling bees as a kid. My mom would help me weeks ahead of time, going over spelling words until I nailed them in every practice session. She praised me, she encouraged me, she told me how to shake the jitters, and she convinced me to not back out or give up if I was having a hard time. The day of the competition, she fed me a great breakfast, took me to the auditorium, and then, sat quietly in the front row. Afterward, she either congratulated me or consoled me and gave me the ol' "we'll get 'em next time" speech. But she didn't whoop and holler after every word I spelled correctly.

    I'm not debating whether praise is a good thing or even whether CPs have the right to be supportive. I'm just not sure it's most helpful to the writer in *this* venue if that's all it is. As has been mentioned twice, now, having a larger number of cheerleading posts means an entry is going to be skipped over for critique because the critiquers feel like they should be spending their time on someone with fewer buddies here. So praise-padded entries get cheated out of actual critiques in some cases.

    Also, consider that one of the most important skills a writer can learn is how to receive critique/criticism/rejection graciously. That's just part of the business. CPs who can't let their partners sweat out a blog contest without public cheerleading aren't letting their partners absorb the full brunt of rough, public critique and are stunting the development of proper callouses. Afterall, the CP isn't going to get to add a line to every rejection letter: "I thought this was awesome and I'm so glad you wrote it! I can't wait to see it in print!" CPs have to pick up the peices *after* the rejection.

    If CPs have genuine, helpful critiques, then sure, by all means, post them. But if it's all just supportive praise and ego-bolstering, then that's something a writer needs plenty of while they're entering teh contest and after they've suffered critique from strangers. CPs efforts happen behind the scenes, and that's where they're invaluable. During competition, the work needs to be evaluated based on its merits and garner constructive feedback from people who aren't friends and aren't worried about the writer's ego.

    This isn't the end of the long, hard road. It's just another scenic view on the way.

  22. I found this to ba a helpful post. I won a contest once in which I had some of my pages critiqued. One of the critiquers is a published YA writer. She sent me a "critique" that was nothing but cheerleading. It was nice to hear but it wasn't particularly helpful.

    Thank goodness other people that critiqued the pages consisted of agents and a few other YA authors. Their suggestions for improvement were golden. They confirmed and validated things I was concerned about in my writing.

    I can only conclude that the "cheerleading" author wasn't being totally honest, didn't have the time to provide a real critique or doesn't know what she's doing. There's no way there wasn't something I needed to improve on and the feedback I received from others proved it.

    This is just my two cents, but in my experience, receiving specific details are best--even if it is the details on what you find are working in the writing :-)

  23. Ok, I missed the post(s) which started this discussion.

    I have to say, I didn't have a problem with a cheer that remained on-topic, ie, praised the passage in question. I knew none of the authors, and praised those which I felt were worthy.

    What I did have a problem with were the comments that alluded to content outside of the passage in question, such as "i've read the whole manuscript, and it is just as awesome".

    I wondered whether such comments were an attempt to bias the agent, and was tempted to comment, but held back.

    To summarise my opinion (in case I hadn't made it completely obvious): A crit should be limited to the passage in question.

  24. While I had known about MSFV for a little while, this was my first time actively participating, both as an entry and critter. It was an great and humbling experience, during which I learned a lot from (a) feedback on my entry and (b) feedback on other entries. I agree with most on this topic, there is a time and place for cheerleading and a crit contest is not the place for it…with the caveat “without justification.”

    If you want to say “that was great” then say why: loved the voice, the pace was fantastic, that line was funny. The same also with constructive feedback. If you say “this doesn’t work” then say why: no justification for character, this is not believable, not enough of a set up. This way we learn what we do well and what we need to work on. Just popping by to say “great job and good luck” doesn’t help the author, and doesn’t do yourself as a writer any justice. How often do you get a chance to arm yourself with a metaphorical red pen and compare your ability to crit with that of an agent? Honing one’s ability to cut through the pretty façade and get to the underlying grit, seeing whether or not it works, and being able to communicate that in a constructive way is a skill all writers need to develop. *Need* like you need to breathe need, so you can take that skill you learn helping your CPs (and in participating in contest such as MSFV) and use it on your own writing to make it stronger, better and able to withstand the heavy red pen of agents and editors.

    Thank you for the opportunity your blog gives to us to learn about the craft, and a big thank you to Carrie Hannigan for her invaluable feedback.