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Giving Constructive Criticism

July 29, 2009

One of the most valuable and often painful ways to improve your skills as a writer is to seek constructive criticism on your work. Gaining good quality feedback, however, is harder than it would appear. However cringeworthy it may be for your favourite characters or settings to be seemingly torn apart, it does not compare with the insipidness of short or meaningless feedback such as “nice story, I liked it, it was lovely”.

This sort of feedback is easily obtained by your mother and although it feeds the ego, will not assist your growth as a writer in the long term. Putting the shoe on the other foot, if another writer seeks you out and presents you with a piece of their work, you owe them the courtesy of providing insightful, honest and constructive criticism. By learning how to give quality feedback, you will have more appreciation of the structure and format different writing can take and grow not only as a writer, but as someone whose opinion in certain writing circles, will mean something.

Depending on the expectations of the other writer, the amount of feedback will dictate the detail and breadth you delve into with your critique. No matter how much feedback a writer may have received in the past, every response to their work can be misinterpreted, depending on the way it is conveyed; as a personal attack, rather than a reaction to the prose. Dealing with feedback deserves another article, so for the purpose of this entry, I will focus on how to give constructive critiscm.

It was upsetting
Personal feedback can be misinterpreted.

There is no denying that providing quality feedback takes time, so ensure when you settle down to do so, that you can be undisturbed and have an uncluttered space – mentally and physically in order to focus your energies on the task at hand.

There are two main styles of critique – that of how the story affected you personally and that of a more mechanical method where you look at structure and the elements which work within the piece. Praise is extremely important in both styles, however it can distract the writer from the opportunities you present on improving their work. Problems can arise too, if your feedback becomes personal as this can be misinterpreted in many ways.

When formulating your feedback to a piece of work, you may like to include aspects of the below points.

1. MECHANICS: No matter how compelling the story, if the mechanics are amiss, the reader will become distracted, focusing on the negative aspects rather than being carried by the story. Ensure that spelling, grammar, paragraph and sentence structure are sound before publishing or asking for feedback.

2. PACING: Pacing draws the reader deeply into the story and depending on they style of prose, will depend on the pace required. Look at how long the story take to set up and if the reader is drawn immediately into the story.

3. DEVELOPMENT: The development of a story is an insidious, creeping factor, which is best if goes unnoticed and grows organically. The reader aught not be jolted or confused by the structure or be bored by a stagnant situation. (Obviously some stories focus on shocking, or jolting the reader with confronting or unexpected developments and it is not this style I am referring to)

4. SETTING: Setting does not require thousands of words to describe. A few choice allusions, using the senses and showing rather than telling, is often the best way to set the scene. When giving feedback look to see if the reader is able to easily visualize each scene or if it is a mish mash of confusion.

5. CHARACTERISATION: Chararactisation is one of the most important factors – especially in a short or flash fiction. Characters need to be more than stereotypical two dimensional cut out figures moving thought the environment. Characters motives need to follow ( at least their own) logical sequencing and add to , rather than disrupt the flow of the story. Depending on the style of story, readers need to feel a connection – whether it be empathy, sympathy, revulsion or disgust toward the characters. Having no feeling toward the character can be assign that they are either not necessary or need to be fleshed out and explored in more depth. Even green ten tentacled space monsters need to appear real and believable on your page.

6. DIALOGUE: Dialogue can enhance or detract from the story in a major way. It needs to be realistic, flow naturally and be free from clichés and overly complicated or extra words. Listen carefully to two strangers talking and you will realize there are a lot of filler words, pauses and short sentences utilized, often in an illogical manner.

7. POINT OF VIEW: The question to ask after you have read the piece of work is – whose story was this? It aught to be abundantly clear through the writing, if not, then the POV may need tightening up. Things to comment on is if the POV was consistent, appropriate or logical inner turmoil, thoughts, dreams and aspirations – or was it overplayed and hackneyed? Some stories are often better told through a different and more powerful POV.

We writers are an insecure bunch, with tender egos and often low self esteem. Ensure, when you give feedback, that it is highlighted with both positives and opportunities for the other writer to improve rather then go headlong in with flaming advice. (Remember – what gets round; comes round) Develop your own style and techniques in providing feedback and you will find that you learn valuable writing lessons as well. If you are a visitor to our regular Friday Fiction, perhaps you would like to focus every week on giving feedback on one point at a time.

Image by misselisabeth via Flickr

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Annie Evett is as insecure as the next writer when it comes to feedback and often takes days to muster the courage to open emails she knows contain constructive criticism, but is still working hard on giving quality feedback to others.   Catch her growing amount of websites and blogs here
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  1. July 29, 2009 5:01 am

    I liken criticism to assisting writers to find their “Davids” – (Michaelangelo said he freed him from the marble rather than carving him)

    I like to balance my direct criticism with question asking. I like to question the writer about their work, to prompt reflection on certain aspects of the piece at hand. And I always try to preface what I write with “I” – after all it is only my opinion- and critiquers need to remember that.

    Asking someone to critique your work is inviting a third party to help make your work the best piece possible… and both writers and critiquers need to remember this throughout the process.

  2. July 29, 2009 6:35 am

    Hi there, I read this article and love it. I run a website for writers called Some of the people on my site struggle on a regular basis with out how to critique. Sometimes they leave one line comments, other times they leave novels and sometimes its really cruel. I found this through a twitter hyper link. I was wondering if you would let me send this out as an email, or post it on the site (with proper credit of course). The entire point of my site is for people to work together to improve by using chats, prompts, and groups. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this and I guess you can just respond here and I will keep an eye out for your response.
    Scott Walden

  3. July 29, 2009 7:23 am

    Annie, it’s your call.

  4. July 29, 2009 8:47 am

    Hi Scott,
    There’s another article – or sub section of an article you may be interested here at Write Anything on criticism as well.

    The top part of the article deals with identifying bad and good criticism … and hopefully on reflection the spirit of appropriate criticism and how to avoid inappropriate criticism.

  5. July 29, 2009 7:21 pm

    Scott – I’d be delighted – Obviously there is only so much a short article can focus on – and really giving good feedback deserves a tome – rather than a tiny spot like this…
    After receiving feedback from editors and from submissions, I need to remind myself that it is only one person opinion – as Jodi points out – and I always appreciate reflection or an opportunity to improve the piece.

    thanks for visiting and for your interest.

  6. July 31, 2009 1:55 am

    I have a question regarding receiving criticisms. How do you politely disagree with someone, and how do you know that you’re write rather than just too close to your work?

  7. August 4, 2009 5:55 am

    Hi there Benjamin, I am preping another two articles – another delving a bit deeper into giving criticisms and another on receiving them (gracefully) .

    You know you have matured as a writer when you are given feedback, you don’t immediately consider either suicide or homicide. ……

    The important thing to remember with feedback is that it is one persons view – just as your view is your own. Its easy to fall in love with your own words – for after all – you birthed them, nurtured them and have protected them – until the red pen of the critic falls upon them. Its easy to get too close to your work – if you don’t – then the heart and passion falls away from the words… so never apologize for that.

    In all things – you can choose to agree or disagree with someones point of view – just as you can choose the meaning you will then place upon that feedback with regards to your past and future work as a writer.

    thanks for popping over and commenting.

  8. August 4, 2009 9:43 am

    “You know you have matured as a writer when you are given feedback, you don’t immediately consider either suicide or homicide. ……”

    Classic, that’s going in my inspiration book!

  9. August 5, 2009 6:00 am

    thanks Paul…. big smiles.

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