Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals. criticism
There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.
This week: Criticism can be good!
This weeks topic is about how you cope with criticism about your writing. We’re all critics from the day we’re born but accepting criticism isn’t always easy. How we deal with it depends on various factors from emotional state and stresses to hopes and expectations. It’s easy to be dismayed when reading what you think is a bad review or negative feedback, but it’s worth remembering that not all criticism is bad. When you ask for feedback you are opening yourself up to the real world, one that has largely been ignored because until that point it was just you and your imagination.
We’re all critics.
When you wake up and stare out of the window you make a judgement on the weather. If it’s hot and sunny you critique the few stray clouds on the horizon that may ruin the perfect day. Whilst chowing on breakfast you are critiquing the bread, coffee, cereal etc. Just because you bought the food doesn’t mean you can’t evaluate it. Maybe the coffee is too bitter or the bread a bit bland, either way you are offering feedback, unheard or unshared it doesn’t matter.
We make judgements and criticisms all the time, every facet of out lives is based on these two things. If you think about it they are fundamental in our survival mechanics and allow us to make decisions. When it comes to providing constructive criticism sometimes we fall short of the mark. It’s one thing to criticise a friend’s choice of car or hair style but another to give unbiased and honest feedback on something that really matters, like the story you have been working on.
When asking for feedback/review/criticism you are looking for a list of things:
- Unbiased opinion.
- Constructive comments.
- A balance between the good and the bad.
Let’s take a look at an example of criticism and its different formats.
The “I thought it kinda sucked but was kinda okay” Reader.
How would you react if someone read your latest piece of fiction and gave the following feedback:
“The start really sucked. I hated the main character. Loved the bit about the dog! You used way too many metaphors for my liking. The bit near the end was exciting, with the big chase through the castle, but I felt cheated at how you ended it.”
That doesn’t look like a very good review does it? However, this feedback is based on personal taste not actual mechanics. It starts off with a very big negative which can have an impact on how you view the rest of the review. The reader clearly disliked the main character. BUT this can be a good thing if you wrote the main character to be unlikeable.
Then we get our first positive mark about the dog. It’s a green light that you’ve done something right. But then, oh dear, another negative about the metaphors. Remember, personal taste not mechanics. The reader loved the chase scene through the castle – another green light! Yay! But then disaster, the reader thought the ending sucked.
Criticism comes in many forms and you need to learn how to separate the rough from the smooth. Let’s take a look at another review of the same story from a different reader.
The “I loved everything” Reader.
“Good opening scenes. Main character oozed badness, really enjoyed hating him. The dog was just lovely, so clever. You used metaphors so well. I couldn’t stop reading when it got to the last chase through the war-torn castle grounds. And I loved the ending! It just stopped so suddenly and I love being able to make up my own mind if the hero lived or died.”
This sort of feedback is never going to be helpful to you. The reader is either very easy to please or doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. The review gives you nothing concrete to work on. I’m wary of this type of review in terms of seeking constructive criticism, it can give you a nice glowing feeling but ultimately it won’t help you improve.
And finally, the best sort of feedback.
The “Constructive Criticism” Reader.
“Opening scenes worked okay but the characters lacked substance and it took me a while to care for them. It’s obvious you spent a lot of time fleshing out the main character, but to the detriment of the others. I suspect you own a dog because this shows in your description of Spot. Word of warning, not all dogs pant all the time! Some of your metaphors worked very well, however, you should be cautious in relying on them too much as they can become repetitive.
Your action scenes were well placed although some felt rushed, especially the scenes at the castle. This section needs more work to maintain the pace and flow right up to the ending. And the ending itself was solid and well thought out, leaving the reader with questions and the need to fill in the blanks. Some readers will love this but others will feel cheated. Perhaps a bit more information would be better, lead the reader through the final moments a while longer before you cut it dead.”
Okay, now isn’t that so much better? Isn’t that the sort of review you’d prefer to read? This had good and bad points but more importantly there were reasons why, feedback to work on and help you improve.
What to look for in feedback.
# 1 Reasons – Without this a comment may as well be a quiet “meh” followed by a shrug. You want to know why the reader liked/disliked stuff or why they felt a certain emotion. “I connected with Miss X because…” is better than: “Miss X was crap.” Yeah, great, thanks for nothing.
# 2 Typos – Not all readers pick up on this but you should thank those that do. Sometimes it’s hard to spot a spelling mistake or a missing word since you’ve been staring at the words so long. Be grateful someone has taken the time to point these out, even if you feel a tiny bit embarrassed.
# 3 Inconsistencies – As with typos these are wonderful bits of feedback because they can highlight a problem you have overlooked, one that will reinforce your story. Again sometimes it’s easy to miss something as simple as the colour of your heroes t-shirt when you stare at the words on the screen for weeks or months at a time.
# 4 What works V What doesn’t – You need to know what bits work well so you can see what bits don’t. You may have written a chunk of your story whilst feeling in a good mood, but the next few pages may have been written over a period of time and can read as disjointed or awkward. Your reviewer would be doing you a huge favour by telling you how one section flowed beautifully compared to one that didn’t.
# 5 Personal Opinion – While this can have nothing to do with the mechanics of your story it’s always a confidence boost to know whether the reader enjoyed your story or not. This is somewhat dependant on the readers genre preference. Try not to be disappointed when a reader says they didn’t enjoy it because they like thrillers instead of romances.
What to ignore in feedback.
# 1 Endless Negatives – If a review is one long string of negative comments with nothing positive or constructive, simply ignore it. This sort of review will not help you and if you dwell on that review alone it can dent your confidence.
# 2 Endless Positives – Similar to the above. You are looking for constructive feedback. Like I’ve said before it’s nice to have someone champion your story but unless there are reasons and advice it only serves to make you feel happy. Okay, this is a good thing and it could be that your story has nothing wrong with it!
How to deal with criticism.
# 1 Learn to Listen – Your chosen reader doesn’t have access to your brain. They don’t know what you know. If they tell you certain elements of your story were confusing, it’s not their problem but yours. As a writer it is your job to communicate the story to the reader, not the readers job to interpret what you MIGHT be trying to say. This is where your ego must take a back seat and you have to listen to what your reader is saying.
# 2 Don’t change everything – Leave your story alone the moment you hand it over to your chosen reader. This puts distance between yourself and the story. Ignore it. Forget about it. When reading their comments you should focus on seeing where they are coming from. They might suggest an entire list of changes, as may other readers you have given your story to. If you agree with suggested changes, then make your adjustments, it could be that they point out some very obvious flaws or highlight something out that has also bothered you. On the other hand if you disagree then keep things as they are. Just because a reader makes a suggestion for change it doesn’t mean you HAVE to go with their advice.
#3 Can’t please everyone all the time – If you hand your story to 10 readers and 1 or 2 of them give you bad feedback, don’t rewrite the changes made by the few, but concentrate on the fact that your story was well received. Understand that there will always be a percentage of your test readers who just don’t like your work for whatever reason. They may still have some constructive comments but resist the urge to edit and re-edit just to please the minority.
# 4 Just an opinion – Feedback is just an opinion whether it comes from a friend or family member or a professional person. Nothing is set in stone. Don’t rely on one person’s criticism for the future of your story. Sure, weigh it up against what others have to say but everything should be taken with a pinch of salt – understand the feedback, compare to other similar comments and decide for yourself if it’s worthy of bringing about a change.