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Deconstructing Criticism: An Art Of Balance

April 8, 2014

I have been reading a lot of articles around the internet, mostly about writing and the processes involved in it. One of the more reoccuring topics I see is the topic of how to deal with criticism. Usually, these posts fall into one of two categories:

1. Haters are going to hate! Ignore critics. All they’re going to do is bring you down. Write what you like.

2. ‘Haters’ are going to make valid points about you and your writing. To ignore critics is to ignore the chance to grow and develop as a writer.

After a little bit of thinking, I think I have managed to hit a grey area — an in-between point between these two opinions.

So, what’s the key to seeing this middle zone?

First, let’s deconstruct what kind of critic both sides are targeting. The people in the ‘ignore’ camp are people more than likely speaking about vicious, nasty critics, while the people in the ‘accept’ camp are more than likely speaking about people making valid points and offering help. The two camps are, basically, considering a ‘critic’ as two polar opposites.

Of course, we cannot say that all critics are jerks, and neither can we say that all critics are helpful. So, let’s take the road which brings both kinds of critics into the formula, and see what we can do with it.

What constitutes a ‘hater’?

You probably hear the phrase ‘haters gonna hate’ a lot, or at least a variant. It’s a meme that has been on the internet for a while now. This phrase is held high by people who say to ignore criticism, and is targeted by people who say to embrace it. But is there a way to identify, exactly, what a ‘hater’ is?

Well, that’s easy. A hater is a hater. The clue is in the name.

When the ‘ignore’ camp say to ignore criticism, they usually mean the kind of people who are rude, and hate you and your work. These critics often give non-constructive criticism.

When the ‘accept’ camp say to look for criticism, they usually mean the kind of people who make valid points, take apart your work in a well-meaning manner, and generally want you to improve. These critics often give constructive criticism.

This is the key to understanding why there are two sides to this fight. Someone accepting non-constructive criticism is more likely to get into a rut, feel bad about their work, and harm their craft as a result. Someone rejecting constructive criticism is more likely to become big-headed and egotistic, become stagnant with their process, and not learn how to become a better artist.

So, what does this mean for criticism as a whole?

Intent is Important

Let’s take a scenario. Bob Jones has just published a book, and gets excited when the distributor emails him to say he has a review on it. He goes to check what it says, and it says this:

Disappointed Reader rated this:  ★☆☆☆☆

What a load of garbage. The author should be shot for writing such an awful book. I wouldn’t even let pigs have this pile of crap in their pen. Waste of money. Avoid like a plague.

As you can see, the review isn’t exactly what Bob Jones was expecting. Should he take this criticism to heart? Simply, no. The problem with this review is that the reviewer very clearly does not offer anything useful or worthwhile for Bob Jones to work off of. This is non-constructive criticism at its finest. Bob Jones can — and should — ignore this review totally (if he can). The reviewer very clearly wrote it to be destructive to Bob Jones’ work and career, so accepting something with the intent of destruction will only cause destruction.

What if Bob Jones’ review read like this, however?

Wasted Time rated this:  ★☆☆☆☆

Ugh. Where to begin with this book? For starters, the beginning is far too slow. The characters are two-dimensional and not fleshed out at all. The story goes nowhere and the ending comes to a crash. Awful. Would not recommend.

It’s these kinds of reviews that cause people in the ‘accept’ camp to say you should read the reviews of ‘haters’. From a brief look of this review, it’s easy to see that the person is, in fact, stating areas of weakness in the story. The problem, however, is that the reviewer, again, is taking a destructive and harmful stance with their criticism. They clearly didn’t use their review time to say what was specifically wrong, and how it could be improved. They revelled in how bad the book was and didn’t appear to want to help the book succeed at all. While an author could definitely glean helpful tips off of this review, it would be safer to ignore it. If you implement the ‘changes’ suggested here, there’s a good chance you’ll do it out of fear instead of learning. You’ll be heavily misguided, given that you don’t know how the characters were two-dimensional, or why the beginning was too slow. Making changes out of misguided fear can lead to ham-handed and badly done revisions, which can lead to even worse reviews.

So, what if the review read like this?

So Much Potential rated this:  ★☆☆☆☆

I really wanted to like this book. This story, however, was a complete disappointment for me. Bob’s previous quick and punchy starts was heavy bogged down by a huge information dump that I found hard to digest. The main character had no backstory at all, and boiled down to  the ‘tough and edgy’ police cop trope you see on TV these days. The story doesn’t have an overarching goal, so the characters mill about until something happens. The ending comes out of nowhere, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. In short, very saddening, and a bad book overall.

You can tell from this review that the reviewer’s intent is not to ‘slam’ the book and get a kick out of it. They clearly saw a potential in where the book was going, but was very disappointed as to how things turned out. They stated some good points which Bob Jones can note down as a potential weakness in his style. In short, they wrote this review because they could see where the story wanted to go, but wasn’t going. I’d definitely say this review should at least be acknowledged by Bob. He shouldn’t let this review rule over his writing career and dictate everything he does, but he should definitely keep a vigilant eye on his future stories for these sorts of problems, and maybe look into ways to fix these issues.

Getting Useful Critique

Of course, it’s not a very good idea to have people who purchase and review your books as your critique group. If you want to have a second pair of eyes read through your story and point out the bad bits, I recommend the following:

  • Find someone who likes your genre. It should not have to be said, but a romance writer might not be the best critic for your horror novel. Genres are all written in specific ways, and the authors and readers of a genre all expect specific things from a story in that genre. If you give your genre story to someone who doesn’t read or write it, you run the risk of that person trying to ‘fit in’ aspects of their favourite genre into your own. It can be effective and done well, but it’s best to stick to your home turf.
  • Find someone who wants the best of your work. If the person is clearly someone who enjoys throwing their weight around and slamming works into the floor, they are probably not the best partners to learn how to do art with. If you’re giving work to someone, make sure that they’re the kind of people who appreciate the work that you do. If someone loves your work, and points out a flaw with it, it’s a very well-meaning and guided critique, and should definitely be acknowledged.
  • Take critiques through your own personal filter. If someone says that you should add a romantic subplot to your story, ask yourself if that’s really the best way to do things. Always remember that one critique is simply that; a single person’s opinion on your work. What one critic says should be changed, ten could say shouldn’t be changed at all. Of course, if several critics are pointing out the same thing, consider changing it. But if it’s just one critic, and their idea rubs you the wrong way, then don’t let it weigh you down.
  • Get excited about critiques. Don’t be scared! When someone you trust points out something you could have done, don’t feel disheartened. The feeling of ‘I’m a hack’ can be strong at these moments, but it’s best to approach critique with excitement and potential prospects. If a critic suggests something that really lights your inner fire and makes you think “why didn’t I think of that?” then implement it immediately! That is definitely a fantastic sign that something can be improved with your story.
  • Try to find someone with a lot of experience, generally. People who are just starting out reading or writing can often give well-meant critiques, but they will often be slightly misguided ones. People with more experience can really hone in as to what is wrong with the story, and how it can be changed. Take the weight of a veteran over that of a novice.

In short, make sure you ignore critiques by people who are, clearly, trying to destroy you and your craft. Accepting them will only let them into your writing space, where they can do what they always wanted to do; destroy. However, even if the most negative and disappointed review is written by someone who very clearly wanted to see your work become more than it is, then it’s a good sign to listen to what they have to say, and see if it can improve your story and your writing style as a whole. Basically; ignore the haters, but make sure you understand that not ALL critics are ‘haters’.

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One Comment
  1. This is a good article. It makes sense and offers excellent advice for any writer.

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