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Saturday, October 19, 2013

How To Handle Constructive Criticism

I should preface this by saying constructive criticism is not the same as being "mean." Some people feel that putting other people down makes them look clever. Some people just don't have anything nice to say. Some people are incapable of understanding that people like different things than them and like to  inform you that the only reason you disagree with them is because you are stupid.

So the first thing to do when asking for a critique is not to ask mean people. If you  are joining a new community (especially an online one where anonymity can encourage bullying), you may want to check to make sure that they have a strong code of conduct that is actually enforced. It will be pretty easy to gauge the civility of any online group by reading existing comments. Are people respectful? If not, don't even dip your toe in. Even if they are being abusive to writers you think you are better than, if people can't express their opinions in a constructive way, you really aren't going to get anything useful out of them.

No, what this post is about is "constructive" criticism. Criticism that just doesn't say, "give up and go home" but which points out changes you  can make.

So some basic pointers:

Give it time

The blessing of internet critiques as opposed to critiques done in person is that you can sit on them for as long as you want before taking action. I generally have to give anything negative about my piece about twenty-four hours before I'm willing to even consider it. My first thought is always, "No, my way is better. You are wrong. You just don't understand what I'm trying to do here." 

This response is emotional and unless you are one of those people who always assumes their writing is no good (Which isn't me. I love my writing and it is hard for me to admit faults in it.), it can be irksome. The easiest way to handle this is simply to give it time. Read the suggestions, allow yourself to deny them, and then go back when you've calmed down. 

Realize that Negative is BETTER

With Scribophile's system there are three colors for critiquers to use. 



Red deletion text allows critiquers to strike through sections they feel  are unnecessary and should be deleted.

Yellow highlight text allows them to, well, highlight a section to  call it to your attention.

Green text is anything the critiquer has added to your text, so this includes words they are adding in or suggestions and comments they may have to make.

When scrolling through a new critique, I  am looking for these colored segments. Large blocks of black and white can either mean the critiquer really liked your work and didn't have anything they wanted to change . . . or that they were being lazy. When I see colors, my stomach flops a bit. Oh gosh. They had something to say. Is it good  or bad? Do they like it?

What I like to see is this:



Awesome, this critiquer liked something I did! I can go home now.

But wait!


Oh, ouch, this critiquer thought the way I introduced my character's description was "gimmicky." She also doesn't understand the characters reaction to the person she is interacting with.

Meh, heck with her! I don't need her lousy critiques anyway . . .

But wait!

Of these two critiques, which could help my work be better?

Now, obviously, it is nice to hear that someone thinks your work is already good enough for a major motion picture deal (that may not be exactly what he said, but I'll read through the lines), but it doesn't really help you improve. Seeing what does not work for a person is more helpful.

That said, if you just automatically employ every  suggestion thrown at you, you may end up changing things for the worse or going around in a circle.

I recently made some alterations and then a few critiques later had someone suggest a new phrasing for the altered section. I went ahead and used that new suggestion, but when I looked up from this second set of changes, I realized that I had changed it back to what I had originally written. Huh.

So think about things before you throw them out and always keep records of your "original" work in case you decide to go  back to it.

Avoid Turning it Back on the Critiquer

As I mentioned in my post on Scribophile, it is very common for people to trade critiques. If you critique someone's writing they will often return the favor and critique yours. It is a great way to build a rapport with other authors and you can learn a lot from it and even make some friends.

Of course, then sometimes you  end up having to say something critical about the writing of someone who may have been very positive with you. That can be kind of uncomfortable. 

Alternately, I always wince a little bit when someone who I may have been a little "exacting" with takes the time to look over my writing. My first thought is, "Uh-oh, is this a revenge critique?" 

I am not certain this has ever happened to me, but I have had at least one person who I gave a lot of red and green text to come back and do the same to me and I always have to wonder if it is spitefully done. 

Unfortunately this leads to another pitfall of peer review. The "I'm better than you so I don't have to listen to what you say" reaction. 

Yes, I'm guilty of this. I don't think you can quantify skill or talent, but sometimes, when I am reading another person's work and making suggestions and corrections left and right, I can get a little bit uppity and think, "Yeah, I'm better than this guy." Then when they show up in my writing, suggesting changes left and right, my pride revolts. After all, I've read their writing.  I know deep inside I'm a better writer than them. For goodness sake, they can't even punctuate properly!

Don't do this. Just don't. 

It isn't a helpful attitude. It isn't going  to improve your work, and do not dismiss a suggestion just because of where it comes from, not without giving it serious thought.

That said, I think it is okay to give greater weight to people you consider to be better writers. When two critiquers disagree on a point I  often check their writing to see the following:
  • Which of them writes "better"
  • Which of them writes (or reads, authors are allowed to list their favorite books, which is helpful when trying to decipher a person's tastes) in a style closer to mine.
A lot of times when two readers have a different opinion on the same subject,  the answer is something in the middle. I've had  mixed feed back on the Invisible Princess segment of my self-published novel.
One reader told me my main character was "needy" and "unlikable." Another adored her and related to her. 

Truth? 

Well, the whole point to the "Invisible Princess" is that women will be harsh on their own beauty and believe themselves to be ugly even when they have never been able to see themselves, so yeah, she was a little insecure, but that  was the point, and it was very important to me that people saw her growth and realized that Elaina's true beauty was always inside of her. Obviously that is going to resonate with some readers more than others, but I could probably go  back and make her a little less prone to outbursts of emotion and self-doubt. 

Other times there is no middle ground. One reader might want you  to delete a description another reader says  is AWESOME! In that case you can either look at where the advice is coming from or look inward and decide which answer fits you best, after all, this is your book. 

One good piece of advice is this quote from Neil Gaiman:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

So be open minded about advice but don't let anyone write (or rewrite) your story for you!




Links to  some helpful articles:
Jennifer Blanchard on Getting the Most Out of a Critique
Jennifer Blanchard on Dealing with Conflicting Critiques
Jennifer Meaton on Dealing with Conflicting Critiques
Mom Scribbles-A New Blog Devoted to Writing and Self-Publishing
All the Posts on Writing on THIS Blog
Some Advice Writers Should IGNORE



2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the advice, you sent me here from Scribophile and I have to say I agree with what you said. It is hard to take a blow to your pride and still be able to smile and send them a polite comment. I was less than happy with your critique until I realised that you were simply trying to help me improve and now I have learned two things. First, there will ALWAYS be things someone else would change in my book and second, I'm not always right.
    So thank you for that.
    A.D. Grace

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    Replies
    1. I'm flattered that you actually took me seriously enough to follow my link. Criticism, constructive or otherwise, is no fun. It took me years to get a perspective where I am grateful for it.

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