How to Give (And Receive) Writing Criticism

When writers hear the word “criticism”, we run for the hills. Why? Because it scares us. We’ve poured so much into our books. We invest time, effort, and imagination into this assemblage of words on the page. When a writer gives a piece of our work to someone else to read, we in turn give them a part of us to analyze and scrutinize to their heart’s content. And that’s really scary.

But criticism, however unwelcome, is necessary and inevitable. We all need feedback on our writing in order to make it better. And sometimes, we’re asked to be the ones to give feedback to our fellow writers. That’s why I’m here, to help make your experience with giving and receiving criticism practically painless.

laptop computer typing

First, let’s distinguish between the two types of criticism. You’ve probably heard the terms “constructive” and “destructive” criticism, but can you tell the difference between them?

Constructive criticism is the type of criticism that gently points out flaws – but also praises positive aspects. If someone is offering positive criticism, they’ll give you feedback that is intended to help you grow in your writing. If they single out a couple of flaws, it’s to suggest a few areas in which you can improve. Constructive criticism would sound something like this:

I just read what you sent me! I love the general feeling of the scene, and it’s very suspenseful. However, I didn’t see a lot of how the main character feels about the decision he has to make. Maybe you could put in some inner conflict? I caught a few grammar errors, too, but I liked the villain’s dialogue.

Destructive criticism is a form of criticism that does nothing to help you to improve your story. If someone is giving you destructive criticism, they’ll point out every little flaw they can find (or make up), and they’ll never tell you anything good about your writing. They don’t really want to help you get better; they just want to complain. Destructive criticism goes along the lines of:

I just read what you sent me. I HATED it! Your main character is so bland and boring. I nearly fell asleep reading about him! Your villain is a joke. And not like the Joker. Just, like, a regular joke. A stupid one. Your grammar is horrible, and your plot makes no sense! If this were a book and I had bought it, I’d want my money back! You’re a TERRIBLE writer.

Although both examples were fabricated by me and were exaggerated to show contrast, they still provide a pretty good guideline to distinguishing between the two types of criticism. Constructive criticism builds up; destructive criticism tears down.

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between the two types of criticism, I’ll give you my advice for whether you’re giving – or receiving – criticism.

When you’re giving criticism:

Remember that the writer is entrusting you with something they dearly love. If you’re a writer yourself, this may not be hard to do. The writer has been working hard on their literary piece, and they’re taking a big risk by entrusting you to read it, let alone give feedback. Prove that you’re worthy of the writer’s trust, and work to give them kind, constructive criticism. Of course, you’re going to run across things that you don’t like, and you’ll have to tell the writer that. This is how you do that: Pick out several things you do like about the piece. Make sure to put at least one thing you enjoyed before and after the thing(s) you don’t like (you may recognize this as being called a “compliment sandwich”). If you immediately start pointing out all the bad, the writer will get defensive and will discount your opinion. But if you show them that you liked and appreciated their work, they’ll be more apt to listen to your suggestions. Additionally, never completely bash any aspect of their work. Don’t say, “I really hated this part/this scene/this character”. Instead, make it less severe: “I didn’t really like how this scene was set up”. Explain things. Maybe you didn’t like how the scene was written because it confused you. The writer needs to know why something didn’t work so they can make it better. And finally, if you can, suggest what could make the scene/character/plot/etc. more appealing to you. The writer will appreciate being given ideas for how they can improve. For instance, in my example of constructive criticism, the reviewer wrote that he/she didn’t like how the reader was tuned out of the character’s thoughts. The reviewer then suggested that the writer show some of the main character’s internal conflict throughout the scene. If you show that you’re a kind, considerate, and honest critic, your writer friends will be more comfortable with asking you to read their works. Having a writer’s trust is a very special thing.

If you’re receiving criticism:

I totally get it; receiving criticism is scary. You deeply care about what you’ve written, and the possibility of someone shooting it down is terrifying. But I’m going to tell you a secret: you don’t have to take all the advice that is given to you. No, I’m serious! You’re allowed to pick and choose which concerns you want to listen to, which things you change or don’t change. Just because someone thinks you should alter something you’ve written, doesn’t mean that you actually have to do that. But here is some advice on how to wade through the criticism that you receive.

  • Approach all criticism like the reviewer has something viable to say. It’s easy to brush off advice immediately if we don’t like it, but I caution you not to be that hasty. If a reader mentions that your book’s beginning is really slow, don’t bristle and retort, “No, it’s not!” Step back and analyze your beginning from an objective standpoint. Could it move faster? Are it’s events irrelevant to the plot? You might find that the reviewer is absolutely right, or maybe you’ll stick with your first observation. Either way, it’s worth trying. Author Terry Brooks tells a story about when his editor read one of his books and had lot of negative things to say about it. Brooks was immediately offended and angered, but when he took the time to go through the book and the comments that had been written about it, he realized that his editor was right about the different concerns he had voiced. Give every piece of advice a chance.
  • Get a second opinon. Every reader is different, and you can’t please everybody. If four people like the way you wrote a scene and one doesn’t, chances are that there’s nothing severely wrong and in dire need of changing in your scene. (Like I said above, though, still listen to that one person’s feedback. Maybe there are a few small things you can alter to make the scene even better). In the same vein, if the majority of your readers are expressing concerns over a flimsy plot line or a bland character, you’re definitely going to want to take notice. For example, a friend of mine once got an impression of two of my characters that I didn’t want any of my readers to ever have. I was concerned that I had been conveying something I didn’t want to convey, but when I asked several other readers, they told me that they had never gotten that impression. So, I haven’t changed the way I write those two characters, but I do keep myself aware of what could be assumed about them, and I try my best to make my intentions clear. Ask more than one person about certain aspects and concerns. Like they say, there’s safety in numbers.
  • Trust yourself as a writer. You know these characters and plots better than anyone else. If you really think that a piece of criticism is unfounded or irrelevant to your writing, then you don’t have to take it. Advice is just that – advice. It’s not mandatory to listen to it all the time. Do you need help and feedback? Of course! But sometimes, no one knows what’s better for your story than you. If you analyze and take into consideration someone’s criticism, and you just don’t think that it will benefit the story (or that scene really does not need to be changed, or that character is fine the way they are) then go with what you know to be true.

Also, remember to thank those that take time to give you feedback. They’ll appreciate it.

I hope that this helps your experience with criticism to be much better than before – whether giving it or receiving it!

Do you have anything else to add? Have you had good or bad experience with criticism? Do tell! 

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