This will be a longer post than usual, but it’s because I think this topic is so important.
Every time I share my writing with a someone to get “feedback”, the same thing happens: my stomach tightens into a knot, it’s hard to breathe, I’m overwhelmed with nervousness, shyness, panic, and a totally irrational desire to run and hide – as if I’m going to die if they don’t like my story.
I know it’s crazy.
But knowing this doesn’t make the feeling go away.
I can’t help but wonder – does sharing creative work ever get easier? Is it like exercising a muscle, which starts out weak and trembling, but then gains in vigor the more you practice? Or is it always nerve wracking, no matter what level of creative achievement you attain?
I think of my favorite writers – many who are successful, prolific, New York Times bestselling authors – and wonder, do they curl up in a ball when they get a bad review? At first I thought not, but while recently reading the very frank blog of a favorite author, I was surprised to learn that her insecurities about writing haven’t entirely gone away, they’ve just changed forms. Now it’s an issue of will the new book be as good as the last book?
Criticism is absolutely necessary for writing, assuming it’s the right type of criticism, given at the right stage. Well placed criticism can be like a chisel, chipping away everything that’s not the story, so that the story shines through.
But it has to be constructive criticism.
What the heck is “constructive criticism”?
I think there is much confusion out there about this, especially amongst young writers, and it’s a big part of why, in my opinion, so many “creative writing workshops” are ineffective or downright harmful.
Here are my definitions of constructive criticism vs. destructive criticism. I’ve experienced both – the former has been transformational helpful; the latter has been at best useless and at worse made me not want to write anything ever again.
First off, let me say what constructive criticism is not –i.e what is “Destructive Criticism”?
#1 Destructive criticism is general and vague.
Generalized comments about a story are totally useless. If the comment could be applied to any story, instead of to your story, you can’t use it to improve your writing.
For example, comments like “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it,” are general and vague. This is personal opinion, not constructive criticism, and there is nothing to be learn from it.
Also, general and vague criticism, when negative, is particularly destructive because it is impossible to refute. It makes you doubt yourself. Think about it. That evil little voice in your head, the one that whispers, “your writing sucks!” – that is general, vague criticism! See how unhelpful it is? You don’t need other people in your life who mimic these kinds of voices.
Even when criticism is positive, if it is general and unspecific, it is still unhelpful. When well meaning critics say positive things about my work, like “I loved it!”, I don’t believe them if their praise is vague. If they can’t tell me what they liked about it or why, the pernicious little doubter in me starts to wonder, did they even read my story? Are they just saying they loved it because I’m their friend?
Whereas, if criticism is specific, whether it is positive or negative, I know it is real.
#2 Destructive criticism is personal
When someone is critiquing your story, they are critiquing your story, not you. Or at least, that’s what should be happening. Sadly, in many writing workshops geared for young people, this is not how it goes.
I will never forget my first college creative writing workshop. I turned in my first short story for the class to critique. It was “fiction”, however, it was also highly autobiographical, based on a traumatic event I’d experienced the summer before.
I had not told many people about this experience. The first place I aired it publicly was in this “fictional” story. I’ll never forget a certain student’s comment in class on my work:
“I thought the main character was a weak person, and the way she handled the whole incident was totally immature.”
The “main character” is ME! I wanted to shout, but dared not, as I sniffled the lump in my throat. Was I a weak person? Had I handled what happened immaturely?
Then, just as unhelpfully, another student asked me in front of the class, “so, was this story autobiographical?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” I answered, while turning red.
But he wouldn’t let up, “Come on, is it autobiographical or isn’t it?”
Now, this is the point at which a good writing teacher should have intervened. Actually, we were long past the point in which a good writing teacher should have intervened. But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and I felt forced to answer ‘yes.’ Then the class’ conversation turned to the topic of what had happened in my life, instead of my story!
Thankfully, none of the criticism I’ve received on my work since has ever been that hurtfully personal. But an incident of traumatic criticism early in life can do big damage. After I finished that writing workshop, I didn’t write anything for a year, and didn’t show my writing to anyone for five years. I’m not blaming that on the student critics in my college creative writing class, because, ultimately, I take full responsibility. But those critiques were not at all helpful.
If a critic critiques you, personally, instead of your writing, don’t tolerate it. Criticism should never become a character attack.
Some day, I want to teach a college creative writing workshop. I have all kinds of ideas on how it could be done well: eliminating ‘Creative Writing 101’ and instead breaking it down into targeted courses by genre and type of writing, breaking up students into small groups that can get to know each other and trust each other, rather than critiquing with the whole class at large, and giving the students time to work on and polish a story till at least second draft status before turning it in for critique.
“The creative writing workshop” is an artificial construct created on college campuses. It does not at all reflect the ‘real world’ of publishing, from my few brushes with it so far. The ‘real world’ of writing can be harsh too, but at least it isn’t personal.
#3 Destructive criticism gets nit picky over grammar and spelling too soon, at the expense of content, character and plot.
Often, my writing classmates’ critiques were just a laundry list of typos, spelling errors and grammar mistakes. Now, there is no excuse for turning in a work littered with errors. I’ve learned a lot since those early days about proofreading. However, proofreading is something you do in a final draft. If you don’t have your essential story arc, plot and characters established, it’s not the time to get bogged down in nit picky details. Save that for later.
Well, now that all that nastiness is out of the way, what is constructive criticism? Constructive criticism is perhaps the best thing that can happen to a writer. It is like the snick of a key in a lock. You knew something wasn’t working about your story, but you didn’t know what. The constructive criticism tells you what. Once you know what’s wrong, often a solution springs suddenly to mind. Now you can get to work revising.
So, what makes criticism constructive?
#1 Constructive criticism is for second drafts (or 3rd, 4th, 5th etc.. drafts) NOT for first drafts.
I think this is where many writing workshops fail and where many young writers get discouraged. First drafts are supposed to be crap. They’re the place where your brain gets to dump all of its ideas – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I read this quote on the excellent blog http://notforrobots.blogspot.com/
“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”
– Jane Smiley
First you just have to get it all out there and then see what you have. You don’t have to show the first draft to anyone. It may not be ready to be shown. It may be an unreadable mess that only makes sense to you. Later, when it’s been organized, polished and refined, other people’s opinion may be helpful, but at this stage they probably aren’t.
2. Constructive Criticism is specific
I recently finished the second draft of the paranormal romance novella, and showed it to my trusted “writer buddy” friend, whom I meet with weekly. She gave it a thorough, thoughtful read and went through it, paragraph by paragraph, with me, commenting on the specifics of each particular scene.
But, since we’re talking about being specific here, let me give some examples of what specific comments look like (as opposed to vague).
Using an example of a story about vampires, a vague comment would be:
“The scene where the main character bit her boss didn’t feel believable.”
(There’s really nothing you can do with that. Except feel like you suck as a writer – no pun intended)
But an example of specific criticism could be:
“ This is such a dramatic scene, but it feels like it needs to be drawn out more. How does she lap up the blood? She’s not just drinking blood for the first time, but her boss’s blood. Does she grab his hand? Rip his glove off? Is she on her knees licking it off the podium or the floor? What do her colleagues say? It might be helpful to have a scene with her colleagues, or just one colleague (a friend?) before this scene so we can get a heightened sense of the embarrassment and horror of what she’s done in front of them.”
When I searched the internet for examples of “constructive criticism” to use in this post, I found almost none, so had to use my own. This is telling. It’s not something that everybody knows how to do. When you find someone who knows how to do it well, hang on to them for dear life, because they are your writing’s best friend.
#3. Constructive Criticism balances positive and negative
If all a critiquer tells you is what you did wrong, it’s easy to feel pummeled – and it reinforces that evil little voice in your head that says ‘see?! You writing really does suck!”
Usually, there’s something about the story that’s working, working well. And it’s important that you don’t throw your writing “baby” out with the writing “bathwater”.
Also, positive criticism can be really helpful. If we understand what our readers like and most importantly why they like it, we can learn how to create more of these ‘good parts’.
Bottom line, getting critiqued, even from a trusted friend, can be nerve wracking (at least it is for me!) So listen to those positive things your reader is saying about you, as well as the negative.
When I gave my story to my best friend to read, I was so nervous, I couldn’t even look at her as her eyes scanned my pages. I asked in a quivering voice, quite seriously, “do you think it’s all just garbage, and I should throw it out and start over?”
Her response, “if I thought it was garbage, I wouldn’t have taken the time to read the whole thing thoroughly several times over and prepare a critique for you, would I?”
#4 Constructive criticism is asked for
This is important when we are the ones who are the critics, as most writers will at some point or another be called to be. Not everyone wants criticism. Not everyone is ready for it. Not everyone asked you for it. Don’t provide it, if you weren’t asked to. When someone shows me their writing or other creative work, I always ask, “Do you want feedback?” and “What kind of feedback would be helpful to you right now?”
Sometimes people just want to share what they’ve been working on with you, and don’t want any feedback at all. That’s valid. Some want feedback on plot and content. Others want you to go through it with a fine tooth comb looking for every error of spelling and grammar. If you’re looking for one, getting the other is not helpful.
Well, thankfully, I received some very constructive criticism on my novella, and am now hard at work on the 2nd draft! Yay!
Please post in the comments section – what criticism do you find “constructive”?