The Problem with Nitpicking
I’ve thrown the word nitpicking around a lot, so here I am finally going to explain what I mean. Nitpicking is when you are going in and saying things that aren’t necessarily a problem are in fact a problem. Nitpicking has to do with fine details, specific words you don’t like, etc. A lot of the time, nitpicks come from the critiquer’s personal preference or opinion on how a story should be done. It’s okay to point out these nitpicks, but you need to realize the difference between something being legitimately bad vs a personal opinion. When giving your nitpicks in your critique, you should state that it’s a personal opinion and that it’s not something that NEEDS to be changed. Now I’m going to talk about things that I see people nitpicking about a lot and talk about them more in detail.
You’ve likely heard people say that adverbs are evil and you should destroy them all. Well, frankly, that’s not true. There’s a time to use adverbs and there’s a time not to. A better thing to say would be that people often use adverbs incorrectly and you need to spot the difference between bad use of adverbs and okay use of adverbs. Adverbs are bad when they are coupled with a “weak” verb, or if they’re an obvious thing. “He ran quickly” is not only weak verb usage, but it’s also rather obvious. Most people are quick when they run. Replacing it with “He sprinted” or something to that effect is a good time to get rid of an adverb. You could also go “he ran slowly”, in which case that’s a slightly better way to use an adverb because running slowly is not something you would immediately think of, but at the same time you could replace it with “he jogged” or something like that. Instances like that is where I think you should get rid of adverbs. Places where I don’t think you should be getting rid of adverbs is things like “he stared dully”, because there aren’t many other ways to describe a dull stare when you’re using it with a verb.
So when you’re looking at adverbs, go after the obviously weak ones, but don’t go after the ones that would be harder to replace. It’s not good to just tell someone to pick up a dictionary or a thesaurus, because chances are you won’t find a word you actually want in place of an adverb and then it just gets frustrating to the writer. Adverbs are our friends as long as they’re used correctly.
This is another one I see nitpicked a lot. Using a pronoun (he, she, it, etc.) as opposed to a character’s name or an object to reference them. Let me break it down. In a third person novel, if there are two people of the same gender interacting with each other, it’s best to use their names as opposed to pronouns because you might not know who is who since they would both be referred to by the same pronoun. If there are two people of opposite genders and their names are stated earlier, it’s okay to refer to them by pronouns more frequently. That’s not to say that you should never say their names ever again, but it becomes unnecessary and sometimes annoying if you say their name too much. (I read a book that did this too much like saying, “Cammie thought that Cammie should do this” and it was just weird and awkward). If you think you haven’t used their name in a while, but then a character says their name in dialogue, it’s fine to keep using pronouns to refer to them because you are “reminded” of their name.
Now, the usage of pronouns such as it, that, and this in relation to abstract concepts such as ideas. I have seen people nitpick about this, and it’s annoying and unnecessary. If you have stated an idea beforehand and then refer to it again as “that” or any of those other pronouns, it’s not a bad thing whatsoever. Having to restate an idea or abstract concept just comes off as repetitive, and also the idea might have been too long to restate, so doing it with a pronoun is easy and keeps it short and to the point. Now, if said idea was stated several sentences back rather than the sentence directly before the pronoun, that’s still fine unless it isn’t clear that you are referring to that thing again, in which case it is not the fault of the pronoun, but rather the words around the pronoun that are calling back to the thing.
I pretty much covered this before back in my post about general feedback, but I think it’s worth restating. Don’t nitpick grammar in dialogue. Characters do not speak perfectly grammatically correct. Most people don’t speak like that. Do not critique dialogue the way you critique all prose by trying to say, “this is bad grammar, change it to make it like this,” because dialogue doesn’t work that way. The same thing goes for not only grammar in dialogue, but being repetitive and redundant, because people do that.
Sometimes there will be things that characters do that are really stupid or annoying and you get mad about it and feel the need to tell the writer this. The writer might ask, “oh no, should I change it?” It is not necessary in those sorts of cases to tell them to change something just because you personally do not like what a character was doing. (For instance, I read a story where these guards were being massive jerks to people and basically whipping them while telling them to stand up, and that irritates me because logically speaking, a person isn’t going to be able to stand easy when you’re physically abusing them. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing to do in a story, it’s just something that personally irks me due to lack of logic on the part of the abusers, but it’s something that might realistically happen anyway so it isn’t a big deal). Or maybe the MC or the ally or whoever is acting like a huge idiot. Unless it is completely out of character for them to do (or it feels like it’s for plot convenience), this is not a bad thing for the story, it just might be annoying.
“That word, you keep using it. I do not think it means what you think it means.” People like to toss this word around a lot, and it honestly gets annoying. Cliches are cliches because they work. It’s the way you present them that makes them cliche. Now, I’m not talking about plot cliches here – those are fine to point out (though those can be nitpicked as well). Here I’m talking about cliche phrases, or what people say are cliche. If there’s a piece of dialogue or a piece of prose that is “used over and over again in many different stories”, people call that out as being cliche, which is bad. In the case of dialogue, it’s only bad to use if it honestly doesn’t fit the situation. But something like “It’s all my fault,” is said to be cliche, but maybe the character who said that is really feeling like that. There are only so many words in the English language and so many combinations thereof, so it’s only natural that people would be saying certain things all the time in specific situations. That doesn’t make it bad. I’ve seen people say this about prose, too. If you’re using a common figure of speech or metaphor or whatever, people will claim it’s cliche, and therefore bad, and therefore must be removed immediately. Again, it’s only bad if it honestly doesn’t fit the situation. Otherwise, who cares?
Cliches in plots are a little different, so I’m going to run past that quickly as well. This is usually done more often if you’re looking over a general story concept as opposed to a story as a whole. You have basic plot points in your concept, but without any detail or context put to them, it sounds like it could be “cliche” or something that’s been done before a lot. So what? Every story has already been told, but it’s the way you tell it that’s important. Don’t write something off immediately because it’s “cliche”. Really think about it. Think about the context around it. Does it work together on the whole? If so, what’s the problem? If it’s just a tired old trope that seems tacked on at the last second because they didn’t know what to do with it, that’s when it does become a problem.