The Kindness of Strangers: the untapped potential of the comment button

A recent article from “The Guardian” estimates that those who would like to successfully self-publish a novel should expect to spend about $6,000 of their own money to cover everything from the ISBN number to a few paid reviews to generate publicity. But a whopping $4,000 of that total is earmarked for professional editing–a process which involves not just grammar clean up and spell check, but serious analysis of the story and its structural shortcomings.

I know there are quite a number of bloggers who have posted chapters and short stories for the public to enjoy. While many of these writers claim to welcome feedback, I’ve noticed that the vast majority of those who respond post comments that are broad and pleasant, but vague and non-specific: “Loved the story” or “This made me smile.” For the most part, people are very kind and tend to leave praise rather than criticism, a welcome respite from the trolls who reside in the comments section of other webpages. But it also feels like a missed opportunity–a chance for a writer to get some real feedback (especially if he or she hasn’t got an extra $4,000 lying around in a drawer somewhere).

Sometimes I’ll read a chapter on someone’s blog and think to myself “The dialogue here is a bit cliché ” or “I wish the writer would have described this in more detail.” But I don’t post anything because I don’t want to insult the writer and I’m not certain whether “comments welcome” means “suggestions, please” or simply “enjoy this in a judgment-free zone.” I actually saw one blogger who got into a heated exchange with one of his readers who had criticized the grammar of the piece, an experience which definitely made me want to keep my opinions to myself.

Still, it seems as though if you are brave enough to post your writing for the world to see, you ought to be able to summon a little extra courage to stomach a few disappointing comments like “This character didn’t seem real to me” or “I didn’t like the ending.” Such words would undoubtedly sting, but if enough people are saying it, it could point to a problem that can only be fixed by serious revision. It’s also advice that comes free of charge–better to hear it early and fix the problem, than spend $4,000 to hear the same thing from a pro.

I suspect that many people are just too nice to point out the flaws in a story and want to offer encouragement and support. I know all too well that undeserved flattery doesn’t help a writer grow–it stunts him or her into complacency. I’d love to see a comments form with two boxes, almost like a writer’s workshop. Tell me what works…then tell me what doesn’t.

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Lecturer by day, aspiring writer/novelist by night. :)


  1. I tried to find a good network of writing peers online for about a year and a half because I wanted open, honest critiques. There was a girl in this e-crit-group I joined that no one wanted to partner up with because she’d made someone cry. I was excited to see what she would say about my writing.

    …and she gave me vague, positive comments. That was it.

    I bumped into a local author (Kim Edwards) and explained my predicament. She suggested that I join a writing group–the tangible, physical presence of writing peers breaks those barriers down because you get to know them as people and become comfortable with saying, “This scene doesn’t work–it’s centered around a tragedy, but I don’t feel what they’re feeling…” or whatever it may be that could use improvement.

    If honest comments are something you’re actively seeking, I really suggest taking it off the web and finding some people you can meet face-to-face. A lot of times, people are a little apprehensive about being direct, so you sometimes have to push them a bit, too. Hope this helps!

    • Face-to-face writing groups are definitely a great way to get feedback, especially if you can find people who are writing in your particular genre. 🙂 I still feel like there is a missed opportunity for these WordPress writer blogs somewhere (especially since there are so many of them with free chapters and samples).

      I’ve often toyed with the idea of offering to comment on other people’s stories, but I think I would need to figure out the practical logistics of it first.

  2. I don’t know that people are “too nice” to offer meaningful criticism of writing, I think they just don’t care. As writers, we’re invested in the stories we create, I’m not sure it’s fair to expect other folks, just for the hell of it, to expend the time and energy to critique our work. That’s why editors get paid $4k to do it. I’m sure if you offered cold hard cash you’d get a whole mess of substantial comments on your work. 😉

    If you don’t have that kind of cash to shell out, I echo halystormsx’s suggestion above: find another writer to work with and critique each other’s work. They probably will not have the skill or experience that an editor has, but they’ll give you another perspective on your work that may be valuable.

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