Useful & non-useful criticism

Beta readers. Writing workshops. Relatives and generous friends.  You may have the opportunity at all stages of the writing process to get feedback on your work.

Learning to tell the difference between useful and non-useful criticism is crucial to being able to incorporate criticism into your writing process.

Sometimes you will receive comments that pierce right to the heart of a weakness or problem within the text.  Sometimes you will received comments that really aren’t worth listening to.  Most criticism will fall somewhere between.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the comments you have received.

1) is this criticism about the story, or about something else?

2) is this about the story you wrote, or the story the reader wants you to have written?

3) is this about the story you wrote, or the story the reader-thinking-as-writer would have written hirself?

4)  is that detail or subplot unnecessary because it is unnecessary, or because the reader doesn’t like it, respect it, or find it interesting?

5) is the objection based on the text, or on the reader’s personal peeves and/or biases?

Finally, flip the question:  Is this criticism unwarranted and useless, or am *I* avoiding the issue the criticism has raised?  You may be, or you may not be;  over time, you can teach yourself to develop a feeling for these differences.

How do you evaluate criticism?

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  1. 1. Daemon

    In addition to asking yourself about the reader’s comments, it may also a good idea to ask the reader themselves about their comments, especially if they seem to be the type that your natural instinct is to ignore… I’ve gotten comments in workshops that seemed totally random or otherwise off-base until I asked for a clarification/expansion.

  2. 2. Patty

    Receiving criticsm. I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops and other relationships with readers from whom I actively seek comments.

    These are a few things I’ve learned, for myself, by trial and error:

    1. As much as you don’t like it, your harshests critics (those who read the whole story and make deep-cutting comments) are almost always right.

    2. Don’t listen to praise. Just don’t listen to it, or at least not before the story is published. It does nothing except inflate your head and doesn’t help your work. It also makes you complacent.

    3. A story is yours and it’s up to you how to change it. BUT… it’s also up to you how to deal with criticism. Do so in private. Don’t keep asking for second, third anf fourth opinions, because your story will become bland if you try to please everyone.

    4. Differing opinions are good. I have stories which almost every reviewer has loved – sent to a gazillion magazines but they’re still unsold. The stories I’ve had least trouble selling were those where at least one reviewer told me that I’d never sell them.

    4a. You can’t please everyone. Aim to write your story to please a number of people a LOT, and accept that your story will annoy the living daylights out of others.

    5. If a comment makes you angry, ignore it for a while.

    5a. Come back to it later and re-read. Decide if the comment is about the reviewer’s cleverness and display of the reviewer’s sarcasm, or the comments dig painfully deep into your story and tells you something you don’t want to hear. Be totally honest with yourself here. Err on the side of the reviewer.

    6. Different types of comments can be the result of the same problem. Lame example: one reviewer may say ‘there is too much description’ and another will say ‘nothing much happens in this chapter’ and what they’re both saying is that the pace of the chapter is too slow.

    7. Criticism is *very rarely* useless. Full stop. It becomes useless when the author doesn’t want to hear it. Don’t forget that as author, you *asked* for opinions. Don’t be upset to get them. A reviewer may have a pet peeve, but if many people have the same pet peeve it might be worth doing something about it.

    8. your reader is your customer. Explaining the comments away by saying the reader is ‘not your target audience’ is a bit of a cop-out, again with the danger of becoming complacent about your work.

    Well, that’s my $0.02. I rarely dismiss criticism as invalid. There have been timnes that a reviewer has made a suggestion about a turn he or she wanted a story to make. I’ve left the story as is, but used the suggestion in a totally new story. Always be open to ideas and opinions, even if you don’t use them for the project for which you asked the reviewer’s opinion.

    Patty

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    Patty, I think I’m more in agreement with Kate on a number of these things. But some of that may be that these days I primarily come at it from a novelists point of view rather than a short story writer’s.

    In any case, a reader doesn’t always want to read the story you want to tell. Sometimes that’s fine and they suggest a better story that’s also one you’re interested in telling. Sometimes it’s marginal, the story the want you to tell isn’t one you’re interested in, but can be slipped into the one you do want to tell. Sometimes it’s flat wrong and the story your reader wants you to tell is in conflict with the one you’re telling. For that matter sometimes even an astute reader simply doesn’t get it. I find that particularly true when writing humor.

    Critique is a tool, you should use it to shape a story, not to drive it. Often what my critic is telling me isn’t that I did this thing that they’re complaining about wrong, it’s that I forgot to set it up back here. Or, sometimes that I didn’t clarify the payoff which come 150 pages later. That’s one of the reasons I like working with a writers group because we’ve built the bonds of trust that let me say. “Okay, would this bit work better for you if I told you that in the next book, I’m doing X?” Or, “Would it work better for you if I pulled up this thread back in chapter two?”

    Readers are very good at identifying things that don’t work for them. But even the best aren’t always good at identifying what the appropriate fix is.

  4. 4. Patty

    Kelly,

    I wholeheartedly agree that readers don’t always give workable solutions for the problem. I think that to solve a problem is the author’s work, and an author shouldn’t ‘have’ to listen to suggestions for *what* to do, but I think an author should darn well listen when a reader indicates that there *is* a problem, even if you disagree with it (or maybe I should say, especially when you disagree, because this is where the pig-headed writer comes in).

  5. 5. Ben Cirillo

    I mostly look for criticism from experienced writers. Not necessarily because of their skill as writers, but because they have received their own criticism in the past and know what’s helpful and what isn’t.

    Other writers have heard “Ok, but what if instead of a samurai warrior he’s a talking dog?” before and know how annoying it is.

    Other writers have also very likely made the same mistakes you’ve made in your writing, and know how they made them and how to fix them. “Your ending is boring” is not helpful. “You ran into trouble with the ending, I think, because you didn’t establish your characters well enough in the beginning,” is helpful.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    Patty, my contention would be that the reader is almost always good at identifying that they have a problem with a piece but many times is not good at identifying what the problem is, not just that they can’t identify the proper solution. For that matter, a reader having a problem with something does not automatically equate with it being a problem that needs to be solved.

    For example, there is a series that I loathe because it invariably does thing-X with its plots. That doesn’t keep the series from doing extremely well, in part because there are a lot of readers who love thing-X type plots. In fact I’ve frequently heard people praising it because of its thing-X plots.

    More personally, the most visible of my published works is the WebMage series. I have at least one regular pre-publication reader who doesn’t particularly like one of the types of humor I use in the books. That same type of humor is one of things that has garnered the most praise both from regular readers and reviewers. This reader gives me great critique on some things in the books, but I know that I need to ignore comments from this reader that hit that one particular note, because that note is part of the core of the franchise.

    We all have our quirks and hot-button issues and those affect how we read. Another example, I know that stories that have certain topic areas are stories that I will always dislike. As a reader I will recuse myself if one of those stories come sthrough my writers group because my critique of the story is likely to be actively counter-productive. Some of my harshest criticisms of other people’s stories are the reason I developed my recusal policy.

    Does this mean I don’t listen to readers? Of course not. Most of my books have had at least 20 sets of eyes go over them before they see print and that’s extremely valuable and has helped me improve my work enormously. At the same time, knowing when not to listen to readers is nearly as valuable a skill as knowing when to listen to them.

  7. 7. Kate Elliott

    Daemon,
    I totally agree. It’s important to ask for clarification because often what the writer assumes s/he is hearing and what the critiquer assumes the writer is not necessarily the same thing.

    Ben,
    Thanks for making that valuable point. Sometimes people think you are asking for a kind of feedback that you are not, in fact, asking for, in which case their comments, however, well intended, aren’t useful.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    Kelly,
    what you said, totally.

    Patty,
    I think you have an important point. There is difficult ground here where some writers can’t or won’t listen, or perceive everything as not being about them. Sometimes problems or issues are raised that the writer can’t hear, and needs to hear.

    Much of being a successful writer is learning to revise. And a writer definitely can’t learn to revise successfully if they don’t open themselves up to learning how to see the problems in their writing.

    But where I agree with Kelly is that sometimes the reader is wrong. The reader may not be wrong *for them* – as a reader – but they may be wrong for what the book is. And sometimes, occasionally, they’re just plain wrong.

  9. 9. Nathanael Green

    I’ve found some of the most effective criticism for my work has come in the form of questions.

    When people say “this scene doesn’t work,” it’s not as helpful as it could be. Instead, when I get back comments like, “I’m not sure what this scene is supposed to do – what’s your intent here? How could you make it clearer?” Same message, but it forces me as the writer to answer the question, to really consider the story in detail.

    -Nate

  10. 10. Joseph Lewis

    If my reader says she had trouble following the action, or understanding a turn of phrase, I believe her.

    If my reader says a character seems to be acting out of character, I take that with a grain of salt.

    If my reader says she likes the story, I am happy, though not thrilled.

    And as long as my reader says anything at all, I thank her.

  11. 11. Sharon E. Dreyer

    Constructive criticism versus useless criticism? Let’s just say that there are some people who have to make negative statements whether or not their criticisms are justified. The best suggestions and/or criticism will be from knowlegeable readers who are not members of the author’s family or circle of friends. The best thing that my literary agency suggested for me to have completed is a formal critique of my manuscript. The comments from the profession with performed the critique were constructive and made my novel more acceptable to publishing houses. As a result my novel, Long Journey to Rneadal was released earlier this year.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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