Being a Better Writer: Being a Good Critic

This post was originally written and posted January 10th, 2014, and has been retouched and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s post is a little different. Rather than being for those who want to write (or those who are interested in the art), today’s post is something for the reader as well. Today, we’re going to talk about critics.

We hear a lot about critics in the modern world. There are movie critics, music critics, game critics, and yes, even book critics. If there’s a field of creative expression out there (or even not so creative, ie the business critic) the odds are that there’s an associated field of critics to go with it. We listen to and read responses from critics on a day-to-day basis. They’re almost impossible to avoid.

Especially since the rise of the internet. One of the textbook definitions of a critic is “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique” (source here). With the rise of the internet, the floodgates have been opened for anyone to offer an opinion. Everyone has a voice now, for better or worse, and everyone can shout their opinion at anyone willing to listen. With that, there has been a surge in one’s ability to make their own opinion known, regardless of knowledge or talent with the relevant material. Which in turn has probably only bolstered the reputation of another definition of the word critic: one given to harsh or captious judgment (same source).

As readers and writers both of fiction, regardless of type, we will often find ourselves granted with the ability to be a “critic” of either kind, sometimes multiple times in a single day. Any time you leave a review on Amazon.com, a comment on a product thread, or feedback on an alpha read for someone’s story, you are being a critic.

So how do you make certain that you’re being the first kind—reasoned—and not the second kind—captious? Because let’s face it, it’s easy to be harsh. And most of us don’t want to be harsh when we set out to criticize someone’s work. In fact, most of us are usually trying to help when we offer feedback. So if we want to be a good critic, what should we do to make sure that we are in fact, being a good critic? What are guidelines we can follow that will make sure we don’t simply become one of the voices that is quickly shoved away due to or because of ignorance (and not on the part of the one the critiquing was pointed at)?

To that, I offer some of the following advice that I’ve picked up over the years, both by watching others give feedback and from trying my own hand at it in various writing groups. What I write here will apply directly to fiction feedback (after all, this is traditionally a writing guide blog), but the rules can easily be applied to any other area in which you want to leave criticism as well. Be ye aalpha reader, a reviewer, or just someone who likes to leave detailed comments and thoughts on a writer’s work, following these basic rules can’t hurt.

1) Never Assume Your Opinion is Fact

More than anything else, this simple rule seems most ignored by those who would otherwise be good critics. No matter what you say in response to someone’s work, whether you’re an alpha reader, an editor, a proof-reader, or just someone who is reading for fun and happened to leave a comment online, never have the attitude that in some way your words are infallible. Far too many critics out there react badly when someone questions their judgement, often accusing the creator of being unable to handle criticism when in fact, it’s they who can’t handle their own words being questioned. Regardless of what you say, a creator has the right to question you further, because you are a critic and you may in fact be wrong! Even with grammar. It happens from time to time. Often when a creator responds by questioning something you said, it isn’t that they think you are the scum of the earth, it’s simply that there is a reason behind why X portion you commented on was written, and they are examining it and want you to explain your position further. Explain your positions, respond when the author asks, and with reason, a solution will present itself. It may be that the author simply refuses to respond to criticism (in which case, let them hang themselves, don’t feel the need to do it). Or it may be that you, in fact, need to step back and take a deeper look. Never hold a position that your word is unquestionable. Critics who do often find themselves ignored.

2) Don’t Be Nasty, Be Courteous

There’s a classic writing story that some of you may have heard thrown around before concerning criticism which effectively summarizes itself as “Don’t chop with the sword of truth. Point.” Don’t go out of your way to be a jerk. Be courteous. Be polite. Don’t patronize or speak down. You can be honest, truthful, and criticize someone’s entire work with great skill while still being tactful. Being nasty says far more about you than it does about them. If your goal is to “show the writer how their work sucks” or you rationalize your actions by exclaiming that you’re “helping them realize the harsh realities of life,” you’re not a critic. You’re just a jerk pulling down others out of petty spite. The goal is to help the creator grow, and you can do that while still pointing out flaws in their work without any of the nastiness. And on a related note …

3) Never Use Foul Language

One of the fastest ways to ruin any chance at having your words considered a reasoned opinion in any situation is by resorting to swear words, whether for emphasis or as part of a misguided attack on the creator. Nothing devalues a critics words faster than resorting to cheap “shock words” to try and draw attention to their opinions. The truth is, swear words are the kind of things that shock grade-schoolers, and despite their prevalence in society, most swears have simply become a quick stand-in for when someone isn’t willing or capable enough to articulate their own position. In fact, some publishing houses and other creative outlets will count how many swears a writer uses when reviewing work or considering a new hire, as use of frequent swears is considered a novice mistake in order to cover an author’s weaknesses and make his work “edgier.” If you can’t say it without a swear, just don’t say it.

4) Know What You’re Talking About and What You’re Doing

This one is a “two-for-one” deal. First, know what your talking about. Don’t go into someones work offering “grammatical feedback” if you don’t know your own grammar. Or don’t realize that there are multiple correct versions of a grammatical rule (in a global world, the difference between “grey” and “gray” is shrinking). This rule stacks with the first (as in the case of “grey” versus “gray”) in requiring you to be prepared to be wrong. Especially if you don’t know as much about what you’re doing as you think you do. Bottom line is, before you become a critic of any kind, make sure you actually have the required skills needed for such a task. And no, graduating high school English with an impeccably nit-picky skill at comma usage is not a full qualifier. It simply means you’re good with commas.

Also, know what you’re doing. If an author has asked you to look for plot holes they’re generally not going to be impressed by your abilities to point out a missing comma, because that’s not what they asked you to do. This applies more to works-in-progress usually, but it holds true elsewhere. If an author asks you to find plot holes and not capitalization errors, it”s probably because they either already have someone else on it or are not concerned with grammatical issues at the moment. They’re concerned about plot holes. If you’re asked to offer feedback on character emotions, don’t respond with a page of misspelled words (unless it truly is so horrendously overwhelming that it was impossible to do your job otherwise, and in that case that should be the reason you didn’t do the first).

5) Finish it First

If you’re going to be a critic, never, ever, under any circumstance, fail to finish what you started. Don’t read half-a-chapter and then offer feedback on the whole thing. Don’t “skim.” You either have the time to do the job properly, or not at all. Why? To save your own skin. I’ll use a few personal cases here. I once had a reader send me some feedback on a completed work saying that he was quitting my story because it was “too obvious.” He listed out all the “clues” as to who the villain was, told me that my mystery was far too weak, and that he wouldn’t finish it as a result. The problem? He’d bitten every red herring there was. His entire prognosis was wrong and he quit reading just before the reveal because he was assuming that he had it all figured out. Another time I had an alpha reader who gave up on something he’d volunteered to look at because he felt that the first few paragraphs were too disjointed, and told me that I’d need to really step back and look at my writing before he’d go any further. The problem? The first few paragraphs were supposed to be that way because the character was dreaming. No one else had any problems with it. The logic jumps and contradictions existed by design, but this reader got hung up on them in the first few paragraphs, assumed it was going to persist, and his entire criticism was rendered invalid.

Always, always, always finish what you start. No movie “critic” walks out of Star Wars halfway through, complains that it was an obvious story about Obi-wan being pulled out of retirement to save the galaxy by killing Darth Vader, and is taken seriously. Don’t skim either, you put yourself at risk of missing clear details and then asking after them (this happens quite frequently). If you’re going to be a critic. Don’t skim. Don’t stop. Even if it’s bad. Finish it first. Which goes along with our next rule…

6) Fact Check

Always make sure you have your facts straight. Grammar facts, plot facts, whatever. Make sure you’re bringing up the right conversation, the right section of the story, or the right details. If you find that you’d simply missed a detail on your read-through, mention that you missed it (such information may mean that the author needs to draw more attention to it) rather than going forth as if it didn’t exist. If this is a work in progress, then fact check with the creator rather than assuming you have all the details. Always check your facts. Once, a “critic” of one of my own works skimmed the first chapter (and there’s rule 5) and went off on a “useless paragraph,” slamming it (rule 3) for being worthless to the story, absolutely unessential, and containing nothing vital to the work. The paragraph in question was the paragraph that introduced the major political and economic parties in the work, including the party that turned out to be the villains behind the whole story.

Don’t be that guy. Check your facts. Or your critique will end up saying more about you than the work.

7) Recognize a Difference of Opinion and Style

This one is pretty simple. Don’t go after an author because their work disagrees with your personal preferences or personal canon (this happens quite frequently, actually, just look at all the angry fans that resulted when the creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender revealed who Aang ended up with). Don’t attack an author for writing in third-person limited just because you enjoy third-person omniscient. There is a difference between a character making a choice that the character wouldn’t normally make and a choice that you don’t like. One is an identifiable problem (out-of-character behavior) while the other is simply you wishing that they had made a different choice.

Recognize within yourself the difference, and tune your responses accordingly. If you find yourself not enjoying a work because you personally don’t enjoy that style, don’t try to hide by claiming something is wrong with the work. Simply explain that you weren’t as interested because it wasn’t something you normally enjoy. Oft-times I’ve explained to a hopeful writer that my lack of interest isn’t because the story isn’t good—it’s fine. It’s simply not something I would read normally, and it therefore holds less interest for me. This isn’t a cop out (although sometimes critics use it as one to dodge reading something altogether). It’s simply recognizing a difference of opinion. It’s entirely fair to admit that you don’t normally read or enjoy works of a certain style or genre.

8) Tell Them What You Like

Often it seems that we forget the role of a critic is two-fold. A critic is not just there to draw attention to the weaker elements, but also to the stronger elements of a work as well. Be equal in your criticism. Spend just as much time going over the elements of a work that you enjoyed as you did going over the weak areas. Let the creator know what’s working most for you, what you liked, what was fun. Let them know what memorable moments stood out to you, what you couldn’t stop laughing about, or even what had you gasping in shock. It’s okay to admit that you liked something! It’s fine to enjoy something and admit it. Better yet, telling a creator what you enjoyed helps because it lets them look at what they did in those areas and work to replicate it! So tell them what you like! Tell them what you enjoy! Balance your equation with some smiles! Some thrills! You’ll find that your advice and opinion as a critic goes a lot farther.

 

So, keep these in mind the next time you click that comment button or are asked to take a look at something. Not only will you feel better for it, but the creator will as well. That’s when you’ll find yourself becoming the best type of critic: the kind that leads to growth.

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