Criticism - Constructive or Destructive?

by Marg McAlister


If there's one thing that most writers hate, it's criticism.

It's never easy to have someone tell you that what you're doing doesn't work. Maybe your characters are two-dimensional, or your plot is improbable. Perhaps your dialogue is stilted, or the scene doesn't have enough emotional depth. Even if you've made a simple mistake, like giving a character red hair in Chapter One then black hair in Chapter Three, you can feel as though you just don't measure up.

It is a fact, though, that some people should never be permitted to comment on anyone's work. You know the ones I mean: those who seem to take delight in pulling someone else's work to pieces. They might do it without any tact whatsoever ("I'm sorry, I didn't like that character a bit. I thought she was self-pitying and boring. She should just get over it and move on...") or as a smiling assassin ("Is she your main character? Oh, I thought you might have chosen someone a bit more... interesting. I mean, she's ALL RIGHT, don't get me wrong, but I did find her a teeny bit... well, gosh, dull! She's a bit of a sad sack, isn't she? But I did like the description of her dress.")

Neither of the above two examples of feedback are constructive. Both comments are critical without offering any suggestions or insight that might help the author to address the problem. Constructive criticism should always be welcome; DESTRUCTIVE criticism should be dealt with before it becomes serious enough to stop you writing.

So what do you do if you have a literary assassin constantly criticising your work?

You have three options:

1. Remove that person from your life. (You can do this if you have hired them to critique your work, or if you run the critique group.)

2. Establish rules for constructive criticism. (You can try this if you run a critique group or are part of a generally cooperative group.)

3. Remove yourself. (You can leave the group or find another critique service.)

If the feedback you are getting constantly makes you feel bad, then this is not helping you to grow as a writer. Nor is it making writing a rewarding pastime or career for you. Take action before you become so depressed that you give up writing.

Five Rules for Constructive Criticism

1. Put yourself in the writer's shoes. What would you find offensive? What would you find helpful? Think about how you can might give feedback so that it's useful, without making the author feel bad.

2. If you are the one giving feedback, choose one aspect of the scene on which to focus your suggestions. It can be devastating for the author to have someone recite a long list of things that are wrong with the scene. Remember that the whole idea is to help the writer grow. Too much information can be overwhelming.

3. If you are the one receiving feedback, listen carefully to all comments. If several people mention the same problem, then it probably needs attention. If everyone mentions something different and they are all minor matters, then it could be just personal preference. Try to listen to WHAT is being said rather than HOW it is said. Sometimes, others have really useful insights into what needs attention, but aren't very skilled at how they put it.

4. If someone in a group constantly gives destructive criticism, deal with it. Start by establishing rules for constructive feedback. If the same person continues to offend, arrange for the group's leader or organiser to talk with them privately - the bottom line being that they will need to find a different critique group because they are upsetting too many members. This is a last resort and will probably lead to ill-feeling, but the well-being of the group is the most important thing.

5. Think about pinpointing a different aspect of writing for each session. For example, ask everyone to bring in (from their work in progress) a scene of dialogue, or a scene that introduces a new character, or a scene that works on 'showing, not telling'. This makes critiquing a scene much easier - the focus is the same for everyone. You can also come up with a list of, say, three specific things that you are looking for, and all feedback could be based on this list.

Copyright Marg McAlister 2008


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