Sunday, July 31, 2011

10 Ways to Make Criticism Useful

If you want to write a blog and you don't want to be criticized, make it about criticism. Posts about "editing" and "techniques to becoming a better writer" all have the same sort of comments from readers at the end:

"This is a fantastic piece of advice. People will learn a lot from this. I was an idiot before," and then, "You know, I'm a starving writer who has a book coming out soon..."

Think I'm kidding? Type in "10 writing" on Google and look under anything that has a comment box at the end.

The assumption everyone can edit and that every piece of opinion is useful is a good belief. I think it's true. I find it hard to swallow that it's that easy to work with whatever they gave you. Most of the time, in fact, criticism seems so arbitrary/vague/picky/"clever" that it's hard to tell what the reader actually has a problem with.

On the rare occasions the author finally gets some honest feedback, he doesn't want to waste the opportunity. Here are ten tips that can tell you what to do with advice you don't know what to do with.
If It's Vague
She said, "It's good."

She doesn't mean it. It's possible that she will mean it; it may be good, it may be bad, but she doesn't mean it now.
She doesn't know yet. She does know if she liked it or not. She knows how she feels about it, but when the author asked, she literally forgot. Only for an instant. It's an automatic, knee-jerk response. She either doesn't know what to say, doesn't want to hurt feelings, she doesn't know what he's looking for, or she hasn't really digested it. If he can, the author should ask specifics. "What did you think about the love scene?" He could also wait a day and ask again. If she presses the "It's good," it means she didn't like it at all. If she starts talking then the author can push her in the direction he thinks are the problem and gauge her opinion by her excitement versus reserved levels.
When further questioning isn't an option:
If he can't push it any further (it was a written review, anonymous, or a momentary chance) he must just throw it away. It doesn't say anything other than she didn't want to talk about it, or couldn't.

He says, "I didn't like the [dialogue]"
He doesn't have a taste for a part of it, and he won't tell you why. All he will say is he didn't like it. He didn't like it, the author should change it, it was "weird," etc. Giving examples as to what he may not like about it, "Is it not believable?" "Cliche?" "Are the characters unlikeable?" "Is it too expositional?" may introduce him to his own reasoning. He may just not know.
When further questioning isn't an option:
If he is unwilling to go into more details, it may mean that he doesn't want to be there or doesn't like the author, or feels in competition with her. To use a straightforward vague statement such as "I didn't like this," the author can, before reading it again, think as to what
she personally does not like about her dialogue. Then, when rereading it, she can pay very close attention to the portions he wasn't a fan of. Of course, that leads to Quantum Reading, when, now that she's looking for something, she can't be objective about it.

Taking it to someone else and having them look it over (not always a viable option as everyone knows how hard it is to get the first person to read it) can lend some light on the subject. If he says something about it without being told what it is he's looking for, the author can further questions with him. If he doesn't mention it, she can then tell the first person's opinion and see what he's talking about.
If It's Arbitrary/Picky
He assumes and sees only what he assumed.

This is something writers start to recognize after talking with others in the field for a long time. A peer (fellow writer, editor, agent, avid reader, professor) recognizes the typical pitfalls of Amature Writing: it's very long, it's trying to sound smart, the author's in love with the main character, etc. This peer will then be prepared that the author's "amateur work" will be a victim of the same sort of things. It then does not matter what the author actually has done, the reader will then only give the already assumed feedback and will not be convinced to diverge onto anything else. This mentality only comes when the reader doesn't respect the author. The problem when the peer has committed to this view is 1) It may not be true, 2) Even if it is true, there are other facets he could talk about (maybe even more important things).

If the author doesn't recognize this is what is happening then he will not need/be able to debate whether or not he needs to look at this.

If he does realize this may be what the reader is doing, he needs to ask himself, "Did I think that was true before?" "Do I think it's probably true now?" It all becomes based on self-evaluation.

She'll never let it go.

This is what I call the "English Teacher Complex" only for the reason that most people have had this experience in an English class. (See The Teacher's Pet Peeve). She has three comments on the student's paper and they all say, "Get rid of the 'you.'" The author already knew of this rule because the editor/teacher always says the same thing. He wrote it despite (or to spite) knowing this. Now, should he cleanse it from the paper?

He clearly can't just ask her. She'd always say yes. Most people would just assume yes. Which leads to the first question he can ask himself: What does it do for the work? He could always fight it, and if it is just her opinion and stubbornness, then it doesn't matter if he keeps it. This of course lends itself to the decision of Picking His Battles. He shouldn't keep it unless he finds it important enough to fight about.

If his concern is strictly the quality of the work with no bias on one side or the other, he can use these techniques.

First is What are Your Concerns? If the problems are that his story is supposed to be tense and action packed and its very casual, and she wants him to take out all the "reallys" then, yes, that would benefit him. If his movie has no climax and the editor is complaining that there's a scene in which he wrote "a description that couldn't be shown" then it's probably not what he should focus on.

Second is to pretend the story is the worst piece of crap in the world. If it is, will this correction legitimately make it better? He has a lot of saids in there. Assuming that, since it is so very, very terrible, he cannot get away with it like a "good" writer could, then he should probably change it. If it's a seven page story and he used said twice, it's unlikely that that's what's holding the work back.

Third is to pretend that he is freakin' Shakespeare, the story is a published work, and it is polished beyond all belief. Would it be a comment that someone would make on it then? (See Draft Eye). No one complains that
The Hobbit has two titles, but they may whine that their peer's short story does.

He wants to brag.

Stephan King says that criticism is often not about you. The reality is that when someone is talking it's not about you, or even what it looks to be about. When a critic wants to brag about his knowledge, his ability to write, or how much better than he is than the author, it is actually the easiest form of criticism to translate from words to action.

Essentially the author can tell when someone is bragging based on
the lack of references. My friend once received a review a whole page long just about how "dragons don't eat virgins." There was no "suggestions" in the entire thing. He didn't even hint at that he wanted the story changed so that the virgin wasn't being sacrificed. He didn't say why the plot point was a problem, why he didn't like it, and, in the end, didn't really mention the work once. It was clearly just him on a catharsis to indicate how much more of a fantasy lover he was.

Though the criticism cannot easily be used to make the work
better, it can indicate how "real" readers are going to react. Twilight wouldn't be Twilight if the vampires didn't sparkle, but that is the problem that a good portion of the "haters" go on rants about.
6. He doesn't like the subject matter.
Tough. Subject matter is one of the most prevalent part in a work's desirability, but there is no such thing as a story that everyone will enjoy. "Common denominator" is the closest you get, and no one wants that. It's just not her thing, accept it. Take her criticism with that in mind.

She doesn't have comprehension of subject matter.

A student wrote a story about zombies. The character gets bitten. He doesn't tell anyone and he leaves at the end. The writer's classmate did not understand why he left. For those of you who are not zombie fans, it's a popular idea that being bitten turns a victim into the undead.

How much explanation should the story have?

This is a huge debate amongst writers. Some people that it should explain everything. I say that's treating your audience like idiots. Some say know your audience. That's hard.
Twilight and Harry Potter have similar audiences, Twilight and Interview with the Vampire do too. Harry Potter and Interview with the Vampire do not.

It's pretty much up to the writer. (And the publisher.) He will have to ask himself, how important is it that it is told? How much time will it take to explain it? How much editorializing will that mean? Will it make the audience feel like that writer doesn't know much about the subject? (It's possible) And yes, even, who's the target group?
If It's "Clever"
He's trying to show off.
The only problem with this is that it's hard to get some sense out of them. The critic imagines himself some sort of "Simon" and he's attempting to be funny over helpful. A great example of this is when, in a creative writing class, a student said to another, "You need to take your thesaurus and throw it out." This was mostly amusing because he actually wanted her to do the opposite. She had started the majority of her sentences with,
"He watched her as..." "He saw her as..." "He followed her as..." And by majority, I mean three. He found it repetitive and wanted her to vary it up. After a lot of explanation, the class finally understood what the hell he was talking about.

The very simplest way to deal with this is to say, "What?"
When further questioning isn't an option:
Make it into a problem instead of a suggestion. "Throwing out your thesaurus," in the literal way wouldn't benefit it. Using distracting words might be the issue. Using unusual words may be the problem. Rereading it with word choice in mind could have drawn out the obvious repetitiveness, although, when people aren't clear and to the point, it is just a grab bag.
If It's Offensive
He's is in Competition

Offensive criticism is the hardest to use beneficially. For one, the writer doesn't want to. People can be offended even when the critic is trying hard to be nice. But, more often than not, their reviewer is not even even bother to keep it playful. If it's a person who considers himself a writer, he will want the author to be bad at her job. It makes him better in comparison.

These types of criticisms are both the most helpful and the most useless at the same time. They have the propensity to be highly critical, pointing out miniscule things that no one would notice, pushing the writer to try harder and remove all flaws, really driving the artist to do his best. On the other hand, they
are things that no one would notice.

See above in the arbitrary rules. Essentially, that's what any competitive advice is. It's biased, but that doesn't mean it can't be useful. To figure out how to use it, the author needs to recognize if it's important or not. She can do that by asking herself the same questions when dealing with picky advice.

She has personal issues.
The editor hates you. She wants the author to fail, or she doesn't care either way. She's not bothering to be at all pleasant or nice because she doesn't think that's an important part of critiquing. Everything she says is extremely blunt or downright rude.

Take everything at face value. When she says, "don't ever use the word 'just,'" it means, don't use it
here. She will act like everything is an obvious mistake and not an opinion, and the way she speaks to you is indicative she thinks you don't know what you're doing.

When she says something especially rude, you can always ask, "Can you be more specific?" The especially insulting criticisms are always vague or absolute. The response will be more understandable.

"Don't ever use the word, 'you.'"

"Can you be more specific?"

"More specific than what? Don't ever do it?"

"Can you show me where I use it and tell me what it does to my sentence?"

If she really is just being blunt instead of actually a bitch, she should clarify to the best of her ability. If she insults you directly, see competitive above.

Also, unless you actually think she's helping you, don't go back to her. Even if it is the best piece of advice in the world, if you can't use it to the fullest because you feel bad, it's not worth it. Learning to take criticism and being able to use it are two very different things.

(These, of course, are pieces of advice for dealing with controlled drafts. Agents and publishers usually get the final say.)