Gather round, my fellow authors, painters, performers, and artists of all ilks. Gather and let us discuss one of the intrinsic caveats of being someone who creates: criticism. Comments, reviews, e-mails, take your pick; once you’ve put writing out into the world you’re going to get feedback from someone, somewhere. It’s as inevitable as a sunrise or a hangover on January 1st. Now, a lot of what you’ll often get will be kind, well-intentioned, and praising. Those are wonderful things to receive, especially because it signifies that someone appreciated your work enough to take the time out of their day to tell you about their enjoyment. Treasure those, because they should and will always mean a lot to you.
However, some times the feedback you receive is more critical, and at times it can be phrased in a manner that is pointedly meant to bring you, as a creator, down. This is the internet, after all. The thing is, that doesn’t invalidate what a person is saying, and in fact there may be information in there that you, as an author, will benefit from hearing. Today I want to talk a little about criticism, how to classify it, what to take from it, and what to try and leave behind.
Before we start on the actual topic, however, there is first something you need to do long before anyone will ever get the chance to critique your work. It happens during the actual plotting and planning portion of a project, and doing this will help you tremendously down the line when dealing with criticism.
What I mean by writing deliberately is to consciously make choices about your style, plot, and characters. Understand what you’re doing, analyze the elements you’re using, and ask yourself harshly and honestly if all of them are truly necessary.
This is easier to discuss with example than in theory, so I’ll use myself. When I first started writing Super Powereds, I made a conscious choice to include some of the more salacious elements from college in the story. Cursing, sex, underage-drinking; none of these are things that we traditionally associate with superheroes, or morally upright people in general. I didn’t put these in to spice things up, though. I did it because I wanted one of the key elements of the story to be about real people who happen to have abilities. I felt that portraying college life accurately, warts and all, served to better that cause. Whether it worked or not is open to the reader’s interpretation, but the point is I made that choice knowing some people wouldn’t like it, because I felt it served the story.
Language, more than the other elements, is something I’m frequently dinged on in reviews. In fact, some readers have stated that they refused to finish the book because of the language in it. When I get low-ratings for that… well it still sucks, I won’t lie to you about that, but it doesn’t really bring me down. I made my choice, and I don’t regret it. If I’d thrown the cursing in without a reason, however, simply because it came out as I wrote, then I doubt I could shrug the critiques off quite so easily. That’s what I mean by writing deliberately: recognize the choices you are making and be sure of them before you publish.
With that out of the way, the next step is to take a hard look at the criticisms you received and do some analysis of your own.
Classify Your Criticisms
Criticism really falls into two categories, so far as I can see: Constructive and Non-Constructive. Now, this isn’t me saying that the constructive stuff will always be nice and deferential, meant to respect your feelings. Often it will scathing, mean, or downright hateful. The difference between to two has nothing to do with tone, it’s all about content. As always, I believe in discussion through example, so let’s look at some below.
Constructive: “I hated this book. It was amateurish at best. There were tons of typos, perspective shifts in chapters, and a meandering plot.”
Non-Constructive: “This book was terrible. Just bad through and through. It was childish and dumb. Books like this are why I hate self-pub authors.”
The tone in both was about the same, but the key difference is that the first example actually listed reasons why they hated the book. It wasn’t just telling us about their feelings or sentiment, it was giving feedback as to what they would have liked to have seen done better. That’s the difference between constructive and non-constructive.
Dealing With Constructive Criticism
Listen, I want to pause for a moment to mention that I know a lot of authors say not to read your reviews or comments, and maybe there’s something to be said for that. For me though, reading those reviews is an experience that, while I don’t enjoy it, is necessary to my growth as an author. In a lot of ways, that’s one of the benefits of the internet: no one feels inclined to spare your feelings, and if you’ve messed something up then they’ll tell you about it. Harsh as it may be, it’s hard to get that kind of feedback from people who know you in person.
In reading criticism that I’ve determined to be constructive, I first mentally divorce myself from everything they didn’t like that I did deliberately. They can dislike that all they want, I knew going in that those choices wouldn’t sing with everyone. These are the easiest points to get past, for obvious reasons.
Next I look at the points they are raising, and I ask myself how often I’ve seen them raised by others. If it’s not often at all, I consider that maybe that person just disagreed with a stylistic or plot direction I took. If it’s something that comes up often, however, then it’s time for me to take a hard look at the piece and my process.
For me, typos are a great example of this. I’m a bad editor. I really am. I try my best but I can never catch them all. There are probably typos in this entry. In the beginning I got called out on it all the time. I’ve reached a level of peace with it personally, but professionally I know it means I have to be three times as careful as other writings who don’t have that failing. When I release books, I use no less than two independent and skilled editors who each do a revision of the piece, then I send it out to beta-readers for extra-eyes on it, then I do a final sweep just in case something slipped through.
I don’t think constructive criticism should be a thing that makes you question every line of dialogue or plot point in your book, but if people are raising the same issues over and over then you might have to face the fact that such an area is a weak spot for you as a writer. That’s not a bad thing, either. Knowing where we’re weak, where we tend to fall down, is how we learn to pay extra attention to those places. It’s because we recognize our weakness that we can take steps to compensate for them, and that’s a huge part of growing better as a writer.
Dealing With Non-Constructive Criticism
Fuck ‘em. Seriously. If anyone has ever found anything useful to get out of a person just their smearing their negative sentiment around like shit on a wall, then by all means let me know. There might be very valuable and concrete reasons behind whatever stirred their opinion, but if they don’t share them then those reasons and the opinions they are tied to might as well not exist.
This isn’t me saying to ever combat those criticisms or leave comments; I’m not encouraging anyone to pull an Anne Rice. I’m just saying that you have to recognize there is nothing to be gained from these types of criticisms and ignore them. They are irrelevant, and should be treated as such.
Obviously this is all just skimming the surface, at the end of the day we each have to find our own methods of dealing with criticism. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, I’ve heard wonderful things about the medicinal effects of whiskey, though I personally tend to lean toward the vodka myself.