Constructive and Destructive Critiques
I am become Death, Destroyer of Words
If you write fiction, there will likely come a time where you’ll want to show it to others. This may be to your mother, your friends, or, if you’re anything like me, to peers in a writing group.
About twenty years ago I took a writing class at the New School in Manhattan called Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, taught by the late Alice K. Turner. Alice was a fiction editor at Playboy for many years (Playboy was one of the best-paying markets, if not the best, and it was considered a mark of high status to get your work published there.)
There was this young man in the class, let’s call him Bob. Bob took on a haughty, holier-than-thou attitude during the class. We would each write a bit of fiction, share it via email, then take turns providing critiques of each other’s work.
Bob was never happy with us.
No sentence was innocent. No word beyond reproach. He usually gave long-winded rants laced with pseudo academic-sounding analyses on why this or that element didn’t work. He wasn’t the teacher, but he thought he was. Bob found most everything distasteful or (heaven forbid) mediocre, and unworthy of his lofty writerly tastes. Except, of course, his own writing.
No one liked Bob very much.
A few years later, I joined the writing group Altered Fluid (of which I am still a member today). We had a guest one night, let’s call her Zelda. We invited Zelda to our group to critique our stories and dispense professional advice as we were all more or less beginners and Zelda was much further along in her career. Mine happened to be one of the stories being workshopped this evening. During her critique, Zelda told me how much she “loathed” my story, that I knew nothing of my subject, and she was so actively hostile to me and my story that others around the table began to stir uncomfortably in their seats. According to my friends, I took her harsh critique in stride, but I remember feeling mortified.
A few months later my story (mostly unchanged from that evening) went on to be published in a well-regarded fiction magazine. The editor loved it, and to this day I still feel it’s one of my most creative and inventive stories.
Flash forward a few years later to when my first novel, King of Shards, came out. A reviewer from a small fantasy website panned the book, calling it “clunky”, “awkward”, and “tedious”, the characters “underdeveloped” and “flat”, and went so far as to criticize the book cover, the paper type, and font choices (for those who don’t know, traditionally published authors have little say in the actual physical book design.) The reviewer seemed furious at the very idea that the book even existed.
I was not happy with this review. At all.
But I got more reviews: King of Shards was praised by NPR Books, the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, The Huffington Post, and Publisher’s Weekly, to name a few. Great accolades, for sure. But still that one bad review stung.
The thing is, no matter what you write there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like it. You should never hope to please everyone. It’s impossible. You should write for one person and one person alone: yourself. Write the story you’d love to read.
I promise you that if you love your work, someone else will too. Your passion will come through. Your words will be infused with it.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore good advice when it comes. So how do you know if advice is good or bad? When deciding whether or not to use story suggestions I’ve received, I use the following guidelines:
If the suggestion is constructive, that is, if the critiquer has made an obvious effort to understand the story I’m trying to tell and their suggestion will improve the story I’m trying to tell, use it.
If the suggestion rings true to me, that is, if I feel the suggestion is in line with what I’m trying to say, use it.
These two elements may seem the same, but they are subtly different.
And, as a corollary, you should never accept bad advice. And how do you know if a suggestion is bad?
If the advice is destructive, that is, if the critquer has made no clear attempt to understand what I’m trying to say, and they are dismissive, angry, condescending, or disdainful towards me or my work, ignore it.
If the advice doesn’t ring true to me, that is, if I don’t feel it will improve the story I’m trying to tell, ignore it.
Also, beware the Destroyer. The Destroyer is usually someone frustrated with their own writing or lack of success, or a writer in a comfortable position of power who can’t abide some youngling like yourself nipping at their heels. The Destroyer will project their own frustrations onto you and your work. How dare you write such a thing! they will seem to say. What were you thinking, you fool?
Avoid Destroyers. They are toxic. And if you can’t avoid them, do your best ignore them. Their reactions are not actually about you, but their own disturbed psychology, though that may be hard to see in the moment.
You should also be open to advice from those who aren’t writers or editors or have any familiarity with critiquing fiction. Sometimes getting an amateur opinion is better than getting one from a pro. Oftentimes, these “amateur” opinions will be more raw and true, not tempered by the tropes and terminology that writers use. If something isn’t working, these “amateurs” will often be the first to spot it. Again, trust your gut. If their suggestion rings true, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
I have lots more to say on this subject, but since this is getting long, I’ll just end this here. Comments, criticisms, and suggestions for topics always welcome!
Great advice. Thank you.
How do I find a 'writers group?' I am hesitant to share my works online, except to an actual editor/publisher.