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Writing Life: Criticism – Constructive or Destructive?

July 17, 2010

Almost every writer can vouch for the value of writers groups and workshops. For many, a weekly or monthly session with your group, whether online or in the flesh, can provide a welcome respite from the solitude that comes with the writing life. In addition to sharing ideas and experiences with fellow travelers, deadlines can be surprisingly galvanizing: being forced to prepare your piece for workshopping can provide that much needed motivation and focus.

But along with the benefits of writers groups is the danger of losing your mojo because of some ill-judged feedback on your work in progress. Being able to tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism is crucial to going the distance in this game.

Constructive criticism aims to encourage and instruct. That’s it. Anything that exceeds these aims runs the risk of missing the mark. This applies to both getting and giving feedback. One tried-and-true approach that I have found is the twofer formula—two positive remarks for every criticism. I cut my horns on online writers workshops out of NYC, and worked for a time as an assistant to one of the instructors. The Holy Writ of healthy workshopping there and elsewhere is to begin with one or more positive remarks, followed by some criticism then follow that with more positive comments. A business management standard, this is not as shallow or formulaic as it seems, but actually can put a challenging and constructive constraint on the feedback process. There is something good to be found in most creative work and being forced to identify it is as instructive, if not more so, than focusing on the weaknesses. I teach freshman creative writing to underachievers and I learn as much from attempting to tease out the possibilities in their work as they learn from my suggestions to improve it.

Constructive criticism—taken from a real-life example—can look something like this:

Wow. I think what’s working here is the mood/tone, the atmosphere and the music of the words. Highlights include ‘toxic and ravishing’ and the juxtaposition of the alien/dreamlike/futuristic with the familiar and the nostalgic, like the scene in the hotel lobby. But there are some lines and passages that seem a little ready made, such as the prison scene, which you describe as ‘savage’ and the warden as ‘sadistic’ —this comes across as a little pat. I know it seems like a small thing, but I think the glimmering strangeness of the world you’ve created makes word choice all the more crucial. There is a lot that is really memorable and cool here—I laughed at the urinal scene—and my gut feeling says this could be a longer work, perhaps a novella.

Far from imposing unnatural constraints, the twofer formula gives both critiquer and writer plenty to chew on. On the other hand, destructive criticism can look like this.

Wow. You’re going to hate me, but this really didn’t work for me. I like the concept but couldn’t get into your style at all. It isn’t just that it was meant to be written in a hip and modern way, but it was more the sentence length, and you often didn’t complete a sentence. It was detail overload and it didn’t play out. I didn’t connect with your character, the alien, or feel any of her pain. As for the prison warden, I simply saw him as a grubby little man, not even sadistic, just pathetic. And then there was the boy, I connected more with him, but he didn’t seem central. Whose story is this, anyway? The ending needed another line, like “In the dark he heard the flapping of alien wings, whispering enticing thoughts.” Watch out for the use of AND. I hate the word and it is causing you to write long, confusing and frankly, annoying sentences.

This critique, also adapted from a real example, commits three cardinal sins. Firstly it’s framed purely on the likes and dislikes of the critiquer. Secondly, it’s uniformly negative. And thirdly, it operates on the assumption that the critiquer could do a better job. Non-constructive criticism attempts to rewrite the original, or tries to impose the critiquer’s vision or style on others. Try not to fall into this temptation, especially in online groups where members have the option to insert comments. If on the receiving end, recognize that it says more about the critiquer than it says about your piece and take it with a grain of salt. Whatever you do, don’t try and change your style because of some non-constructive critiquer’s personal preference. Consider all the angles, yes, but remember that no one can tell your story as well as you do.

A final way in which to identify constructive criticism is that it encourages and refers to work outside of the genre being discussed. Groups are not only a place to learn and motivate, they are a place in which to be exposed to a variety of styles and approaches. Remember, writers groups and fan clubs are not the same thing—if you’re serious about your career as a horror writer and find yourself in a group where Cthulhu rules, it may be time to find yourself a new group. Or at least attempt to open up the discussion. You’ll always learn more in a group that encourages reading and writing outside the genre, and the best and most successful writers do just that. The wonderful thing about getting together with other writers is the exchange of ideas. The Turn of the Screw or Saw II? Neil Gaiman or Neal Stephenson? Scifi or Specfi? It’s fun getting in touch with your inner and fellow nerd, and your work will be all the better for it. Guaranteed.

———

J. S. Breukelaar is a speculative fiction writer living in Australia; her first novel is represented by Matthew Bialer.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2010 1:29 am

    I agree with everything you said. It’s totally unrealistic not to have multiple languages in a pre-industrial setting; or to have everyone perfectly bilingual in some common tongue even when they do have their own language (consider Elves, Men, Ents, even Orcs) so they can understand each other in a crisis. Creoles and pidgins do occur, but obviously have their limitations since they’re purely practical tongues derived from necessity.

    But. If you focus on language in a story, it can *become* the story.

    That’s why science fiction tends to use Universal Translators, and Fantasy uses magic or hand-waving. It’s not always the author being lazy or thoughtless. You need a mechanism that will enable the reader to suspend disbelief (or not even think about it as an issue). Of course, getting a linguist to suspend disbelief about Multiversal languages is probably as tough as getting a physicist to believe in a Faster-than-light drive.

    • August 7, 2010 11:26 pm

      Uh, my comment above was meant for the previous post “Speak Elvish?”
      Not sure how I got it onto this one.

  2. asterling permalink
    August 7, 2010 9:56 am

    Um, Cthulhu does rule. Just kidding – a great overview, and I’ll just share that the first response seems very much like somebody who has no idea what they are talking about, but who’s trying hard to sound expert. A good thing for people starting out in workshops to know is that not everybody is commenting with complete sincerity or even command of what they are saying (part of your point, I believe). When you find people commenting on language choices and performing fake literary analysis, such as “the prison scene was described as savage and the warden as sadistic was ‘pat'” – it is unfortunately not of much use until one understands reader mentality and human response.

    If I were to get that type of response, and others made substantive comments, I would know something was amiss in the prison scene.

    Today, I value and treasure this type of input for a variety of reasons, but I would not have done so when I was starting out. I take others’ opinions very seriously and such “input” might well have sent me off in a wrong writing direction.

  3. September 8, 2010 4:28 am

    Yes!!!!!*

    *five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind ~Terry Pratchett

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