Friday, April 10, 2020

There are some terms that writers use to critique each other that I feel aren't useful anymore and should be retired.

There are certain terms writers use to critique each other which really should be retired. A lot of these things probably had their origins in creative writing classes. "Mary Sue" for example has evolved to become virtually meaningless (and possibly sexist?) due to its definition becoming too broad. I know some people who use the word to describe a protagonist that is too perfect. At the same time, I know people who use the term to describe a protagonist who is constructed in such a way that any person can fit within the "sleeve" of the character. It also tends to be applied to female protagonists who in being extremely capable (because the story is centered around them by structure) come off as being too perfect. But in some stories, that's the whole point: to create a protagonist who is extremely capable at their job. There is (after all) something deeply satisfying about watching and observing people who are good at what they do.

Another term I don't like is "infodump," which is usually used to degrade a section of expository writing, oftentimes used in world-building. The very term "infodump" is a label that condemns all expository writing as "uninteresting" and "boring." Well, I would submit that in my opinion, expository writing can be very entertaining, and in many instances, I love it. If you are a person that doesn't enjoy expository writing, that's perfectly fair. However, I want to make a point that you may also not be the intended audience for the writing project you are critiquing. Chances are, you probably find the whole thing uninteresting and the "infodump" (as it were) is just an easy way to make your disinterest the onus of the writer as opposed to a personal bias on the subject matter. If that's the case, I'd say it isn't fair, because writers are not entertainers. Writers are not circus performers dancing a jig on a stage to alleviate your boredom.

Audiences are supposed to seek out the writer, and not the other way around. If a  writer is pestering a reader with " my book," then the writer should be prepared for some bad reviews. There are few people I know who enjoy assigned reading outside of a business venture. That's what we call, "work" and people can be highly critical of "work." So if the infodump is something you hate, you should probably steer clear of genres that tend to infodump, which might be the entirety of speculative fiction. Maybe you'd be better off reading something like Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Just sayin'.

A third-term I don't like is head hopping. "Head hopping" is used to describe what happens in third person omniscient, which was in style up to about the late eighties and early nineties. A lot of books before that time period had writers slipping into character's heads to reveal some thoughts or feelings and then zooming out to describe other things happening. When done skillfully, most people don't even notice it unless "trained to do so by critique groups in writer circles." The shift to extremely limited third person point of view (I think) first arrived in comic books like those penned by Frank Miller and Alan Moore (who banished the bubbles from panels and replaced them with rectangles or who included vast swaths of regularly typed story in-between art panes) and authors like George R.R. Martin, who winnowed down the point of view to such an extreme that each chapter was a point-of-view character who experienced the world in only their particular experience.

Suddenly, any writer who was slipping into and out of heads in the old omniscient style was terrible, and they couldn't write. But that isn't true at all. Just because something is popular and everything has changed to reflect that, doesn't mean that the old way of doing things is bad writing. It just means it's probably not marketable. In other words, people aren't going to buy it. So it's not bad writing, its just not profitable writing. And every single person is going to have differing ideas about how much profit it takes to feel successful.

I guess my point in any of this is that there are a lot of terms that writers use to critique each other that I feel aren't useful. Any thoughts on this dear writers?


  1. It's always good to take criticisms with a grain of salt. A lot of people don't know what the hell they're talking about and misuse the terminology.

  2. I only use info dump when it's a lot of information that would work better parsed out a little at a time. One of the writers in my group would put a lot of her research in the story when it wasn't needed to move the story forward, and she recognized when it could be pared down. (Not eliminated. Some of it was needed. But it can be too much.)

  3. But aren't fiction writers specifically entertainers? That's the entire point of it.

    1. But entertaining whom? This is why I feel writing critique groups are of little value unless they represent the audience you are trying to entertain. For example, erotic fiction is not going to go over very well with a group of people who want everything rated G. A fictional story that features sports prominently is probably not going to go over well with groups of people who specifically hate sports. Yet, in writing circles, these people are "required to comment" on a piece of writing offered up by peers. A lot of them mouth the words that "I can be objective and remove myself from bias" and then proceed to tear a work of fiction apart because they never liked it in the first place.

      And the words they use are like the ones I put above...easy to seize upon stuff like "Hey, you used this infodump here and I can't stand that. It makes me go to sleep." Little do you know, but this person reads only first person books like Twilight, and you are a writer of science fiction trying to explain the politics of a galactic level civilization. Those two are NOT compatible. The person seized on the infodump because they hated the subject matter to begin with, didn't seek it out, and it was forced upon them to read as a matter of assignment. This is what I'm talking about in the above post.

  4. I definitely agree about the 'head-hopping' criticism. Moving appropriately from one character to another to reveal their thoughts, as long as those thoughts are furthering the plot or revealing important character development, is okay. It may even increase the enjoyment of the story. Obviously, the story needs to be in third-person.