Deconstructing criticism

If you are anything like me, which, for your sake, I sincerely hope you are not, you are/were terrified of feedback about your writing. I was writing for over 6 years before the first human being saw anything I had written (it was a collection of poems and nonsensical rants given to her as a farewell gift), and I was terrified showing it. There is something incredibly intimate about showing someone your writing, like stepping naked onto a stage. You are afraid of a cold, objective eye dissecting all those things that are, in fact, a part of your innermost core because that will essentially be saying “something is very wrong with you.”

This is much more true to beginning writers, those who have not yet gathered any experience in dealing with that cold, scrutinizing glare of someone else. That is very natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Beginning writers tend to not cover their personal truths in their writing with layers and layers of fiction (A.K.A bullshit) which makes them feel all the more exposed.

It hardly gets easier the more experience you gather, and rejection, critique, even praise can get you down in the dumps for a week or so. Following a few rejection letters from magazines and such for two short stories, I felt like talking about the topic of feedback.

Anyone who has been in any kind of situation where they were being evaluated (yes, school counts) knows about constructive and nonconstructive criticism, but those are not the only types of feedback. Those are overarching categories, maybe, but not an exact and all-encompassing categorization of feedback. And every writer who has ever workshopped their writing knows that what really counts is how you approach said feedback; that is what determine if it will hurt your writing or hurt it.

Here are some forms of feedback that I put together along with tips on how to handle them to help improve your writing and confidence.

  • “I liked it but…” – Feedback that starts with this sentence may seem like a good reason to roll your eyes at the forced and feigned politeness, but I believe they are rather sincere. Whoever says this is trying not to hurt your feelings, but feels that your writing can be improved, which implies that they gave it due consideration and thought. Best thing to do is to listen and ask that person to expand on those flaws they believe they found. Don’t try to explain those flaws away, maybe it makes sense to you since you constructed the story, but may need to be explained better for all those people who can’t read your mind.
  • “Oh my God, it’s all so good.” – Ironically, that is one form of feedback I have a problem with, sort of. Yes, it’s nice to hear I am awesome, but I need a little more than this, and I don’t mean praise, information. No book is really “all good”. Every story has plotholes, inconsistencies, pitfalls etc. This is the sort of feedback a child might get from their mother (which is good, children need encouragement), but as an adult (who does still wear Batman pajamas) I need to know more. The impression I am left with from this sort of feedback is that the story was not given any real thought. Now, since the giver of such feedback is obviously trying to complement you, don’t be rude and demand more specific criticism. Ask them questions about what they liked, maybe ask about certain flaws in the story you know about or parts you are not comfortable with, encourage them to say more. It may be that they do start pointing out segments they found problematic, or that they tell you what they liked in more detail, which is just as helpful.
  • “Please understand that this is not a critique on your writing(, but it is, though).” – A sentence that is often adjoined to the end of rejection letters, this is supposed to make you feel better, despite being rather sterile and impersonal. Well, it doesn’t. I don’t blame those publishers or magazines that use this ubiquitous sentence, it’s probably in their email template, but it is rather irritating. So, first thing first: the actual feedback here is the rejection by the publisher/magazine, which is okay. The rejection could be the result of any number of reasons, but the publisher/magazine doesn’t have the time (or the people) to give a personalized response to every submitter, which is fair enough. Never expect more from a publisher before you locked them down in a contract. It isn’t their job to give you detailed feedback (assuming they respond at all). The real thing to do here is not to be discouraged, and as a preemptive measure, don’t send anything to the publisher before it was read by a friend/partner/coworker/that homeless guy down the street; they could give you much more detailed feedback.
  • “It just didn’t do it for me.” – This one is a tough cookie. You can’t please everyone, and it is possible that the person you gave your work simply isn’t a part of your target group (giving your WWII veteran granddad a love story about a teenage girl and a sparkly vampire might not be the best idea). It is, however, fair of you to expect them to at least give any sort of honest comment on the logic, language, or structure of the story. They may not have been swept off their feet by the plot, but they can at least tell you if you overuse metaphors, rash the pacing, or forget plotlines. The best thing for you to do is, once again, ask questions and get them talking, primarily about more structural and formal aspect. You could also use their their “outsider view” to the genre or premise and ask about the characters and how believable or likable they are.
  • “Don’t quit your dayjob.” – That’s just being mean. Ignore this person as he/she doesn’t respect you enough to even try and give you constructive criticism.
  • “But is that what would really happen?” – Personally, I think that is a moot point, but for many readers, it isn’t. They need the story to make sense, even within the framework of having elves, orcs, and dragons around. They are talking about a logical chain of events and believable characters and character behavior. It could very well be that you are making your characters or event irrational on purpose, in which case you can say so and gauge your interlocutor’s response, but be aware that you are thus making your story a niche story for those who are looking for more literary fiction, which is, once again, your prerogative. Consider changing a few, small things about the story to accommodate those mortals who do not constantly dwell on the metaphysical aspects of whatever, though; there’s a reason your friend/partner/coworker/that homeless guy was confused.
  • “I found it rather trite” (in a fake British accent). – That is another tough cookie, but one that might be worth cracking (though, who cracks a cookie?). This will always come across as condescending, and it is often meant as condescending. This often comes from the mouth of someone who is indeed well-read, often a classicist who would rant at length some panegyric for Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy and talk about how terrible modern society is (you may roll your eyes). This person would be well-educated and they’d want to assert this position buy flaunting their literary knowledge (whether actual or imagined by the force of their education, which may also be in mechanical engineering, but they would still claim to know everything about the life of William Shakespeare or Wordsworth… roll eyes again). It might be tempting to tell them to shove it, but listening carefully (you may imagine telling them to shove it) and gleaning out those details, about which they will go on at length, that are actually constructive could provide you with some useful tips. Try to remember that if this kind of person was your target audience, you’d be talking and acting like them, i.e. like a condescending @sshole, so don’t expect them to praise you too much.

One last comment before I leave you. Feedback, any feedback, could both be a challenge and a blessing. Even if the only thing it does is show you who isn’t your audience. The most important thing is to remember that art, whether visual or written, is a subjective experience, and different people will see it in different light. Don’t let one bad review get you down.

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