Monday, April 11, 2011

Constructive Criticism

by Holly Jahangiri

Perhaps the best advice I can give a young writer is, “Learn to love constructive criticism. Don’t tie your ego up inside your writing; you are more than your work.” A Tae Kwon Do Master once made the point well, telling his class, “Praise is nothing – it feels good for a moment, but it takes no time or effort or thought. When someone takes time from their busy day – spends precious minutes of their life to help you improve, you should take that as a compliment. They think you’re worth it.”

Watching writers get all emotionally soaked and wrung out by a few words of honest, constructive criticism is painful – well, painful the way watching a train wreck is painful. You know you shouldn’t look – but you just can’t tear your eyes away. A few examples of the genre:

-- Weirdly Similar… from Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light
-- The Greek Seaman / Jacqueline Howett from BigAl's Books and Pals

As several commenters pointed out, this kind of thing has a tendency to “go viral.” It gets ugly, spins out of control, attracts anonymous hecklers, and is rarely a credit to anyone involved.

Watching critics perform acts of literary contortion in an effort to sugar-coat the obvious and make it more palatable so that no one will yell at them and call them meanies is also cringe-worthy. Where is Simon Cowell when you need him?

Seriously, one of the best comments I ever got was from a colleague who wrote, in bright red ink, “This reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts.” I didn’t cry; I didn’t get defensively outraged. I looked at the paragraph in question, and I laughed. His description was creative and accurate. He’d taken time from his day to give it, meaning he had my best interests at heart. He trusted me not to go ballistic – there was no need to sugar-coat the truth. What the comment lacked in tact, it made up for in accuracy and humor. I wanted to frame it and hang it on my wall.

Learning to just take it on the chin, bravely – to smile and say, “Thank you” – is one of the most valuable skills a writer can develop. Even if someone says, “Your writing sucks,” they’re not saying, “You’re a horrible, inadequate, pathetic excuse for a human being.” That’s what some writers hear, of course. But that’s not what’s meant. Neither is it particularly constructive, so the best thing to do is say, “I’m so sorry you didn’t enjoy it,” and move on. No writer’s work is universally lauded and liked. But learning to separate the useful from the irrelevant is also a skill – learning to set aside pride and apply knowledge gained through critique is a skill that will yield real value, in the long run. Consider every bit of criticism – some of it, if you’re honest with yourself, will ring true. What doesn’t can be set aside – without bitterness. Learn to smile and ignore it.

Authors who feel compelled to argue with reviewers never win. In the end, they look unprofessional – if not mentally unhinged. Though a negative review can be good publicity for a book, nothing good can come of the kind of negative publicity where an author grabs a loaded gun, aims it at their own feet, and shoots. It’s career suicide. We shouldn’t watch – but we do. And the more the author rails against the injustice of it all, the more it turns into a participatory sport. And that’s when amusement turns ugly, because we don’t like having our petty schadenfreude shoved in our faces. It makes us onlookers feel a little guilty. And we will never thank anyone for that.


  1. Great post. I've seen a couple instances of an author fighting against a bad review and it definitely went viral. Not good at all. It just made the writer seem petty and unprofessional.

    Since I'm not published, all I've face so far is in a critique group. Had an instance of a rather negative comment and while it was a bit rude, after some time I figured out what the problem was in the chapter that they were talking about. However, I left the group in part because of the same person. Not for the comment on my story but more so because she would literally say my opinion was wrong when I critiqued her writing. That and a few other reasons lead me to leave. Now that I'm getting ready with novels, I have beta readers who are going to help me but I am searching for a critique partner.

    Thanks for posting this reminder.

  2. Dawn, it seems unproductive to stay in a group that's good at dishing the critique, but can't take it with good grace. And beta readers are wonderful - provided they don't love you and think every blurt of ink from your pen is perfection. ;)

    My daughter used to hate it when I gave critique - and hated it equally when I dished out praise. "You HAVE to say that. You're my mom." Over the years, she's learned that being mom doesn't mean I won't be honest. One thing I always appreciated in my own mom was her honesty - that she could give constructive criticism without sugar coating, but do it in such a way that I trusted her judgment AND her love.

  3. Holly, I really do like this article, especially considering some of the experiences I've had with rejected writers.


  4. A very interesting post. I've been told by many that writers need to develop a thick skin and not to take critiques personally. People who are offering critiques of your work are critiquing the work, not the person. Accept what is said graciously and either use the information to improve your work or don't use it. I cringed when reading some of the comments on the links you provided.

    I enjoy stopping by this blog. So many great things to learn. Thank you!!

  5. Susanne, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog newsletter. We want to share what we know to help others.


  6. I enjoyed the article, Holly. Thank you.

    From an artist's point of view as well as a writer's this makes perfect sense. It has always been more beneficial to me to receive honest critique. Compliments and praise are nice but I have found great value in the helpful and constructive criticism of my peers.

  7. Susanne, I think that most people don't realize, when defending themselves the way you see those "flamewars" developing in the linked threads, just what horse's behinds they make themselves appear to be to bystanders. Nine times out of ten, it's probably best just to lock the keyboard out of your own reach for a while, and let the other guy do it to himself - all by himself.

    Sometimes, it's impossible to resist a fight - but be careful and take the high ground. Or, as a colleague of mine says, "You sure this is the ditch you wanna die in, today?"

    Harsh critique may bruise your ego for a bit, it may sting like putting iodine on a cut. But it can contain an awful lot of value.

    Personal abuse is just that - and if you stay out of it, it'll either die a natural death or the perpetrators will make themselves look so bad they'll have to slink off with their tails between their legs. Never bring gasoline to a stupid flamewar, especially if you're the one being flamed. (And if things really get out of hand, call the police. Cyberbullying is a CRIME.)

  8. One of the first things I learned in my writing group was how to respond to criticism. This extends to bad reviews, as well. You have asked someone for an opinion. He or she has given it to you. It's bad form to defend yourself or attack the giver. Thank them, and move on. In an unpublished work, it can only serve to improve the story.