Any kind of correction or less than glowing response about your writing can feel like a personal attack. Yet learning how to use constructive criticism is key to becoming a successful author. Often the difference between a mediocre book and a bestseller comes down to which received the better edit. What is constructive criticism, and how can you use it to improve your writing?
The word “criticism” can be frightening. Generally, when we think of criticizing something, we think of something that we dislike. In the context of writing, constructive criticism means comments about your work that are both positive and negative that help you to improve your writing. Therefore, a remark like “this story was terrible and I hated it” may be critical, but it is not an example of constructive criticism because it does not offer you anything to improve upon. Along the same lines, “I loved this story!” is also not particularly constructive because while it may make you feel good, it does not pinpoint what you do right and how you can continue doing it. One of the important elements of Now Novel’s Critique platform is that you can choose which question to ask for specific feedback.
The idea of having your writing criticized is also scary because writing can feel very personal. It’s important to remember that no matter how connected you feel with a piece of writing, you are not your writing, and criticism of your work does not amount to criticism of you as a person. Furthermore, the person offering you constructive criticism is trying to improve your writing, not tear you down.
How to use constructive criticism: Giving and receiving
Another important point about constructive criticism is that giving it can be at least as useful as receiving it. Countless writers in workshops have found that becoming more astute critics of others’ work makes it easier to pinpoint problems in their own.
Here again, the ‘constructive’ part of this is key. It’s one thing to have a nagging sense that something is wrong with a story. To be able to say whether that sense of wrongness arises from character, language, plot or some other element and then to be able to go on and make suggestions as to how it could be improved is an important skill in a writer’s toolbox.
Best ways to deliver and receive critiques
With these caveats in mind, here are some of the ways that constructive criticism can be delivered and received for the best results.
- When reading someone else’s work for a session of constructive criticism, try to put aside your personal feelings and tastes. This means trying to bring an objective eye to a mystery story even if your genre of choice is romance or suspending your disbelief for a piece of fantasy fiction even if you prefer realism.While every genre has specific requirements, the rules of good writing are generally the same across all of them. Keeping this in mind, try to be as helpful as possible even if you are reading a story that is not something you personally would ever seek out by choice.
- When receiving constructive criticism, do not argue with the other person or try to justify your choices no matter how misguided the criticism may seem. In fact, some workshops have rules against this very thing and do not permit the writer whose work is being critiqued to respond.The best approach is to sit quietly and take notes which can then be reviewed at time when you are feeling less emotional and defensive about your work. Taking notes is also a good way to remain composed if you are finding the critique session stressful. You may later decide that in fact the critiquer was entirely misguided and that there is nothing wrong with that particular aspect of your story, but you may also find that there is more truth to the criticism than you initially realized.
This same rule applies for criticism you receive in written form. Try not to argue even silently. Reread the notes several times until the sting has worn off a bit and you can more realistically asses the value of the other person’s perspective.
- When offering constructive criticism, lead with the positive. Choose one, two or three things the writer did well and praise those things while also trying to explain what works about that aspect. If you loved the character of Aunt Vivian, what did you love about her? Was it the snappy dialogue the writer gave her, the interesting back story about her work as a codebreaker during World War II or the description of her warmth that drew you in? Starting out with positive feedback will make it easier for the writer being criticized to hear about the parts of the story that don’t work.
- When reviewing criticism, look at the majority consensus and identify your ‘ideal readers’. One of the most difficult aspects of improving your writing is figuring out what parts of your work do need changing and which ones do not because you will sometimes receive conflicting advice.If multiple people are looking at your work, this can be one guideline; if most people think a certain aspect should be changed, they may be right. However, this is not foolproof. An even better approach is to identify two or three critiquers you consider your ‘ideal readers’ or people you find particularly in sync with your storytelling. These are not necessarily the people who praise your work the most highly or the people who find the fewest problems with it. These are instead the readers who seem to get what you are trying to do and are able to pinpoint your shortcomings the most astutely.
Once you have identified a few ideal writers, these will be ones you will want to turn to when you find yourself particularly stymied by a problem in your fiction.
Approaching a critique session for the first time can be one of the most anxiety-producing activities a writer does. When both writer and critiquers work in good faith, though, it can also be one of the most rewarding. Don’t forget to visit Now Novel’s Critique platform – you can submit a 500 word piece of work anonymously and receive feedback from the rest of the Now Novel community.
What are some of your tips for giving and receiving constructive criticism?