Journeying with Company – the Giving and Receiving of Constructive Criticism

Getting feedback on your work is, a lot of people would argue, an essential part of developing your projects, as well as yourself as a writer. Many writers will at some point on their journey submit their work for review either in a workshop, some sort of course, writing club or even online. Getting objective opinion helps you mould your work and keep a wide eye on it, especially if you are wanting it to be widely read by others once it is done.

In these clubs, work groups and online communities you will often have to give feedback to others in exchange for that which you receive. I found it very easy to get into the swing of critting other writers’ work. I enjoy it so much and it comes so easily to me that I have often considered that I would enjoy being an editor and possibly that I may be better at editing than at writing. I find it an incredibly useful way to clarify my own ideas on what works well and what doesn’t. But it is very important to keep in mind that, above all, you have to try to be helpful to the person you are critting.

More often than not you will be asked to review something that is not to your taste as a reader, or in a genre you are unfamiliar with or the work of a writer you feel still has a long journey ahead of them. But you must put aside personal preference and be objective and, above all, be constructive. It’s no use telling someone you don’t like their work because it’s historical romance, for example, and you find the genre unappealing. You must look at the writing for what it is and comment on the pros and cons of the way they have used the craft objectively.

It’s important to remember above all things that when you are reviewing a fellow writer’s work, you are essentially telling them what you would have done had it been you writing the story. Although a good reviewer will attempt to be as objective as possible, all feedback is subjective in this way. Keeping this in mind makes it easier to decide which of your comments will be helpful – improvements the writer can actually achieve and that are appropriate to the sort of story the writer has created – and what are not helpful, because it is simply your personal taste that has effected your opinion and not your observations as a fellow writer. Of course, if it is a taste issue you feel strongly about, but you think it is still a worthwhile point and appropriate in the reality of the story you are reviewing, just make sure you phrase it as so.

I am a member or which is a very useful website to gain feedback on ongoing or completed projects. When reviewing others’ work on the site, as well as the written comments you supply, you are also asked to rate various thing about the story out of five. It is a good, concise list and is worthwhile baring in mind when reviewing as, even if you come across something you need to review but it’s not something you would normally choose to read, the writer will still find comments on the following points in their story useful and, though your taste is bound to bleed into the suggestions to a certain extent, at least it will be on aspects the writer should be inviting external opinion on. These aspects are use of language, characterisation, dialogue, pace, structure and themes. As a writer you will probably be able to find something to say on all these aspects of the work, good and bad, and the feedback on these things specifically will mean you are steering clear generally of matters of taste and concentrating more on matters of execution.

One last an important thing to remember when offering feedback: make sure you comment on what you like and what you think works, as well as what you don’t. It is very easy to pick out the bits that you don’t like and, in fact, the more you like something the more glaring to you the things that need improvement will seem to you. But do make sure you let the writer know which aspects of the work are working, are effective and which engage you. This is just as important, not only for their self-esteem, but also for the benefit of the project and other projects in the long term. If a writer knows their strengths as well as their weaknesses, only then can they move forward, improve and gain confidence.

I think it is, despite everything, a lot harder to receive a review and know what to do with it than it is to provide a balanced, objected review of someone else. It is especially hard when you receive a bad review, or what feels like a bad review. Someone’s missed the entire point of the story, someone’s essentially said your style doesn’t suit the subject matter you have chosen or in general that the piece needs more work. The dreaded phrase ‘this story has great potential’ can often make you want to curl up in a ball and never put fingers to keyboard again.

This can still happen to me, even now. Recently my short story Hearth and Home received a review that, although it didn’t quite make want to put the netbook away and never attempt to write again, did manage to give me a moment of panic and dread and even consider whether I’d ever been or could be any good. Was I just wasting my time even trying? Such is the power of negative feedback.

I almost wept with frustration: the reviewer had entirely missed the point of the story. They had reviewed it as one would a traditional crime novel. The feedback said it was confusing, it needed more facts, needed more investigation.

But this story isn’t a crime novel, it’s a short story in which the main character happens to be a detective solving a murder. It’s not about the crime, or it’s investigation, it’s about the character and the journey she goes on. The language was thus for a reason, the characters were as the were similarly. If it wasn’t working as it was, maybe I should scrap the whole thing and be done with it.

But then I calmed down, as you should always strive to do if feedback does manage to provoke a strong reaction in you. I made a cup of tea (the first step in finding the answer to most problems, I find) and considered that maybe, as an objective reviewer, some of his points were valid and that some of them weren’t. The valid ones I could work on – I could make it clearer that it wasn’t a crime story, in a traditional sense. I could cut down the amount of characters if having to many were muddying the concept of the story. And I could also attempt to make it more factually accurate if some unrealistic aspects were causing the reader to trip up. These, among other things I took on board from the review,  would be alterations that would, after all, improve the quality of the story but that would remain faithful to what I wanted the story to be.

And the rest of the points, those where he had just entirely missed that point and where conforming to them would change the story into something it wasn’t, I disregarded.

Being objective therefore is also the key to making the most of a crit you receive. You have to develop a thick skin. You have little other choice if you want to share your work with others. You have to be prepared that when you send your work out into the world, particularly to try and obtain feedback on it, some people are not going to get it, some won’t appreciate it and some just won’t like it. As hard as you should try to be objective, constructive and helpful in your feedback, it doesn’t always mean others will do that same for you. Or, more often, they will have tried to be objective and helpful, but their views and tastes may run so counter to your own they can’t help but want what they’ve read of yours to be different, sometimes drastically so.

As hard as it may be, you have to be prepared for it. Ideally, you should even seek it out. The tougher the better. If you are are in any way committed to your art, you have to want to be better at it. The minute you think you’ve got nothing left to learn is the minute you should put it all away and not bother trying any more. You should seek all the feedback you can, hungrily lap up everything that is said. You then need to digest it and apply what is helpful.

The only circumstance where you should not be seeking the views of others is if your witting is entirely for you and no one else is intended to read it. Then you can keep it to yourself, virginal, in a dark drawer of your mind and enjoy it in the form you first laid it down in, without ever exposing it to the opinions of others.

I can’t imagine doing writing like this, though. I write to share, I write to take readers on the adventure with me. I’m not trying to change the world, only entertain it, let it escape itself for a while. But no one’s going to want to escape with me if sub-standard writing gets in the way of the experience.

You must attempt, once again, to be objective,especially if you are consistently getting the same sort of feedback on the same area of your writing. If readers don’t get it, they don’t get it, whether you are committed to it or not. You might be attached to it, proud of it, even emotionally invested in it, but if it’s jarring, confusing or putting off the readers consistently, you do have to think very hard on whether it is important enough to you and the story to be worth potentially putting people off.

Hopefully, in those extreme circumstances, you can find a compromise. If you can’t and you can see that the readers are right, you may have to just bite the bullet and cut it out or change it entirely. I believe this is called ‘killing your babies’ – it might almost be physically painful for you to have to change something, but if you are committed to your piece as a whole, and truly want it to be the best it can be, you have to face up to the fact that at some point you will have to change something that it hurts to do so.

I find it’s easier to do this if instead of just deleting it in cold blood, so to speak, I cut it out and paste it into another document, saved as ‘deleted bits’ or some such. Then it’s not just dead and gone forever, it’s still there, possibly to go back to to possibly reintegrate at a more suitable part of the story, or maybe in another story entirely.

This is not to say, by any means, that you should try and do everything that everyone says. Far from it. Hopefully when you are reviewed by others, they will have tried to be helpful. But even if they haven’t, or even if they have but you really, really don’t agree, it is your story, not theirs. You, as the writer, get to decide what you think it helpful, achievable and, most importantly, what would enhance the writing as it is and not just change it to suit someone else.

Absorb what’s helpful, ignore what’s not. It may be vital to know how your story looks to objective eyes and, hopefully, you will learn and grow from what you hear. But you must have faith in your own writing. Strength will come with that and strength leads to confidence. And confidence is the key to accepting reviews objectively implementing them in an effective way that doesn’t compromise your work.

It’s a long and bumpy road to a finished project, but to ride along the way with others, though it may make it seem more irritating or painful for parts of the journey, on the whole makes the trip run smoother and ultimately means the destination will be the more splendid for it.

Now all I have to decide with whether the opening chapters of my fantasy novel are ready to have others take them further down the road, and whether I’m ready to handle where they take them.

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2 Responses to Journeying with Company – the Giving and Receiving of Constructive Criticism

  1. D. James Fortescue says:

    It is a necessary evil, almost a rite of passage, to put your work on the operating table for dissection before it is unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

    How about a deal? I’ll trade you Chapter 1 of my ‘Big Project’ for Chapter 1 of ‘The Road Elsewhere’, and we can go nuts on each others works?

    • jcollyer says:

      Hell yeah, why not! They’re still both first drafts, I’m assuming? So good to keep in mind it’ll be slightly different than giving feedback on something finished. But general feedback on whether TRE is actually readable at all would be incredibly welcome! I know I have a few writing ‘ticks’ (as you know too from what you’ve read of Zero) so it will be helpful to know if I’m falling into any traps. What do you think?? And you’re right it is a necessary evil. Vital one in fact. You have to have a thick skin but also a commitment to your work. You can’t try and please everyone, it still has to be your work not what others want it to be. But it’s very hard to have the distance to get it into a readable condition without external feedback.

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