Sunday, June 15, 2014

If Interpreting Constructive Criticism was Math

You know that thing that girls do? Where they sit there and complain about something and then reject any solution that comes their way? You know that thing that guys do? Where they listen to a girl complain about something and, instead of the obligatory, “You’re right; they’re wrong. Assholes!” he actually tries to solve the problem?

Well, pretend I’m the girl in the situation, and pretend that I might be the worst perpetrator of this behavior. Pretend for a split second that I might chose not to be empathetic to why he’s trying to solve my problem and that maybe, just maybe, I have a snide comment in store for such an occasion. A stretch, I know. Just go with it.

“If you don’t have the formula, I don’t want the answer.”

Whenever people give out advice, they often focus on obvious changes you can do for yourself, giving you the answer, but not particularly going into the why or how. When it’s writing advice, they talk about what you can do to solve the problem, but don’t go into the all-important formula of why you should solve the problem, or even what the problem is. Often they assume you’d agree, and so really only need advice on implementation.

Every author has had a, “What the hell are you talking about?” moment, in which someone gave them advice that seemed inane, over-simplified, or just plain wrong. Or, in many cases, the advice might look sensible, but you still feel you’re missing something; why do they care so much? Why is this the first thing they pointed out? Making the change would be pretty low on your priority list, so you must be missing something if they think it needs to be fixed now over everything else that could be wrong. A person might appear like they know exactly what they’re talking about—you feel they’re on to something—but the actual advice comes off as like they’re missing the point.

When the writer doesn’t understand a criticism, it’s because there are too many  unanswered variables, and the solution may not be correct. By clarifying these variables in the formula, the author can then determine if the solution is correct (for him.) In many situations, I’ve found that the formula—how the critic got to the answer he did—has a lot of value to it, even when the conclusion doesn’t.

What are those variables?

The difference between

The experience reading the work…


The expected/desired experience


What changes should be made.

Or, if we’re going to be literal about the formula thing:

“X” is the assumption the reader makes about what a good book should look like. Sometimes it can be simple—“It should be entertaining, not boring”—or it could be a cultural consistency—“There should be an exciting climax close to the end of the book”—or it could be something specific to the individual—“All good stories have romance in them.” This assumption may not be rational, may be unique to the individual, and the reader may not even be aware of it, which is one of the reasons the variables aren’t just obvious.

“Y” is how the story actually made the book react. “I was bored,” “I hated this character,” “I laughed the whole time,” “I was confused,” “I was exhausted,” etc. Many times a “problem” (Z) arrives just because X and Y don’t match.

Which means you might have:

Books shouldn’t be boring – This book was boring = You should make it less boring.

This advice, which someone might actually say like this, is useless. The trick is to be as specific as possible and determine an equation better than X ≠ Y.

(You’ll note that you might not agree with “X” here. We’ll get back to that.)

In order to be specific as possible, the writer has to take what he is being told and fill in the blanks. If the author has two of the variables, he can figure out the specifics of the third.

Y probably equals something like, “I found protagonist to be selfish and I hated him for it.”


X = Someone should have shot him.

 Or, best…

Z = Delete some characters.


Z = Have a constant narrator to establish a connection.


Z = Spend more time with one character.


Z = Make each POV switch have more tension in the beginning.


Z = Leave more cliffhangers.

The reason why the last one is often most useful is because it gives the author options, but really clarifies why he needs to make the change at all. Which means he doesn’t have to take the singular solution offered to him, but, more importantly, taking only that one solution probably won’t do the trick. Meaning if I only tell you, Z = cut down on characters, you might not know which ones to cut out. Or the reader might be wrong, and that’s not really why he’s bored. Or maybe there’s a lot more to his boredom than just that.

The problem with constructive criticism is that many people give you this:

X – Y = Get rid of adverbs.

There’s no self-check for that. The idea is, often enough, that if you have the answer, you don’t need the formula. But that’s problematic on several levels.

One, no author should blindly trust the criticism given to him, no matter who’s doing the criticism. Yes, sometimes it’s required to take a leap of faith, and sometimes, depending on the time restraints and the context of the advice, just making a change and trusting in someone is necessary. But it’s not the best case scenario.

Two, like math, giving someone the answers doesn't enable them to do it for themselves. They are now dependent on the outside force to keep giving the answers instead of being able to use the "lesson" later on.

He's also not able to "check his work." The author doesn’t actually know if the formula is accurate, or, even, accurate for him. People can make mistakes coming to their conclusions. If he sees their "work" he can find where the "mistake" was made.

For instance:

How I think the story should be ≠ How you think the story should be.

Or, more importantly…

How I think the story should be ≠ How the book’s actual audience will think the story should be.



Now when the author knows what X is, it’s pretty obvious if he agrees with the critique or not. The problem is when he can’t figure out what X is.

X – Y = You should delete the scene where they declare their love for each other.

Sometimes that’s all the author gets.

If the formula is

Then the author would immediately recognize that, “That’s not my personal morals,” so the suggested change won’t be fixing any problems he is concerned with, even though I'm completely correct about that being the reason why I will not like his book. Yes, the author might care about the reader being pissed, but in the same vein, he wants other readers to be happy as well. It's up to him to determine how common that expectation will be among the audience he wants.

Most readers want books to promote their morals, but not all readers have the same morals. It’s common for someone to request a change to suit her better, not suit the book better, or even take into consideration that promoting her morals will piss another reader off just as much.

BUT, it's important to remember that the author might agree with the critic; he might realize, “I am promoting premarital sex, and I don’t want to do that.” For this reason, critics should always voice their issues knowing it might be a “just me,” thing, so that the author can choose if he cares or not. Constructive critiques are to make the author aware of his effect on his readers so he can make informed decisions, not to make the decisions for him.

For him to understand whose morals he cares about, what reactions he doesn’t want, he needs to be fully informed on what those morals and reactions are. If all he has to go off of is “delete the scene,” he might not make a connection of “moral issues against premarital sex.” And it’s common for reader to not confess why she cares. Many people to gloss over their true feelings in a critique. Admitting your personal tastes and convictions can open you up for attack. Plus, it can feel like bad-form to spend a bunch of time talking about yourself and your feelings. And many times a critic knows her arguments, while true for her, aren’t necessarily convincing for others.

“I don’t like teenagers having sex,” can easily be met with, “Well, no one else has that problem.” So, instead, a person will find a reason that is more universal, despite it not really being the issue.

“The love scene came off as insincere and childlike, the characters being immature kids and not a love that lasts the ages.”

Now imagine trying to fix that scene when what the critic secretly meant was simply: “Teenagers who have sex are na├»ve and stupid.”

It’s not that she would be lying about her feelings—she does find teenage love to be flighty—but when the author hears, “Your characters are written as immature, their love is portrayed unrealistically,” instead of “I can’t believe two people their age would know what true love is,” he might start focusing on alternative solutions (“Is my dialogue bad?”) and completely miss the actual issue (their age).

Back to the formula, the second place where the logic might fall apart is in the “what I experienced” stage. Obviously, the experience that one person has might not be the experience another person has. It’s actually the easiest question to ask, but the hardest answer to get.

How will most of your audience react to something?

This is where the whole “constructive criticism is the sum of its parts” concept comes from. It’s difficult to look at each piece of individual criticism and have a decent idea of what needs to change. Mostly because everyone does have different expectations and reactions, but also because communicating an artistic experience is complicated and rarely comes out exactly as the speaker intended.

Which is to say:

for one person, might be:

for someone else.

But you probably knew that.

It all seems so obvious when you have more than one variable answered, but when all you have is the solution, it becomes a thousand times more difficult. If you don’t realize that you reader interprets sarcasm as being mean, and all you know is she thinks he’s an ass, then there are a whole bunch of different ways you might tackle the issue, none of them involving getting rid of her sarcasm.

If you have more than one variable filled out, it’s more likely that the author will be able to logic out what the reader actually wants from him. Many spoken solutions aren’t specific enough to be used efficiently. Sometimes even the most accurate advice might not be usable if the reader oversimplified because there is more than one way to implement the solution, and not all will actually address the reader’s issue.

For example:

X – Y = Delete some characters. (Most commonly phrased as, “You have too many characters.”)

Might be:


Critics often assume the author will see the problem when given a suggested change, or even when they just point out the general area it exists (the dreaded “?” anyone?) This is actually respectful in a way; the reader believes the author has the taste, just needs the details pointed out—He’ll recognize a problem once it is placed before him.

But this assumption is exactly where miscommunication occurs. When assuming the author has the same priorities and the same experiences, it’s logical to think he’ll see where the critique’s coming from. However, no two perceptions are exactly alike. While the author may agree with what the critic is actually saying, (likely, in fact) he may not  be able to understand what the critic is actually saying because he they're starting from two completely separate assumptions.

Understanding criticism is about knowing what you don’t understand. Being able to fill in the variables enables the author to get into the shoes of his critic and really figure out what he’s being told.

When an author is given a response he doesn’t know how to implement, or if he even should, all he needs to do is answer the three questions:

What did the reader think should happen? What actually happened for them? And, after finding he does, in fact, agree it should have happened, and it won’t happen that way for most: How can I make it happen for them?

Once the writer knows the questions, the answers are far more easy to find.