Branching off from last weeks topic on writing groups, I want to explore the topic of constructive criticism. The Wikipedia definition for constructive criticism is: “...the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one. The purpose of constructive criticism is to improve the outcome.”
Looking at it all broken down like this sparked a few questions. How can you set yourself up to give great constructive criticism? What is the best way to go about delivering your thoughts and advice? How can you be the most helpful? And why does it matter if you say it in a friendly way?
Constructive criticism creates an atmosphere of trust and openness and a healthy writing relationship with your peers. This is the kind of feedback you're looking for in the ideal critic. Do this for the writers in your life and I promise you they will love you for it. Lets dig a little deeper and explore four ways you can be a great critic.
Delve Into Their Story
Delve into their story, don't just skim through. Set yourself up to give great constructive feedback. You want to make sure you have sound, thoughtful advice and ideas for the writer and the best way to do that is by (you guessed it!) immersing yourself in their story. Got it? Good.
You need to know the characters so that you can let the writer know if someone is acting out of character. If you're in the middle of someones novel, you need to know and understand everything that has happened earlier in the story, and what will come next (refer to author for more info). This is so that you can help them with plotting and improve the work as a whole-to recognize plot holes, inconsistencies, etc. You get the idea.
It should be an entirely different experience when reading to critique than reading for pleasure. (Not to say it isn't possible to combine the two!) When reading to critique, you should look at it analytically. When you don't like something about it, you can't just stop reading. You need to figure out what exactly you don't like about it and why so that you can share your thoughts on it and provide ways for the writer to solve the problem.
There's no faking it when it comes to critiquing. The writer will know whether you've read it or “read it” based on your feedback. Believe me.
Positive, Negative, Positive
Always start with something positive; something you like about the writers work. The positive, negative, positive approach (AKA the sandwich method) goes like this: say something positive first, then go into what you don't like about it and then end with another something positive; either by reiterating the positive thing you started with or making the negative into a positive statement like so:
“If you add a little more description to the setting and more dialog between the two characters (so that it shows more of their personalities) it will really liven up the scene and make it seem more realistic.”
This is the best way to deliver negative feedback and receive the least hurt feelings. Some people are extremely sensitive. Others have developed a thicker skin and could probably handle themselves against someone who isn't as soft. I personally think that this is still the way to go, regardless of who it is you're critiquing. I've practiced this method myself and have found that people are much more receptive to what I have to say.
Don't be vague. Stevie quoted Stephen King in the last blog so I won't quote him here, but he basically says that in his experience, most writing groups were extremely vague and he found them most unhelpful. The most useful advice you can give someone will be well-explained and with specific suggestions on what the writer can do to fix the problem.
Don't say: “Your main character is too bland, I can't connect with him. You need to make him more relatable.”
Do say: “I'm not able to relate to your main character as much as I would like because he seems too perfect and inactive. To make him more relatable and interesting, maybe you can give him a fault or a weird quirk. To make him more active you can give him an admirable goal that drives the story forward. These things will help people connect with him.”
Notice how the second quote explains the problem and gives specific suggestions. It's also much more friendly which leads us to...
Your story is your baby. It's a part of who you are. It's unnerving, sharing your work with others. The first time I shared a short story with a friend, I felt self-conscious. Naked-standing in the middle of a crowded football stadium-kind of self-conscious.
When you hand over a piece of your writing you're trusting that person with your feelings. You're saying, "Here is a part of my soul. Love it. Hate it. I really don't care... but really, I do care. And really, I hope you love it. But if you don't, please be gentle with me." The moment their fingers touch those pages or click open your document, an unspoken agreement of trust has been made. If, after reading it, they bluntly point out all the flaws and inconsistencies with no filter whatsoever, it can be devastating. They have betrayed that trust. It is no longer a healthy writing relationship. When someone throws a punch at your work, they throw a punch at you. It can feel personal. No matter how hard you try to deny it.
The writer who's work you're critiquing feels the exact same way about their own work. Please think about that the next time you sit down with them to talk about their story. Be sensitive to their thoughts and feelings. If you wouldn't want it said to you, then don't say it to them. Say it in a friendlier, more helpful way. It's as simple as that.
Don't say: “The plot doesn't make any sense. There are too many holes and inconsistencies. I can't get into your story.”
Do say: “I like where your story is heading, however, there are some plot holes and inconsistencies to address. Once the plot holes are filled and inconsistencies dealt with, the story will make a lot more sense and I think it will turn out great!” (Notice the sandwich method use… Hurray!) Then, of course, go on to tell them the specific plot holes and inconsistencies to be 100% the awesome critic that you are!
Frank Howard Clark said, “Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a mans growth without destroying his roots.” That's right. This right here: “nourish a mans growth.” Criticism, given in the right way, should do just that. Help all of us grow as writers and human beings.
Delve into their story. This will ensure that you have some thoughtful insights and useful advice.
Positive, negative, positive. A great way (best way, in my opinion) to deliver your thoughts and advice.
Be helpful. Don't be vague. Explain why it's a problem and give specific suggestions to fix it.
Be friendly. Self explanatory, really. Again, if you don't want someone saying it about your own work, don't say it about theirs.
On the flip side, when you're receiving feedback for your own work be receptive to it, but also make sure you can tell the difference between constructive criticism and insult. Absorb constructive criticism, learn and grow from it. Toss out the insults. Forget about them. Don't hide them away somewhere. You don't want them popping into your mind when you're feeling down. It can be detrimental to your progress as a writer! I'll save the more in-depth stuff about receiving feedback for another blog. It's worth exploring.
For those of you who have experienced the stress and frustration of working with an insensitive critic, you know it's not fun. It causes rifts in writing groups and between friends. Hurt feelings over a piece of writing can be deep and long lasting. Share this with your writing group or whoever it is that looks at your writing (try to be subtle about it.) Sometimes, people just need a little reminder.
Now that you have the tools to be a great critic, what's next? Well, if you haven't shared your writing with anyone, share it. Try to find that trust and openness that is vital to a good writing group and writing relationship. You won't regret it. Constructive criticism for your writing is priceless. Getting many different perspectives on it will improve the outcome and make you feel more confident in your work.
I hope you all have a wonderful, productive week of writing! DON'T. GIVE. UP.