I’m generally not shy about showing my works in progress to colleagues, friends, and strangers on writing/editing based websites. The more feedback I get the better my work will be.
For me, criticism has very little to do with one’s personal reaction to the work. It should be about how well the writer has achieved her or his perceived objective in conveying their ideas and passions to the page. A critic, whether professional or otherwise, has an obligation, in my opinion, to leave her or his preferences in fiction to one side while assessing the degree of success of the writer’s intent.
This isn’t always possible, of course. To take a personal example, if some has written a Western or Romance novel (as contemporatively defined) I will not be as able a critic as I would be for Science Fiction or Fantasy. My criticism will reflect my unfamiliarity with the former genres, based as it is on my preferentially limited exposure to them. I would be very careful to state this in my written remarks.
I would also try, as much as I am able, to concentrate only on those parts of the story’s execution that I feel hinder the clarity of the presentation or might diminish the reader’s enjoyment of the tale.
A grey area exists here. It is best summarized as differences of taste regarding the level of detail or verisimilitude that writers ought to pursue.
The Difficulty with Editors and Profanity
- The following remarks are about fiction intended for adults. Children’s and Young Adult fiction fall into a distinctly different category. Little of my argument applies. Not sure if that’s a good thing.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that certain readers/critics are uncomfortable knowing more than a certain amount about the characters they’re reading about. This falls into two broad categories: sex and violence. Under violence, I include the verbal; in other words, profanity.
My position on the pursuit of verisimilitude is, the more detail the better. If one of your characters occasionally utters a bad word, put that word in quotes on the page. Writing: “Harold said a bad word,” works only as comedy. If you’re going for a laugh, that line is pretty good. If you’re doing it so as not to offend the reader, you’re never going to be a good writer.
That last sentence seems a bit over the top, doesn’t it?
Never Censor Yourself
Except as directed by someone who is paying you, you must not take considerations like the sensibilities, intelligence, or the morals of your audience into account. Not ‘should not’— ‘must not.’ It’s wrong for three reasons.
First, to who’s prejudices are you pandering? Be prepared for all other readers to avoid your work.
Second, you will have to go though your story not once, but many times to make sure you aren’t going to inadvertently offend those you’re trying not to offend; for it’s not just the words, you see, but the innuendo. You will find that many people who are offended by “fuck”, “cunt”, “God damn”, &c. are quite uncomfortable with smutty references as well.
And you will be amazed at what some find smutty.
The third and last reason that ‘keeping it clean’ is a bad idea is that you are, in effect, limiting the kinds of characters you can create. Any character whose native behavior and choice of words falls outside the parameters of “clean”, by a certain definition, are going to be inadvertent caricatures.
Write the story your muse demands of you. As for those who don’t like to read “four letter words”: Fuck ’em!