Friday, March 5, 2021

More thoughts on constructive criticism

The art of giving good literary feedback has still been the object of my study and ponderings lately, and after I wrote yesterday's post I found myself with more that I wanted to say and explore! So rather than edit the previous post and basically make it twice as long as before, I figured a part 2 was in order. In this post, I'll be talking about more ways to exercise tact when giving feedback.

In my opinion, it is wise not to give unsolicited critique. Not every instance of a writer putting their work out there is a call to help improve it. Sometimes, and/or in certain settings, writers might actually just want peers or readers to enjoy a piece of writing and not stress about the flaws. For example, maybe an author wrote a short story entirely for fun and is sharing it purely to make other people smile/laugh. Or maybe an author just wants to be happy about the long-awaited release of a book on which they worked very hard to iron out all the writing bumps.

Critique is important, but it has its place. People write things (most of the time, especially with fiction) because they enjoy the process and they want people to enjoy the end product. Once a writer feels done polishing the book, they also feel done accepting suggestions for improvement and are ready to get to the enjoyment part for both parties. 

As a writer, I've felt the disappointment, frustration, and embarrassment of sharing a long-labored finished work for others to enjoy - both in public communities and personal communications - only to receive un-asked-for critical feedback as though I was still in the writing process for it. And as a young and inexperienced reviewer, I saw that same hurt response from writers when I stupidly assumed that them sharing something was them asking everyone to nitpick it. Save the nitpicking for beta critiques. 

It's good to have critical thinking skills, but it's wise to know when to use them. It's okay for there to be times when you put your critical thinking aside, and just help a writer celebrate that they wrote a thing and they're proud of it. It's okay to focus on everything you truly enjoy about a story and not sweat the little imperfections. I mean, one of the reasons why I have such a hard time giving critique these days is because I usually just want to have fun reading, and switching into critical mode can be stressful and detract from the positive experience.

So, I think it's a good policy to only give a writer critique if they ask for it. Otherwise, I think you can safely assume that they just want people to enjoy their creative offering to the world. And that's totally valid, because that's the point most fiction writers are trying to reach, and speaking as a writer, it feels really good when you get there.

You don't have to become a fan of writing you don't like. I've run into this situation many times before. Someone wants my feedback on a work in progress. But I don't actually like it on a personal level for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the writing quality. Maybe it's a genre that I don't care for. Maybe the types of characters the author likes are not the types of characters I like. Perhaps the author is even trying to promote messages I disagree with. And it's really tough to give the writer objective feedback about that while secretly throwing up in your mouth a little bit.

I have two thoughts about this situation. Thought one: Try not to critique work you don't enjoy on principle. Trying to help someone with their writing should not be an excruciatingly painful process for you. In fact, critiquing writing outside your preferred genres is probably a bad idea anyway because you likely have next to no experience with it. For example, past the most basic principles of plot structure, character development, and effective prose, I wouldn't know what to say to help someone with their murder mystery or chick-lit novel. I think in these cases, it's okay to say (either to yourself or in response to someone's critique request) that you just aren't the right person for the job.

But okay, let's say you're critiquing something that is in a genre you like. But you still don't actually like the story, and you're not sure you would even in its most polished form. However, you soldier through it because you're a nice person, and you're at least familiar with the genre so you can give solid advice. You're probably also acquaintances or friends with the author and want to help them in part because the two of you have a prior connection.

So thought two: It's okay to politely distance yourself from writing you would not read for recreation. Give yourself a pat on the back for helping someone out, and then move on to other stuff. Be nice and as supportive as possible without giving the author the impression that you are now emotionally invested in their work. You're allowed to have your own tastes in literature, and you are under no obligation to make a book part of your life past the brief time you spent helping the author improve their craft.

And it's completely okay to help an author without becoming their best friend or their biggest fan. One thing that I think is sometimes difficult for authors to swallow is that not everybody is going to love their writing. Even people who enjoy their genre aren't necessarily going to enjoy this particular author or story. That's normal and to be expected. Everybody has different tastes, even fans of the same genre, and you simply cannot write a book that appeals to every human being on the planet. I think writers should focus on celebrating the people who do like their work and make up their reader audience, and not try to please people who don't seem interested in joining that audience.

So if you critiqued someone's work to be nice, don't feel guilted or pressured into continuing to follow their work if you don't care for it. And an author who hounds you to be interested in their writing isn't being professional or polite on their end of things.

I thought I wanted to include writing public reviews here, but these two topics ran so long, I think I'm going to make a separate blog post about writing reviews! Look for that soon!

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