Framework for Constructive Criticism

Posted on Posted in Advice, Procedural

Sometimes (rarer now than in the past), I am asked to give constructive criticism to my friends on projects they are working on.  This is something that I used to be better at doing.  Well, at least the giving criticism part, I don’t know if it was constructive.

Certainly when I was a cocksure young lad, filled with Miller Light and stolen vodka, lolling through creative writing workshops and puking out the mandatory feedback for my classmates the night before, my criticism came fast and easy.  I imagine that these comments were probably little, if any use, to my poor classmates.  For that, I actually am sorry.  I certainly could have learned more had I focused on really reading your work and at least they wouldn’t have had as much absolutely worthless dross.

Since those heady undergraduate days, my writing and revising and editing became strictly “professional.”  Central to that experience was writing a lot of memos/letters/reports for work, having them absolutely eviscerated, and slowly learning to organize and express thoughts succinctly and coherently.  (Full disclosure:  I don’t do that on these blog posts.)

But constructive criticism on creative works?  That skill, I admit, has gotten a little rusty.

So, with this, I am going to try to lay out a framework that I think is workable for offering constructive feedback to those who are still in the ongoing creative process.  This isn’t about how to review published work or how to sort through a slush pile, but how–when someone asks you to do so–you can help them to improve their work.

1. Offering feedback is NOT the same as reviewing published work.

As you may have noticed, I like to “review” books and poems and stories that I’ve recently read.  You may also notice that I’m usually very positive about them.  For the most part, that’s because: a) I don’t make a hobby of slagging people off; I genuinely want to enjoy what I read and alert other people to what I think is worthwhile; and b) I typically only finish stories that I enjoy and certainly only take the time to write about those I feel strongly about.

That said, if you offer to give feedback, you don’t have the latter luxuries.  If you offer to help, you can’t then decide to only finish reading and write up what you feel like.  (Well, you could, but you’d be a flake–something I also have personal experience with.)

However, I firmly believe that you shouldn’t bag on people just for kicks.  And, as a corollary, you should want to enjoy everything you read — you should go into it with that sense of hope and optimism.  Granted that those hopes can be quite expertly dashed, but you should approach each new thing with an open mind.

2. It’s your job to help make the NEXT DRAFT better

It’s called “constructive” criticism for a reason.  You’re helping to build a better piece of work, so your role isn’t the same as if you were just a passive consumer of finalized content.

When I write about a published story, I’m free to just give a laundry list of what I liked or didn’t think worked, and leave it at that.  Obviously that’s not terribly interesting or insightful, but Graham Greene isn’t going to revise his stories based on what I say, so I don’t have to give him any tips.

The situation is very different when you’re giving feedback on a work that is still in the process of being created and revised.  The piece is still being drafted and there’s still time to make it tonally consistent, clarify the sequence of events, fix the dialogue, or, hell, even massively change/rewrite/delete something that doesn’t work.

I’ve read plenty of finished stories where I can see a great idea buried in tangled prose or an otherwise uninspired narrative.  If someone trusts you enough to ask for your advice, you owe it to the author (and the readers!  Won’t somebody think of the readers?!) to offer he or she: a) specific points that are unclear or can be improved; b) specific points that are good and should be bolstered or are otherwise emblematic of what you consider a good story; and c) any suggestions you have for how to fix these problems (with the caveat that these will most likely be ignored).

3. Be BOLD . . .

With an understanding that its your job to give the author feedback that can help them to improve, you then need to be honest about what”s not working.  Remember, its your job to help to make the next draft better and the way you’re going to do that is by being specific and clear.

If you’re a human being (or even a sufficiently aware plant or robot), you know how hyperactive our psychological defense mechanisms can be, particularly when facing criticism.  Even more particularly when its criticism over something that we’ve personally invested in.  No one likes to be told that their hair is a mess, but its even worse to hear if he or she has spent hours fixing it just so.

The point is that human beings will usually try to rationalize or explain away any criticism with which they wish not to agree.  Therefore, the reader offering feedback must give concrete and specific things that he or she does not like. thinks could be improved, is confused by, etc.

What’s that?  You want some examples?  OK:

Bold Ex. 1

Reader says “The tone seems really dark.”

Author replies:  “Of course it’s dark, it’s a horror story.  IGNORE.”

Reader should have said: “The tone seems overwhelmingly dark, even in places that a contrast might be helpful.  While that makes the scenes in the abattoir effectively moody, it seems really at odds with the pre-slaughter picnic scene and the reconciliation at the end.  This could play more with the readers expectations or, at the end, provide a cathartic feeling.”

Bold Ex. 2

Reader says “I didn’t understand Balistair’s motivations?”

Author replies: “Well, he’s a complicated character.  But in compromise, I’ll add a sentence of dialogue where he says, ‘I hate my brother!’ before he stabs him in the ear with a Q-Tip.”

Reader should have said:  “Balistair stabbing his brother in the ear seemed completely out-of-character.  There has been nothing before in the dialogue, physical/mental descriptions, etc. indicating any tension between the brothers.  Cralistair’s death at Balistair’s Q-Tip is just really out of place and I don’t understand Balistair for the rest of the story.”

Bold Ex. 3

Reader says: “I’m not sure where the aliens came from?”

Author says: “Omicron Persei 8, duh. Besides, the point is that I don’t comment on them.  IGNORE.”

Reader should have said: “The aliens at the end are completely out of place.  It is really jarring to have them appear and then disappear without any comment by the characters for one paragraph and it breaks the tension that was building about whether or not Cralistair’s ghost was really coming for Balistair.”

The point is to be as clear as possible.  No one’s going to fix a problem they don’t understand and only those true masochists/perfectionists are going to fix ones that they could rationalize away.

4.  Be KIND . . .

The quality of the early drafts you read will vary greatly.  Some will be fantastic and some will be awful.  Unfortunately, you can’t just put the book down and move on to the next one.  However, nor should you (although you probably could) just tell the author to scrap the whole thing and go back to working in the dog food mines.

Remember that, in the situation I’m describing here, you’ve agreed to give someone “constructive criticism.”  That means you’re helping to build something, and that requires the same specificity and clarity that you bring when pointing out what you don’t like.

The most productive reason for this specificity is that if you see something you like, you should want to see more of it.  If some tool in the author’s repertoire is strong, highlight it and recommend they bring it to the fore.  If there’s a particularly engaging thread that gets buried, hold it up and ask if it deserves more prominence.  Even if its something that you don’t think the author intended, he or she still has plenty of rewrites to go.  Anything can be built up, polished, restructured, or otherwise improved, but as the reader, you have to let the author know what those pieces are.

Examples?  Examples.

Kind Ex. 1

Reader says: “I really like the dialogue.”

Author says: “Thanks!”

Reader should have said: “I think the dialogue does a great job of conveying the personalities of the characters.  When you introduce Dalistair towards the middle, offering some more dialogue (both from he and his brothers) would probably let you cut down on some of the omniscient narration.  I would find that much more engaging and it would keep the pace flowing.”

Kind Ex. 2

Reader says: “I like the subplot about the couple, it seemed realistic.”

Author says: “Thanks!  Moving on . . . “

Reader should have said:  “The story about Falistair and Jane is the one I want to read.  I know that they were a subplot, but the dialogue and the interactions between those two seemed much more fleshed out than the leads.  Maybe you could consider a story with F and J as the leads, with the the alien crime spree happening in the background, so that they ground the more fantastical elements.”

Kind Ex. 3

Reader says: “I thought the idea about people turning into mushrooms at the end was neat.”

Author says: “Yup, I’m pretty smart!”

Reader should have said:  “That idea with people turning into mushrooms and being harvested was the best part of the story.  I really think that idea should be the center of the story and not just a throwaway at the end.  It would be a stronger narrative to introduce that upfront and explore the ramifications.  [i.e. Rewrite it using that one good idea as a basis.]”

Also, just as an ego-related note, nobody likes getting only bad news.  A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and some smoke up the . . . uh, never mind that metaphor.

5. Be READY to be ignored (but offer your advice anyway).

If you read Neil Gaiman’s point number 5 here, you’ll see why I was hesitant to recommend that you give advice on how to fix problems you perceive in the work you’re critiquing.  Similarly, I read another article (the link escapes me) where Gaiman (or someone else) said something along the lines of:  If one reader says something doesn’t work, it might just be his or her opinion; but if two people tell you something doesn’t work, even if its for different reasons, you have a problem you need to fix.

Obviously the author is the ultimate arbiter and must decide whether and how to make any changes.  But does this mean you shouldn’t offer your own course of action?

No, I say the hell with it — recommend away.  I would rather get feedback and ignore it than struggle to implement something unsuccessfully, only to find out later (after abandoning a project, after publishing an inferior work, etc.) that Johnny Testreader had a workable solution that he withheld out of concern for my delicate sensibilities.

No, when providing feedback its your job to make the next draft better.  And if you’re reading my drafts, I’d rather you go overboard on Point 3 above than hide behind Point 4.


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