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Critique & Criticism

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As a writer, I’ve had my share of critique and I’ve also given my share of critique.  In my many years of experience, there is critique that hinders and critique that helps; basically destructive and constructive criticism.  Every writer should learn to tell the difference.  In fact, it’s almost vital in this industry to be able to glean the tiny nuggets of gold from the general sluice of mud.  Not everything everyone will have to say about your work will be compliments, but not every comment that isn’t should be considered an insult.  For those of you who read this blog or have at least seen my “Written Off” series of posts, I have suffered destructive criticism on such a scale that it destroyed my love of writing for many years.

From that voice of experience, I’m going to share my personal views on criticism; these may not be traditional views, but they are views that help me get through the day as a writer.  We must all find our own way to wade through this sea of criticism, critique, praise, and pitfalls.  I hope you find yours.  ^_^

Destructive Criticism

This type of criticism is exactly like it sounds; it is meant to destroy a writer’s confidence, to discourage him from continuing, and to ultimately break him.  It is the worst type of criticism, but sadly, probably the most common you’ll find on the internet.  Destructive criticism, however, is easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for.  It usually appears like an insult:  “You suck!” – “Don’t quit your day job.” – “You really need to consider another vocation.” – I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some point in our writing lives.  If you haven’t, well, consider yourself fortunate.

Now, there is usually nothing in the way of fact or actual critique to back up such statements, they are meant solely to damage the writer’s confidence in the hope that he will stop writing.  Recognize these blatant attempts for what they are and dismiss them.  One could go into any number of psychoanalytic angles on why people would tell you such things, but no matter what their angle, it doesn’t really matter.  These insults are meant to distract you from your goals as a writer.  Do not give them the satisfaction.

Constructive Criticism

Now, to me, there are two types of constructive criticism: positive and negative.  Positive criticism is the praise and accolades for your work that tell you everything you’re doing right.  Negative criticism is the critique and evaluation of your work that tells you where you can improve.  Such comments are not meant to demean or destroy you as a writer, but to help you become better, communicate more effectively, and reach your readership on a much more meaningful level.

Positive Criticism

We all love to get positive criticism; it tells us that we’re doing things right as an author, that people are enjoying our work.  Some positive criticism may go so far as to tell you exactly what it is they enjoy about your work, what parts are meaningful or attractive.  These will often tell you your strengths, what you excel at bringing to the table.  However, it is important not to rely on these compliments as your sole source of motivation; keep in mind, always, that not everyone is going to love what you write.  Prepare yourself for that eventuality.  Enjoy the compliments and take note of what your strong points are, but don’t bask in the glory for too long or you’ll lose focus.

Negative Criticism

This is not to be confused with destructive criticism.  While no one likes hearing that there’s something wrong with their work, it’s foolish to think that our writing is perfect.  There is always room for improvement.  The important part of negative criticism is that, even when it is telling you what is wrong, it will almost always provide a solution.  Such as:  “This passage is really unclear and I don’t really understand what’s happening.  Perhaps telling the scene from one point of view may help crystallize things.”  It’s almost like cause and effect; the reviewer tells you what is wrong and then tells you what he perceives might solve the problem he has with the material.

You can’t always count on being given a solution, though.  Some reviewers may leave their commentary open-ended, so that you, the writer, can come to a resolution on your own.  Such as:  “You might want to rethink this part.  It’s a bit vague.”  It could be that you’re intentionally being vague as a plot device or you may have missed giving some detail that you intended.  It’s up to you as the writer to take what you can from the comment and make the most of it.

Take constructive criticism in stride and use it to improve and better yourself; don’t take it personally because it’s not meant as an insult.  It’s meant to help you, to make your work more enjoyable.  Don’t snub your nose at the opportunity to better yourself.  No writer can afford to get stagnant.

Let destructive criticism glide off your like water off a duck’s back.  At the end of the day, it comes down to you and your writing; don’t let anyone come between you.  You will always have nay-sayers, you will always have people looking to break you, to rile you up, to infuriate and frustrate you.  It’s all a pitfall to distract you from the greater goal of your writing.  Don’t give in to it, don’t rise to the bait.

No matter what kind of criticism you get as a writer, I hope you use it to encourage and empower yourself and don’t let those who would drag you down succeed.  However, I also hope that you realize and understand the difference between a people out to insult and distract you and people who extend a hand to help you.  Otherwise, you may inadvertently slap away someone who could be a powerful ally and proponent for your work.  A good writer needs a network of strong, like-minded individuals who are willing to tell him where he goes astray and what he does well.  Surround yourself with people who will give you both encouragement and constructive critique.

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  1. October 4, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Well said!

    I see a tremendous amount of fear and neurosis around the idea of any sort of criticism. Writing well isn’t easy! Why should it be? I agree that having smart, tough writer friends will help improve your work — they have your best interests at heart, which is producing great work, not just ego massage.

    • October 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Thanks so much for reading! And yes, I agree, there is a lot of fear and stigma about criticism being the Bane of a writer’s existence, when it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most criticism you get, positive or negative, is designed to challenge the writer onward to do better things. Even destructive criticism has its use by hardening the writer against those who would denigrate his work purely for the satisfaction of doing so.

      I read “Ten Ways to (Seriously) Improve Your Writing” on your blog and points eight, nine, and ten all echo my thoughts on criticism and taking things with grace. It’s really a great thing to see that I’m not alone in my thought processes!

  2. October 5, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I agree with a lot of your points here. The only place I differ would probably be in defining ‘constructive criticism.’ To me, constructive criticism has elements that are both positive and ‘negative.’ You tell someone what they did right (in your opinion) and what you feel they need to work on.

    But I agree that we as writers need to embrace criticism in order to grow.

    • October 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm

      @ Kjersten: You’re absolutely right, constructive criticism often has both, when it comes from a reliable source. Friends and family don’t often count as reliable sources of criticism to me because they will always tell me what I want to hear. However, among my writing peers, I will get both positive and negative feedback, both which are constructive.

      I broke down “Positive” and “Negative” of Constructive Criticism mostly to emphasize the point that even when someone is giving you “negative” feedback, it is done in a constructive way, thereby, not to be confused with destructive criticism. I have several writer friends who find any kind of feedback that tells them how to improve something as an insult or an attempt to “change their style”, when it’s really not. There is a very clear difference between the two, which is what I was trying to clear the air on. ^_^

  3. Lisa
    October 7, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    I found this very interesting. This would have been very useful in my Freshman Comp classes when trying to encourage them to give feedback to each other. (I no longer teach those classes, but if I did I would borrow this). It is so challenging to explain how you can give “negative criticism” that is meant to help the work. the students are always fearful that they will insult the writer, so they say nothing. However, by having a new term “destructive criticism” I think they would understand more.

    I also believe, however, that it hard to give constructive criticism when people are unable to separate themselves from their work. That is the challenge for all of us to learn. I know that I am still working on it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. October 7, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    @ Lisa: Thank you so much for reading. The idea that a teacher would be inspired by something I wrote is truly a great thing. Some of the greatest pillars of strength in my life have been my teachers. :) (Well, except one…)

    My perspectives on criticism, while not unique I’m sure, do break it down comprehensively and draw that very clear line between destructive and negative criticism, because they are two very different animals. It’s something I wish I’d known, years ago.

    I agree whole-heartedly that there has to be a certain level of detachment between a writer and her work; you can’t take what people say personally, no matter what they say. I learned that lesson the hard way, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog. It is my hope that my humble words reach some writers, especially budding writers who are still *so* sensitive about their work. Criticism isn’t the end of the world, in fact, it can lead to many more beginnings if we’re able to glean the useful things from it and shrug off any insult, real or imagined.

  1. October 7, 2010 at 8:32 am

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