Thursday, March 4, 2021

Thoughts on constructive criticism

(This blog post is adapted from something I wrote in a group on Goodreads. It focuses mainly on giving con-crit, because receiving it could be a whole other essay in and of itself.)

As I network with other writers, I've been trying to find ways to give constructive criticism in a way that is honest and fair, but doesn't contribute to the writer feeling crummy about their work and discouraged. I think it's an important topic.

When I was younger, I thought giving constructive criticism was pretty straightforward: all you had to do was tell somebody everything that was wrong with their writing so they would know what to fix. Right?

BZZZT. NO. WRONG.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of that sort of criticism knows what's wrong with it. Despite your best intentions, you are basically making the other person's writing sound irredeemably terrible. And you are also very much giving off the vibe of "look how much more about writing I know than you" which is also not helpful.

Back in college, I had some writer "friends" who used these sorts of tactics on me, and while they did help me improve on a technical level, they also left me feeling like my work was inherently bad, and I should just give it up, stop bringing literary travesties into the world, and let the "real writers" (i.e. them) enjoy being perfect at their craft, as though you only have the right to do something if you are good at it. In fact, I think it's safe to say I would have started writing novels earlier if I hadn't had such low self-esteem about it.

And even worse in my eyes, because that was the critique style I was exposed to, that was the only way I in turn knew how to critique others' work. I'm sorry to say I hurt a lot of feelings with my brutally honest critiques before I finally realized what I was saying wasn't working for the people I was trying to help.

Nowadays, I want to be able to give people helpful feedback when they ask for it--not just helpful on a technical level, but helpful to them as writers and as people. I want to be able to give diplomatic criticism. In the years between college and now, I've had some very good editors who have known how to say things in a way that actually made me excited to dive back into the manuscript and start fixing things. I've been trying to figure out how they do what they do so I can apply it to my own feedback techniques.

So I've been reading some articles about how to give good constructive criticism, and here's some of the key points that I liked from these articles:

- Being empathetic. It takes a lot to put a piece of writing out there and ask for feedback on it. It's tough and requires vulnerability, and one of the articles I read talked about how most writers struggle with impostor syndrome. (I've published six novels, and written literally hundreds of thousands of words' worth of fan fiction, and I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a "real" or "professional" writer, or "as good as" other authors.) I think it's wise to, before starting any critique, take a moment to remember and respect the writer's feelings and realize that they are likely feeling as insecure as you do. How do you like your work to be addressed by others? Remember that behind every piece of writing is a person, not an emotionless creativity robot.

- Compliment sandwiches don't work. Here's an article that explains why. I think it's fair to say that nearly all writers would rather a critique get to the point and be straightforward. I always appreciate sincere praise for something someone honestly thought I did right, but if you're just throwing out superficial compliments to try to cushion the blow of what you really want to say to me, it really doesn't change how I feel about the actual message you're giving me. I'm not going to be so dazzled by your compliments that it somehow cancels out my disappointment over learning something isn't working. I appreciate feedback that is diplomatic, but direct.

One of my beta readers (the beta for Worth Fighting For and Worth Searching For, actually), gave me her feedback in what I felt was a really satisfactory layout. She gave me two lists: "What Works" and "What Doesn't Work". The titles are self-explanatory. I like that she gave me the "What Works" list first, so I could actually feel good about what I had created - despite its first-draft roughness - and not get the initial impression that it was a terrible piece of awful. Then, with morale sufficiently boosted, I could take a deep breath, scroll down to the "What Doesn't Work" list, and start hacking away at fixing issues.

Plus, by separating her praise and her constructive comments, she enabled me to see both clearly, when I needed them. If I was feeling frustrated or discouraged about the manuscript, I could look at everything she thought worked and feel like I was on the right track, without having to see those bits of critique alongside them. When I was ready to make edits, I could go to the other list and just start working at each item systematically.

The bottom line is, I don't think praise and critique necessarily have to be mixed in with one another homogenously. I rather like the idea of making two separate lists for the writer, to differentiate between what's working and what needs fixing, and to allow the writer to focus on each one separately as need be. You don't need to camouflage your critique in a field of praise and hope that makes it easier for the writer to swallow. The writer wants the message loud and clear--they just also want you to be kind and helpful in how you say it.

- Ask questions. I love this idea because statements can seem so final sometimes. "This character is one-dimensional" has sort of a vibe of closing the door on the idea of the character ever being anything but one-dimensional. On the other hand, "Is there anything you can do to add more depth to this character?" does suggest the possibility of improvement; not only that, but I find as a writer, questions like this get my creative gears going and give me direction.

Something I really appreciate when receiving critique is not just being told when something isn't working, but being told how to improve it, because a lot of the time I just don't know that (and if I did know, I probably would have done it better in the first place). The same aforementioned beta reader pointed out that my prose in combat scenes for Worth Fighting For wasn't flowing well, but I had no idea how to fix that. I told her this and asked for specifics, and she very kindly gave me an in-depth explanation of how to choreograph combat prose in ways that made more sense and gave a better visual of the action, and did a line-by-line breakdown of one of my combat scenes (specifically the skirmish on the Triumph where Hyren, Blynn, and Terra first run into Sloth's forces in the office space, if you were curious) and how I could polish the writing there. Her advice still helps me to this day.

Plus, I think spinning your issue with a story into a question feels a lot less aggressive and accusatory. Phrasing your feedback as a statement, you're basically saying "You messed up" which is hard for a lot of people to hear, no matter how true it is. Phrasing it as a question comes across as more harmless, and even allows the writer to feel like they have the freedom to answer that question in their own way, which is very important for writers who have a certain tone or style they want to stay true to as much as possible. One of my editors very graciously mentioned to me during her feedback sessions that everything she was saying was just her opinion, and I was free to disregard it if I didn't feel like it was right for the story. This made me feel very empowered, and while I ultimately used about 95% of her very solid feedback, there were times when I made the executive decision not to take her up on a story suggestion because I simply didn't feel like it was meshing with what I was trying to say with the story. And her comments made me feel like that was okay.

- Help the writer feel safe with you. Perhaps this is more important for some people than for others, but for me, I greatly prefer receiving feedback and even editing from people who I trust to be nice to me and have my best interests in mind. Even if you've never been introduced to the writer before the feedback session, I think it's a good idea to give off the vibe of "I'm here to help you and I want to see you succeed in your writing". People can and do pick up on that. Be kind, friendly, respectful, and humble--present yourself on the same playing field as the writer, not as an infallible authority figure. 

- The point of a critique is not to show off how much you know. That doesn't help the writer and it's not healthy for the critic, either. Writing is not a competition. There is room enough in this world for everyone and their writing. I believe God has special and unique missions for every writer, and that's why He gave so many people a talent for it. I think critique should always come from a place of sincerely wanting to help the other person improve as a writer and make their story into what they want it to be and what message they want it to impart. Constructive criticism is an act of kindness, not an act of showing off your intellectual prowess.

I'd love to see a world where we're all better at - and kinder about - helping each other grow as writers. I don't think the focus of critique should be your ability to successfully identify flaws; I think it should be to help the writer say what they want to say, and say it well.

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