I watch too many movies.
A few nights ago, after burning through the latest releases on my favorite streaming channels, I decided to skim the classic movie categories.
Slaughterhouse Five, the 1972 film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, looked like the perfect solution for Tuesday night insomnia.
I don’t really have insomnia, but I love to watch movies until two or three in the morning.
Despite the rating of 3.5 stars, I enjoyed the movie, especially the time travel theme and the strange WWII backstory.
I made a mental note to revisit the novel.
I was intrigued by the main character’s ability to exit his current position in space/time. When life took a threatening turn, when pain seemed inevitable, Billie Pilgrim traveled to another lifetime or point of existence.
If only life could work this way.
Think about it. If we lived in Billie Pilgrim’s world, we could shift into another dimension whenever the boss called us into his office. Each time we opened the mailbox to find a tax audit notice, we could disappear.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t come with a fast forward or reverse button. When sh_t happens, we stand our ground, accept the circumstances, and find our own solutions.
This flaw in our nature, this inability to shift, got me thinking about the garbage we put up with, the everyday challenges we simply must endure.
They’re part of the package of life, of business, of writing…
This brings us to our writing challenge for today.
As a writer, one of the most common challenges is dealing with criticism.
Worse, it’s often unsolicited, unwarranted, unnecessarily cruel. I must admit, I wasn’t always good at processing it. I’d find myself wanting to crawl under my desk, to give up writing, altogether.
Over the years, I realized criticism didn’t have to be devastating. Trust me, though, it didn’t happen overnight.
I didn’t wake up one morning knowing how to tell the difference between constructive or destructive criticism. I learned by working through it.
Grad school taught me the most.
The day before my first short story peer review, my writing professor said, “brace yourselves for off-putting comments.” Somehow, this advice helped me cope with the inevitable.
After a few critique sessions, I began noticing patterns.
I found I could tell whether a critic’s remarks were fruitful or pointless, sincere or mean-spirited. After a while, I could sense the motivation behind the comments I was receiving, empowering me to trust the source or discard the advice entirely.
Here are some questions to help you determine whether you’re receiving constructive or destructive criticism:
Is the Criticism Solicited or Unsolicited?
Despite its frequent abuse, the comments box at the bottom of a blog post is not an open invitation for criticism.
At its best, the comment feature allows the author and readers to communicate directly, to extend the conversation beyond the limited scope of the original post.
The comment feature opens the discussion to a wider community of contributors. The key word is contributors, not detractors…
On the other hand, if you ask for feedback on content, style, or some other criteria, there are ways to determine whether you should consider or discard the advice.
If you’ve asked for a critique, pay close attention to the quality of the feedback. Someone who is trying to be helpful will point out a work’s strengths in addition to its weaknesses.
If they dismiss the entire piece, they aren’t really interested in being objective or helpful. A good critic can point out positives and negatives in the same piece, so the author can work toward a solution.
Is the Criticism Related to the Work?
Constructive criticism addresses the material at hand.
This type of reviewer doesn’t waste time discussing ideas beyond the scope of the work sample. They stick to the piece in question, to ideas specific to its genre, to its intended purpose, to its target audience.
Conversely, destructive criticism goes off topic, muddying the waters with irrelevant, tangential ideas.
Is the Criticism Specific?
When a critic says, “I just didn’t care about your characters…,” they’re wasting your time. Constructive feedback supplies specific information:
“Your protagonist lacks warmth and depth. I’d like her more if she ________. For example, why did she choose to ______, when she could have ________? This doesn’t match the opening sequence, when she professed her love for _________.
Your antagonist could play a larger role in the second chapter ….
Limiting the criticism to specific, actionable areas helps the writer zero in on the trouble spots.
Does the Critic Make Sweeping Generalizations?
Does the critic dismiss the entire work, calling it deficient or defective?
If the critic can’t find anything good to say about a work, he is not willing to look for it.
If he’s not willing to look for it, take it as a sign that he isn’t interested in being helpful. In this case, he might only wish to do you harm.
Does the Criticism Offer Viable Solutions?
Constructive criticism offers solutions, specifically addressing what could be added, deleted, or rearranged to solve a problem.
Perhaps the ending was unsatisfactory because the reader wanted closure. Maybe the action stalled in the third chapter, causing the reader to lose interest….
If your critic can’t offer anything tangible, you may want to remain skeptical.
Is the Critic’s Tone Respectful?
Everyone’s felt the sting of disrespect.
You made yourself vulnerable, respecting your readers enough to solicit their feedback, but instead of honoring that connection, they took a cheap shot at you.
Look for profanity, ambiguous language, a snarky tone, or sarcasm. They’re indicators of self-serving, malignant criticism.
Good writers respect other writers, appreciating the time and energy spent developing a book (or even a blog post). They understand the challenges of taking an idea from the abstract into form.Good writers respect other writers, appreciating the time and energy spent developing a book (or even a blog post). They understand the challenges of taking an idea from the abstract into form. Click To Tweet
Is the Tone Pedantic?
If the criticism is nit-picky about rules and conventions that may not be applicable to the piece in question, your reviewer’s looking to one-up you, to impress or berate you with unrelated knowledge.
This is destructive. Discard it.
Does the Tone Match the Weight of the Material?
If you’ve written a fun little story celebrating the foibles of flawed human characters, beware of the righteous wing nut trying to charge you with the destruction of civilization.
Don’t allow them to project their issues onto your work in progress. Look for global statements, for all-or nothing judgments. Ask yourself whether they’re blowing things out of proportion.
Ask yourself whether their punishment fits the crime.
How Can you Recognize Constructive Criticism?
Constructive criticism makes sense, and you’ll feel a sense of relief when you encounter it. It’s direct, and it’s logical, offering a fitting solution to the problem. Often, it tackles layers of issues under a single umbrella.
Look for repetition, for common denominators among different critics.
And don’t discount the outlier, either. That single critic with an innovative suggestion might offer the perfect solution for your piece. Consider their advice if they’re specific and respectful.
What about Trusting Your Gut?
Trusting your gut is fine if you have ample experience.
When you’re new to receiving and/or considering feedback, your alarms may go off when someone offers critical advice, when someone finds fault with your work.
It’s natural to become defensive. Criticism offends the ego.
Over time, after considering elements like the ones listed above, your gut response becomes more reliable. You can sense the quality of the information and act accordingly.
Now, how do you evaluate criticism?
Tell us in the comments section below.