The Art and Value of Constructive Criticism

The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless.

So, you’ve just finished the first, second, or even fifth draft of your short story, novel, or play, etc. You’re feeling very proud of yourself: your masterpiece, your baby, the thing which you have toiled over is ready to be pushed out into the world. You’re ready to share your genius with everyone. You send it out to friends and family, and so the ego stroking begins: sure, not everyone reads it, but the ones who do have nothing but praise for it: they’re so impressed you wrote a story, they say things along the lines of,  “I really liked it.- Well done,” and “I wish I could write.”

The “feedback” you’ve received is so positive the next step surely is to post it online to a site such YouWriteOn, or Writer’s Café. You may even have the confidence to join a writer’s group where you can blow everyone away with the story your parents loved so much. And so you do, but it doesn’t go as planned, in fact it comes as a great shock when some random person you’ve never met before says something along the lines of, “I didn’t like the ending-I didn’t care much for the characters-there’s too much telling and not enough showing.” This feels like a hard slap in the face from a cold, wet fish. None of it is a personal attack on you (or it shouldn’t be), but you can’t help feeling like it is. Yes, they pointed out the positive aspects of your work, but it’s the negative one(s) which stay with you.

So, with your bubble burst you slink back from this experience to lick your creative wounds. You may find you never get over this, or perhaps, after a short while has passed you may want to go back to your work and take another look at what the person in the writer’s group or on the site said, maybe begin to see the story from another perspective and why a particular character or scene didn’t ring true. You might even find referring to these critical points helps to make the story better. So you get over the experience and grow from it.

A few weeks or months down the line, you finish another piece of work and are again eager to let friends and family see the fruits of your labour. Again you are rewarded with nothing but positive reviews. So again you let strangers read it, but once more there is criticism about certain elements of the story. You wonder why these people are so quick to point out the less than perfect elements of your work. What do they see that your friends and family don’t? It’s not as if they don’t like you, they just don’t seem to think everything you put out is a hundred percent wonderful for some reason. Then it hits you: they are being honest. Something your friends and family are far too polite to be.

And this is where so many writers go wrong. Through well meaning, yet ultimately damaging kindness, friends and family end up constructing a monster. A huge beast held up by the scaffold of their ego which, despite its size will crumble with just one critical prod. If you are this kind of writer, or any other kind of artist then you will probably end up as the deluded pop star wannabe who springs into the audition room of X Factor or American Idol expecting to blow the judges away with their unique rendition of My Heart Will Go On, only to leave the stage in tears when they are told they just haven’t got it: Rejection hurts, reality bites, yet honesty has a refreshing sting to it.

The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless. And it is also something you should never stop seeking out. I believe the best education you can get in writing is to do it every day and to always seek the opinion of others. I’m not saying you have to slavishly follow their every opinion, as it’s ultimately you who knows what is best, but you will know when their opinion is right.

I remember posting a story online which I was quite pleased with, I received three pieces of critique: one said my sentences were ridiculously long, while another said I went into too much detail which they felt was holding the story back. Where once my ego would have been wounded by this, instead I made notes of the points they made and systematically used them to improve my second draft. If I hadn’t the story would not have reached its potential and I would have carried on wrapped up in a deluded bubble, thinking no one in the outer world recognised my literary genius.

I’ll say it again: constructive criticism is invaluable and harder to come by than one might think. This isn’t to say you should take on board any and all criticism of your work. I have been unfortunate enough to be on the end of one particularly barbed review of my work which was nothing more than a bullying and arrogant attack which failed to point out any positives and seemed to revel in its criticism. This is where the art of constructive criticism comes in: if you are critiquing a piece of writing what you should be hoping to do is provide helpful insight and pointers into how the work could be improved, not turn it into some kind of personal attack which is used to pump up one’s own ego while at the same time destroying the ego of the writer, who for all you know may have only just started out on their journey. I find the best way to critique a piece of work without destroying the artist in the process is by using The Sandwich Technique512px-Sandwich in which you start off by acknowledging the positives in the writing (believe me, there’s always something good to be found in even the worst writing) and then go on to helpfully show where you feel improvements could be made. It also doesn’t hurt to display some empathy by pointing out how you may have made some of the same mistakes yourself and how common this can be. Then you finish off by reiterating the positives of their writing and expressing how you hope you were of some help.

So, the next time a relative waxes lyrical about your latest offering, or a complete stranger points out a glaring plot hole, put your ego to one side (easy than it sounds, I know), take a step back and try taking in the fuller picture.

 

 

 

 

Finished My Novel (for the time being)

So, finally after seven years of hard work, false dawns and bitterly regretting deleting hours, if not weeks and months of documents, I have finished the second draft of my first novel, The River (working title). Hopefully my next novel won’t take half as long.

 

So, finally after seven years of hard work, false dawns and bitterly regretting deleting hours, if not weeks and months of documents, I have finished the second draft of my first novel, The River (working title).  Hopefully my next novel won’t take half as long. Yes, it’s been a long drawn out process, but I’ve come out at the other end.

I’ve put the novel into several different formats, those being a file in which all the chapters are separate, which will be ideal for posting on Writer’s Café where I intend to put the novel out as a weekly serialisation, another file of just the first three chapters for sending off to agents, and then finally a one whole document containing the entire novel which I have printed out for the older members of my family who are not quite so tech-savvy.

Now I enter the next phase of the novel’s gestation period: waiting to see if any of the agents will get back and hoping for feedback and trying to pick up an online following and creating awareness through Twitter, Facebooktrausti_flyer, and of course, this blog. When I told my wife last night of my plans to serialise the novel she voiced her concern that people would end up reading my novel for free instead of eventually paying for the privilege. I said it was one way of building up a fan base and the amount of people who might read the story on my webpage would be nothing compared to the readership I could eventually find via publishing. It was a stepping stone. Still she had a point: if writers are tempted to give away their work online why should anyone bother to buy the book?  But then there is also the example of Andy Weir who wrote The Martian. He originally posted chapters of his book on his website, a tactic which exposed him to plenty of helpful feedback. He was then asked by people who had struggled downloading the chapters if he would put the book on Kindle as an E-book, which he did for the princely sum of 99 cents. To his amazement he found more people were willing to pay for the Kindle version than to read it for free. This further helped to grow his readership which in turn saw it create enough sales to get into various top tens (sci-fi, technical, etc.) which led to it being picked up by Random House, and the rest, as we possibly all know, is history.

It makes perfect sense, to me at least, his readership should want to pay for a Kindle edition or print copy of his book even when they could read it on his website for free. The reason being there is something about reading which goes beyond the eye processing text, by which I mean it is a personal and intimate experience which is perfectly encapsulated by the form of a book or even (though I’m no fan) a Kindle reader. This is something one can take with them on a bus, or to a hotel to help to while away the hours and at the same time to escape into a medium which simultaneously broadens one’s imagination and vocabulary and helps us understand one another.

Hopefully while people are still attracted to the physicality of owning a book and bookcases writers may still be able to find a loyal (and paying) fan base.