Friday, April 24, 2015

How to Improve Your Criticism Experience

I think all feedback sessions should be done inside a bouncy house. One with a dragon face on it, preferably. There should be cotton candy, laughter, and vodka. You should go away from it with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

No, for once, I’m not being sarcastic.

Well, maybe about the bouncy house thing—I don't have enough money to buy a cup of coffee let alone rent one of those any time I need someone's opinion.

But, there are two goals to keep in mind when you are getting criticism:

1. Getting the information you need.

2. Having fun.

Now, of course, it won’t always be fun, and it can’t be said that if you’re not having fun, it’s a failure. But really you should never accept that it is a miserable and insulting process. It shouldn’t be. You should often enjoy it, and if you don’t, find how something to change until you do. It can be immensely fun, all you have to do is try.

In order to make the most out of criticism session, there are several behaviors you can have that will create a fun and efficient environment.

If you’re the author…

1. Don’t worry about impressing people.

So, obviously this is about not trying to prove you’re a good writer, but about trying to get good feedback. It, however, also includes not trying to look like you’re good at taking criticism.

I often recommend seeing your critique partners as robots—computers—mindless machines that are without judgment, only spewing out information. When you’re not concerned with proving yourself right, you’re more likely to really listen to what they have to say and come to a better conclusion about the usefulness of it. When your goal is to make everyone impressed, you’re more likely to block out and argue with any inclination that they don’t think you’re a good writer. It’s easier to be objective when you see the session as a means to an ends and not take anyone’s opinion too seriously.

As for acting humble and proving you’re good natured enough to take criticism well, you’re more likely to not say what you need, as well as encourage poor criticism. (Just because it’s blunt and uncensored doesn’t necessarily make it the truth.)

Sometimes you’re going to have to have tough love, be firm, and ask questions. Open communication is the best means to a successful and enjoyable experience, but critics can be just as sensitive as authors. You have to be able to speak your mind without fear of having someone feel like you’re being defensive. It’s going to happen. Whenever you don’t immediately agree with someone, there’s a chance they will take offense, yet not letting them know you’re skeptical won’t help them establish their point. Always consider if you’re being defensive, but don’t let that stop you from being honest.

2. Speak softly but carry a big stick.

Go into the situation assuming the best out of people. When in doubt, they’re trying to help you. Always be respectful, kind, and engaging at first, but never let people run you over.

The first person who gets ripped apart in any group is the nice one. It’s not the worst manuscript, it’s not the jackass, it’s the person who looks like she won’t flip a bitch when you tell her something unsavory. The problem is this criticism isn’t necessarily good. It tends to be cathartic for the speaker, about proving how much they know. It isn’t just where they feel comfortable expressing themselves, but fulfilling their base needs. You want people to have to think about their words, to be precise, and to only say what really needs to be said, not to try and demoralize you. People who chose their words carefully are more likely to say what the mean, rather than what they want to say.

Even if it is good criticism, you are never under any obligation to let someone treat you cruelly. You are in charge and get to decide how someone can talk to you.

Remembering, of course, that the ultimate goals are to encourage them to tell you what they really think, and for both of you to have fun, choose your attitude to achieve those things. Don’t let someone ruin your fun because they get a kick out of insulting  you.

Start off by listening intently, being energetic, making it obvious when you agree with something, showing a person you respect their opinion whether or not you think it’s the right option, but then, when someone crosses a line, be sure to be firm and let them know that you’re not going to just roll over.

Whether it be that they spent half of your time talking about one typo (which can happen), or they keep pushing an opinion (even one that you’ve already agreed with), or they are actively saying something to prove their own superiority, it’s important to say something. Be respectful about it, but stern: “I will take it into consideration when I read it again. For now, let’s move on.” If they directly insult you—“This is garbage.”—just tell them the truth: “You think that’s an effective way to tell me that? If you’re not going to bother with diplomacy, then I think we’re done here.”

When they argue, stand firm. “I’m just being honest.”

“There are many ways to be honest, and you chose the one that helps me the least. So I’m sorry, but I have other options of people who are much more capable of expressing themselves in useful ways.”

They may start attacking your character, calling you defensive, telling you you need thicker skin, but don’t back down. Authors can be defensive egomaniacs, but as long as you remain respectful while being firm, you have every right to ask not to be talked to a certain way.

3. Actually be honest.

The problem with honesty is we’re not always aware of what the truth is. It takes years of practice becoming self-aware, but that self-awareness is worth it.

The more you understand your actual reasons for making a literary choice, getting mad, not agreeing with advice, etc. the more you can express those feelings without being offensive.

Always be honest about what’s going on.

If you only want positive comments, admit that. Nothing’s worse than being asked for feedback when someone really just wants to show you what they’ve done. If you want feedback, but know you’re sensitive, explain that to them—“I want you to be thorough, but try to be nice.”—If your gut is telling you a criticism is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it, telling them, “There’s something that bothers me about making that change, but I’m not sure why,” can open up communication and help you and them discuss the issue until you do come to a conclusion.

Most importantly though, you need to admit when you don’t understand something or don’t even see it at all.

Whenever someone has said something about my book, “You need to set up the scene more,” and I really didn’t see in the least, “I thought I set the hut up great!” I will tell them that. It’s difficult because it looks like you’re a narcissist who can’t take criticism, but in all of those cases—honestly whenever I’ve said this—it was revealed that my interpretation of the criticism wasn’t what the critic actually meant. “Oh, you set up the hut perfectly! I meant the world. Like are we in outer space?”

You need to trust yourself and assume if you don’t see what they say the book is doing, it’s likely you’re misconstruing what they actually mean.

Try not to sound defensive, but tell the truth. Don’t refrain from admitting your actual feelings. You should always have an idea of where a person is coming from, and if you absolutely don’t see it, you need to tell them that.

4. You don’t need to prove anyone wrong.

The most successful mentality to have is that the writer is right until proven wrong. This isn’t because that’s the truth—writers are wrong all of the time. It’s just that, one, their mistakes have a natural continuity that an outsider’s mistake won’t, making the outsider’s more egregious and forced. Two, even the greatest advice will be implemented poorly if someone doesn’t actually understand it. Three, argument and debate is how we understand anything. And four, the critics don’t always agree with each other.

Rarely will a criticism be obviously right or wrong. Usually, if it is, it’s like a spelling error. But more abstract opinions, like the likability of a character and the importance of the likability of a character, will be a lot more complicated.

In order to understand, argument is important. The critic tells his side of the story and the writer, like a wise king, listens. He will argue his opinion back, but only in one circumstance; he thinks the critic has a point that he’s not getting. If, however, the writer knows for a fact the critic is closed-minded and wrong, he does not need to say anything because, in the end, he has veto power. It really doesn’t matter what the critic actually thinks. The writer’s opinion is the only one that matters. It’s just that the writer should be open minded about it and try to formulate the correct one by listening and discussing.

Never argue to prove yourself right because you’re already right. Or, at least, you’re the one who gets to decide to implement a change. Only argue to come up with the true opinions of other people.

5. When in doubt, stick a pin in it.

You’re going to get a lot of feedback that you’re not going to know if you should take or not. This is hard, especially in the beginning. You want to make your book the best that it can be and quickly. But you won’t always be able to do so, and the choice can sometimes be so overwhelming that you’ll want to just shut down.

Just remember that most criticism is flexible. It’s rarely a make it or break it deal, and a lot of times it’s connected to other aspects. You make a seemingly non-related change and the problem solves itself. More importantly, if it is important, someone else will say it better, later.

Don’t try to expedite the process. Look through the criticism, find the stuff that is obviously right or wrong, dissect the rest, and then leave it alone. Don’t obsess on finding the truth in one person’s feedback, but rather the common denominator of most.

If you’re the critic…

1. Make it all about you.

Seemingly contradictory to what one might think, making criticism personal and refraining from getting into the minds of others, can help not only to convey the truth, but soften the blow.

Instead of accusing the author of making a mistake or telling her what to do, reflect on your reactions and personal tastes.

It’s not, “It was boring,” but rather, “I was bored.” Not, “You contradicted yourself here,” but “I was confused by this contradiction.”

Don’t speculate on what other people might think. “I understood it. I just don’t think other people will.” For one thing, the author can guess just as well as you can. And if she’s in her own audience, then it often means she can do it better. Secondly, you might actually be projecting yourself onto someone else, which confuses things. If you had a hard time understanding it, then that’s what the author cares about. If you did actually understand it, then it’s likely the author doesn’t care what you think other people will get or not.

The worst people to deal with are those who think, “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking.” But most people who get feedback know that critics don’t agree with each other very often. There’s a lot of inconsistency. Usually, there’s a connection, but in order to find that connection, the critic has to be clear about his perspective. When Critic A speculates on what Critic B thinks, instead of explaining what Critic A thinks, and Critic B speculates on what Critic C thinks, those speculations will usually be untrue, based on the reality we think should be rather than the reality that is. (Think how Hollywood sees their demographics and targets their audiences.)

True story:

Critic A, who is an adult, tells you that kids don’t have the attention span and need more explanation.

Critic B, who is a child, says he loves that your book doesn’t talk down to him.

Contradiction, Critic A’s viewpoint is thrown out.

BUT, when Critic A says, “I could not figure out what the room looked like because this paragraph was so confusing,” you find that Critic B agrees. He doesn’t know what the room looked like either.

Same commentary, but the Critic A was personal, pointing out a problem he actually had rather than speculating on a problem that might occur from it. The personal criticism was more likely to hold truth for someone else later than the speculative criticism.

2. Be specific.

“I was bored.”


“I wasn’t invested.”


“I wasn’t invested because I didn’t like the character.”


“The moment I realized Susie was cheating on Jimmy, I stopped liking her. I not only wasn’t excited about her getting the big role in the play, I kind of didn’t want her to.”

This helps the author understand, is less offensive, and, most importantly, less arguable. “It was boring,” is easy to deny and feels hurtful. The more specific it is, the more likely the author will see where you’re coming from. She doesn’t see it as boring, but she could very well see why Susie isn’t likable.

It also gives her more options. She could cut the cheating all together, or she might realize that Susie needs redemption. She might decide that she’s supposed to be unlikable, but needs to make it clearer. There’s more to work with when the reader is as specific as possible.

3. Focus on the most important first.

Rewriting is easy. Picking on word-choice and grammar, commenting on poetry and turn a phrase… Especially when you’re not that far in the manuscript, it’s a simple go to.

But it’s not really helpful. For one thing, when a critic attempts to tell the writer how to write, the writer loses his voice. More importantly, when a critic says, “That’s not how I would say it,” the writer’s going to find twenty other people who wouldn’t say it the first critic’s way either. Whenever I receive a manuscript with line edits, (excluding typos and spelling errors), it is completely inconsistent with the other line edits I’ve received. Everyone wants to change words, just not the same ones.

Then you factor in how much a manuscript will evolve as it goes through its drafts, that the sentences you achingly tried to make perfect for a writer will be deleted or altered. It’s an editing process for later versions, when the structure of the manuscript is more concrete.

When editing, really consider the reason—the main cause behind you not loving it—and discuss that first. It could be the lack of a hook, an investment problem, a meta-issue, a break in continuity, or simply that the setting/plot isn’t your kind of book.

Look for what’s most important first. It is only after their pacing, plot, characterization is good that you should start focusing on the fact that this word is “distracting.”

If they fix everything you tell them and it still hasn’t changed anything about your opinion, it’s probably not the most useful advice.

And if you realize that the main reason you don’t like it is because it’s not your kind of book, let them know that, and then move on to the next important thing. At least give them understanding why you’re not excited.

4. Your main goal is to be listened to.

So, because the critic is doing the author a favor, it is considered the author’s job to sit there and listen while the speaker gives his uncensored opinion. Then the author thanks him and they move on.

That’s not what you want. Your goal is to be listened to—not just politely—but actually heard. You want to find a means to get through to them. Yes, you might not actually give a shit if she truly hears you or not, but whenever someone does focus on being persuasive and clear, the better the session goes. If we leave it strictly to the author to force herself to understand, the session goes worse. But, if the critic tries to be understood, tries to be heard, and then the author tries to hear, everything works better.

Argument creates understanding. It doesn’t have to be mean or hostile, but both parties need to be able to speak their minds and honestly admit why they don’t agree. The more the critic tries to get the writer to understand, obviously, the more likely she will understand.

Consider that your primary goal is to express yourself and make decisions accordingly.

Try not to hurt their feelings. Even though this isn’t always possible, both parties will benefit by showing respect. Try to say what you really mean in a way that makes sense to them. Don’t take offense to questions (even if they are being dickholes), just attempt to answer them as clearly as possible. And stand by your point. Sometimes, even if their vision is what you want to focus on, it helps to have some resistance, to hear the devil’s advocate. It doesn’t help to be too malleable.

There’s going to be a lot of room for misinterpretation and disagreement, so conversation is important.

If you find yourself in a position where you don’t want to help them or have them listen to you (because they’re being a dickhole) understand you can remove yourself from that situation. While when you agree to help, you should do the best job you can, there will come a point when you don’t want to help them, and then it’s perfectly fine to tell them to shove it. It’s just not a good idea to say you’re going to help them and do a terrible job at it.

5. Be honest.

In the same vein as being an honest writer, being honest is important as a critic, maybe even more so.

Make a point to say how you really feel. You don’t need to let your emotions dictate how you say it, but rather should choose your words carefully. Convey the real message, prioritize conveying the message, but don’t just be blunt and flippant and think it’s going to be successful. Focus on being clear over being clever. Often, being clever dilutes the true meaning. Also, be honest about your real opinions rather than saying what you feel should be true.

For instance, admit that you didn’t care if the little girl got crushed by a falling building, so that tense scene that is supposed to establish the heroic nature of the protagonist isn’t really all that tense. Even though you don’t want to say that you don’t care if the child gets crushed or not, it’s really why the beginning didn’t hook you, and they should know that.

If they made it a dog maybe…

Primarily, though, whenever you are in a feedback session, whenever trying to decide the best way to act, think about your two main goals. Get the information, make everyone have a good time. If you do that, you will end up giving people the right signals, and they too will be more encouraged to behave better.

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