Terrible Writing Advice – Chapter 23: Giving Criticism

In the battle for pop culture only mean internet comments can turn the tide! Learn only the best tactics to employ against content creators as the eternal battle between critic and artist rages on with no end in sight.

My Honest Thoughts on Giving Criticism

Giving good criticism actually requires a lot more effort than taking criticism. Don’t get me wrong, taking criticism can really hurt (or be really funny if the critic is way off the mark or goes off on a bizarre tangent), but all an author has to do when taking criticism is to basically shut up and take it then decide whether to make changes or not. Giving thoughtful critique is a lot more difficult because it takes time to really dissect a story and diagnose what works and what doesn’t. This is why the majority of critics just stick to pointing out a story’s obvious flaws because surface level flaws are the easiest to see. The surface level flaws are also the least helpful for a writer trying to improve their craft.

Truly useful feedback will accomplish a number of things. When I give critique, I try to divide my feedback into three core components: what works, what doesn’t, and petty nitpicks that only I care about. A lot of critics never point out what’s working about a story which is essential because writers sometimes edit out what’s working if they only get negative feedback. I almost edited out Hikari (one of my book’s important secondary characters) but my beta readers argued me out of it when I brought it up in a conversation.

It also helps to consider the subjective nature of taste. My writer’s group really likes romance in their stories even though I have very little interest in stories with romance as the central premise. I still try to give feedback to help them hone their romance scenes because I know they are trying to reach a different audience than I am. That’s okay. I’m bothered by a character loading a clip into their pistol rather than a magazine (a magazine is a metal box that contains the ammunition and is what most modern firearms use where as clips are used in older rifles like the M1 Garand). Most people will not care. Characters using the wrong weapon terminology is not as important as the ten paragraph flashback that interrupts the gunfight. That’s not to say that things like this shouldn’t be brought up, but just that everything should be kept in perspective. Fix core issues first, highlight story strengths for preservation second, and then point out petty nitpicks. Be specific. Use examples and try to explain why these hurt the story. Don’t simply chastise, but try to offer the writer a new perspective on their own work. Critique is at its most useful when it allows a writer to look upon their story from a different perspective.

I’ve learned that a lot of feedback points out symptoms rather than the disease itself. Often when I receive critique, it takes time to figure out exactly what the core problem the feedback was pointing out. This is why I try to encourage those giving critiques to try to hone their analytical abilities in order to diagnose the exact problem rather than pointing out symptoms. “This part was boring,” is useful feedback, but can cover a wide range of issues. “The pace is slow,” is more specific, but still could have a multitude of causes. “The character introduced in this scene is flat and could be why the scene feels slow and boring,” is much more specific and gives the author a better starting point.

Got all that? Well the next part could prove even more tricky. Writers tend to be sensitive introverts and have a bad habit of not being able to handle criticism well. One shouldn’t just give criticism without first considering how to sell it to the writer. Fail to properly pitch feedback and the writer may miss the point of the feedback.

Try to avoid saying stuff like “If I was writing the story” or “You should write it like this.” This makes it personal which will only put the author on the defensive. “The quality seems to dip in this part of the story and makes the work appear inconsistent.” works a lot better than “Why did you write this part so poorly?” Suggesting things an author could “try” will likely be better received than just straight-up telling an author what to do. Focusing on the story and avoiding the word “you” or even mentioning the author keeps it impersonal and will lower the odds of the author getting defensive. Try to remember that the author gets the final call and they are under no obligation to take any feedback if they choose. Each writer’s journey is unique and all authors eventually have to learn to hone and trust their instincts. Try to respect their wishes. Some authors get offended at the mere mention of adding something to their story. That’s fine. Give them the feedback they requested and move on. Be diplomatic. I try to sandwich my negative comments between praise. I start with what I think works in the story before moving on to what I think does not work followed by what I believe to be my subjective nitpicks. I then finish the critique by pointing out the things I really liked about the story.

And finally, don’t be a jerk. The world is full of swollen egos and mean comments. There is more than enough bile to go around. Tearing things down is fun. Tearing down people is even more satisfying. But as I mentioned in the video, we all get a turn being criticized even those of us who don’t make content. When it comes time to give feedback try to remember what it felt like to be on the receiving end. Even if the content you are critiquing is garbage, remember that a person made it. I believe that one should never surrender the high ground and remain even handed in their critique even if the author is a terrible person who deserves nothing but scorn. You don’t have to be kind, but people will take you more seriously if you are fair.