Thoughts on Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism for Fiction Works

Giving Constructive Criticism

 

Perspective: The Big Picture

Writing a book isn’t hard. Writing a book well is very hard. Even if you have issues with pretty much everything in the story, there is still a respectable accomplishment in getting the book to where you see it. Seeking constructive criticism takes a lot of guts and trust.

Don’t Be Gentle …

The entire point of constructive criticism is to point out the flaws in a work so the author can fix them. Lying to somebody about how “perfect” a work is if you see there are fixable mistakes all over the place benefits nobody.

But Do Be Kind.

Hearing, “Your book sucks” is akin to hearing, “Your baby’s ugly.” The book might suck and the baby might be ugly, but in the first situation, there’s definitely a better way to say so. (And in the second situation, flat-out lie if you value your life.)

“It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” That old adage holds a lot of truth.

I usually preface my statements with something to this effect:

These are just the opinions of one person. This is ultimately your story, so you can take or leave the suggestions. Thank you for allowing me to read your story. I hope you find the suggestions useful.

End on a Positive Note

Most things have a redeeming quality. I’d suggest ending your constructive criticism with a positive note, if possible. Admittedly, this is a step that I often forget if I’m hurriedly dashing off an email to the author. It is an important one those. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but it’s good policy from a people perspective to end on a high note.

Receiving Constructive Criticism

Perspective: Somebody Took the Time to Give you their Thoughts

Whether you’ve paid this person, asked them for a review, or just asked them for a favor, if s/he takes the time to give you their honest thoughts, thank them for the effort.

Perspective: It’s about the Work, not You

Comments about your characters, plot structure, dialogue, pacing/flow, formatting, and other aspects of a novel are not personal attacks on you.

Random thoughts to Consider: (Common Criticisms Distilled)

  • Stock characters – there is a time and place for them, but if everybody’s stock, is there something else that balances them?
  • Wooden dialogue – Do all the humans sound like robots? Is the dialogue soulless? That might sound harsh, but you’re trying to bring people to life. The best way to do so is to make their words come alive.
  • Poor formatting – One would think formatting a small issue, but it makes a huge difference. For example, I read a book recently where the author chose to use a space between every paragraph and two spaces to indicate scene changes. I have my own issues with the space between every paragraph, but the double spaces between scene changes is simply not enough. If the scene ends at the bottom of the page, there’s nothing to indicate that we’re in a new scene. This is a relatively simple fix, such as using a few asterisks to denote the change.
  • Too many adverbs – I was told ages ago that adverbs should be kept to a minimum where dialogue tags are concerned. In moderation, they add nice flavor, but like spices, they can quickly wear out their welcome if overused.

Tough but Good

The comments received are about a work you’ve likely put a lot of time, effort, and thought into getting to where it’s at now. There may have even been some blood, sweat, and tears too. I know it’s difficult to imagine the work not being perfect, but if you’re realistic, you’ll probably understand that this is the good sort of pain. If you take some of the suggestions, likely you’ll have a stronger work overall. As that’s the ultimate goal for both you and your critic, this is a good thing.

Glean what you Can, Discard the Rest

You may not even like or agree with what the critic is saying. But at least consider the advice given. Does the person have good reasons for what s/he is saying? Some things can go down as a difference in style, and that’s fine. But if the person’s marking grammar mistakes left and right, you might want to look up some of the rules they’re citing.

Conclusion:

It’s very easy to get defensive when it comes to our books, but they’re only going to get better if we’re willing to improve them. I learn new things with every book. Constructive criticism doesn’t have to be about tearing a work down. It’s aimed at making a bad work good, a good work better, and a great work excellent. No matter where your book is on that spectrum, there’s likely room for something to be improved.

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