Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Useful criticism is an author’s dream. Oh, how we fantasize about page after page of useful, easily implemented, tactfully phrased notes. And it is a fantasy, because try as we might, we never seem to get them.
I remember the first few times I tried to get useful criticism, handing over a short story to a friend and a teacher. I waited a week and a half, conscious that I didn’t want to harry them, worried that asking for their feedback too early would rush them in their composition of what I imagined as copious margin notes, dissecting the writing style, the tone, my authorial voice…
The teacher got back to me a few days later, providing three notes on the page and a congenial, “You’ve definitely got an idea here.” The friend took another two months – after which I had to demand the piece back – and added four sticky notes, all of which debated the physical realities of my action scenes.
Both results left me too nonplussed to dig deeper or ask for more. I’d been expecting a general sense of awe tempered by some minor technical advice – even a bit of energetic back and forth – but they’d given me almost nothing. It was only years later, after a university course involving two to three group feedback sessions a week, that I realized I was the problem.
Redefining ‘useful criticism’
The problem with receiving criticism as an author is that it’s a really difficult task that society teaches us is incredibly simple. I don’t know where we get the idea of those pages full of notes, but that’s exactly what we’re primed to expect – direct, copious feedback that we can choose to accept or reject.
It’s what you’ll get from a professional edit, but you’re likely to want or even need amateur feedback before you’re ready for that. Instead, casual criticism tends to be too short, too long, obsessed with the wrong part of the work, based on a flawed premise, or just plain wrong. Every so often you might find someone who’s got the time and expertise to give you what you’re after, but even then it’s just one person’s opinion, however extensively it’s explained or justified.Learn to use poor criticism rather than waiting for perfect feedback. Click To Tweet
No, what’s needed is a way to take the rubbish criticism and turn it into something better. The good news is that this is exactly how it works; the faltering, spotty feedback you get from beta readers, friends, and teachers can be distilled into useful criticism. It takes some skill – this is alchemy we’re taking about, after all – but it’s something that’s worth the time to learn.
The two-way street
The first and most important thing to realize about criticism is that it’s a two-way street. By that, I don’t mean that you have to help the critic (although you do), or that it’s your job to prep your work so it’s easier to provide feedback (although it is). I mean that in providing feedback, your critic has done only half the job – the rest is up to you, and it will take genuine effort.
Actually, come to think of it, there is one thing that’s more important when learning to turn faulty feedback into useful criticism. That thing is to recognize that you’ve already been misled. It’s unclear when this happens, or why it’s almost ubiquitous among authors, but most of us secretly believe that it’s everyone else who’s getting it wrong. We know exactly what we want, we know how we’d do it in their shoes, and so when we get bad feedback, we get annoyed.
It’s even something of a comforting feeling, allowing us to throw out notes that annoy us because the critic clearly hasn’t understood their role. If you’ve ever received feedback on your work, you’ve almost certainly felt it to some extent, and while one article isn’t enough to break out of it, it’s something to police vigilantly within your own mind. Frustration at the critic is a natural reaction to having something as important and prized as your writing criticized (even if you asked for it), and the temptation to catch hold of a perceived problem with their performance can be overwhelming. The problem is that if you let that automatic response dictate your actions, you’ll lose a valuable resource. Instead, try to feel it, acknowledge it for what it is, and then set it aside.
An extra warning for those who were shaking their heads during that last paragraph: those authors who claim to be the most comfortable with criticism are generally those who most instinctively dismiss it. The most extreme version of this reaction is the one that feels most reasonable, since the faults in the feedback seem so clear and inarguable.
Instead, try to accept beforehand that criticism is almost certainly going to seem useless, even stupid, when it comes to you. That’s what amateur criticism is before your input; your critic has given you some raw materials, and it’s up to you to make something out of them.
Another thing that’s important to note about criticism is that it all goes in the same pot – you’re going to make a useful criticism cake out of the raw feedback. That means you need different ingredients and lots of them, but they don’t all have to come from one person. If one critic gives you eggs, it doesn’t make sense to complain about the lack of flour or butter. Sure, it would have been nice, but it doesn’t make the eggs worthless. Enter into the author/critic relationship with the expectation that they’re going to bring you something and you’ll be in a position to use what’s provided. Enter it with the expectation that they’re bringing everything, and you’re going to be let down.
Remember, also, that being a critic is hard.
The critic’s burden
Imagine being suddenly asked to judge a talent show. You’re not given any instructions, no guidelines for what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but you are expected to justify your decisions to the acts. Now, you wouldn’t be useless – you still have a good idea of what’s impressive and what isn’t – but you’d be nervous about relaying your decisions. Since you don’t know the rules and guidelines, aren’t you going to be a little kinder to the acts? Aren’t you going to hedge your bets, or else risk revealing your ignorance and hurting feelings?
This is how the average person feels when asked to provide useful criticism of a book. It’s not that they lack insight – they read, after all – it’s that they’re not completely confident in the ‘rules’ of how to deliver it. Many authors try to combat this by saying something like ‘Be as harsh as you can’, but this only addresses one aspect of the critic’s burden. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, sure, but they also don’t want to look stupid or say the ‘wrong’ thing.
This mental state means that, before they even read a word, they’re primed to be forgiving – to hold back on their opinion in any area where they’re not sure their criticism is valid. Different critics will overcome this feeling to different degrees, but as a writer, it’s important to appreciate that you’re asking a lot of them. You’re effectively saying ‘Be somewhat stressed and risk potential embarrassment in order to provide help you’re not sure will be useful.’ It’s a lot to ask and, more importantly for your purposes as a writer, it’s going to shape their feedback.
This is something I designed our Beta Reader Questionnaire to avoid. Whether it’s the free version you can download by following that link or one of your own design, I’d suggest questionnaires to any authors looking for more comprehensive feedback that’s less warped by the stresses of criticizing someone’s writing.
Questionnaires allow you to direct the critic, but not in a way that adds the stress of your presence as an author. It also gives them permission to delve deeper. The questionnaire can operate as a sort of middle man – when you ask what scene to cut, your critic can wave it off, but when the questionnaire asks ‘If you had to cut one scene, which would you choose?’ the white space is far more inviting and far less accusing.Questionnaires are far less intimidating than direct conversation, leading to better feedback from beta readers.Click To Tweet
It also allows you to ensure that a critic covers all the areas you want (although, again, be prepared to see even limited feedback as useful), and gives the reader the ability to think about their answers – once they’ve expressed something to you in person, it’s difficult to come back later and say ‘Actually, I changed my mind on that’. A questionnaire allows this kind of beneficial behavior without asking the critic to lose face.
The questionnaire, then, is a great way to make the critic’s job easier and their performance more effective, but it’s not a necessary part of finding useful feedback. It’s a great tool (a great, free tool), but it’s not the alchemy I mentioned earlier.
Dissection as an art form
Here’s the tip that’s going to change how you handle criticism: only one, specific part of your critic’s feedback is going to be useful. Furthermore, it’s only going to be useful once you cut it away from the stuff you don’t need.
This is because when you ask a critic for feedback, you’re actually asking for two types of feedback. The first type of feedback is how they feel about the book and its contingent parts. Here, they’re an expert. Your book is intended for a reader, and they’re a reader. Their impression of the book is therefore as authoritative as it gets – this is an area they know more about than even you. When they criticize the book in any way, that’s where – in their case – it hasn’t done its job. The second type of feedback is how they think you can fix that problem. Here, they’re at best a novice, and they’ll almost always be wrong.
First of all, writing is an individual craft. Someone else’s solution is unlikely to suit you, even if they’re also a writer. Secondly, we are, as a species, not great at identifying the roots of our own emotional responses. A reader may know, absolutely, that they hated a scene and then turn around and completely misidentify why. Their advice on how to fix it, then, is worse than useless – it’s a path to nowhere. That’s not to denigrate the average reader. Most are smart and will have good ideas, but they’re being asked to present a subjective solution that works for you.Readers are experts on what they didn't like, but YOU have to figure out why. Click To Tweet
It’s the mixture of these two types of feedback that makes up the raw critical material. Your job is to cut away the second type: to really listen to the feedback and strip it down to a bare emotional response. Again, your brain will fight you.
Think like a detective
The critical feedback that it took me longest to embrace related to my dialogue, and it was ‘No-one talks like this in real life.’ This term always invited instant dismissal because I knew that I talked like that in real life. They were definitely wrong – the evidence was right in front of me. Hell, it was right in front of them if we’d ever had a conversation. My mistake was in not cutting down deep enough to the core of their complaint. The part of their feedback that mattered was ‘I found the dialogue unrealistic.’
Once I got that, I was able to work out that a big part of the problem was that my characters all spoke in the same way – they had the same vocabulary, favored the same turns of phrase, and employed similar inflections and sentence structure. So someone did talk like that, it just became a problem when it was everyone.
A similar piece of feedback that trips up many authors is ‘I was confused here.’ Usually, this comes right on the heels of a strange assumption – the reader assumed two people were related, or that someone is a traitor, or they missed a crucial bit of motivation: something odd that the author didn’t see coming and which deviates wildly from the text. The instinctive reaction here is ‘Well, you see, you got this wrong.’
The correction clears up the misunderstanding and, often, the reader feels embarrassed to have made such an odd leap in logic. They’ll even talk you around, convincing you it was their fault. Don’t let them! Remember, they’re judging that talent show and they just got called out on an error; it’s everything they were scared would happen. Instead, look further back. There came a point where they made a strange leap of logic. You’re not responsible for where they went with it, but apparently there was a point where they felt like they had to leap to continue. Many authors don’t go back far enough, instead puzzling over how they gave the reader such a strange idea. They didn’t: they just left the reader in a place where they had to make some assumptions to continue.
I remember making this kind of assumption with Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In the first season, there’s a scene where a man loyal to the president attends a secret meeting being held by the antagonistic vice president. I perceived this as a twist – the man wasn’t loyal, he was plotting with the VP – and was suspicious of the character for many, many more episodes. In fact, the meeting was an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering, and the character’s loyalty had never been in doubt. In this case, there was no problem with the writing – I was just too young to understand the context – but a writer trying to ‘fix’ this misapprehension might have easily gone wrong, searching for the wording that made the character feel untrustworthy. There wasn’t any, of course, I had just become lost and gone with the most likely option. Had this problem been down to the writing, a smart writer would have had to look back further, understanding that I wasn’t equipped to explain where the story lost me and instead working it out for herself.
This is the work you have to put in to turn raw feedback into useful criticism – cut the expert account away from the guesswork and then figure out what it means. A useful tool in this process – and one the questionnaire provides – is allowing the reader to give the fullest possible account. Remember, they’re just providing clues, you have to work out what’s going on. They may not be able to tell you what you need to know, but they can shed light on the nature of their core feedback.
A practice that you’ll find in many writing groups – enforced more strictly in some than others – is that the writer is forbidden from talking while receiving criticism. This is based on the principle that, in real life, the writer can’t have any further discourse with the reader than what they’ve written. It can be excruciating to sit there and listen to someone base their entire critique on an element of the story that they’ve clearly misunderstood, but push through. First, you feel frustrated that you’re receiving criticism based on a reader error. As it progresses, however, you begin to understand that they haven’t invented this idea out of nowhere. Hopefully, by the time you’re allowed to talk again, you’ve realized that you failed to communicate well in your piece, and your reply can equip you to find out exactly where.
This ability comes with practice, but you can begin by simply allowing a critic to talk their way through their errors rather than jumping in to correct them. It even makes sense to tell them you’re not going to talk until they’ve provided their initial feedback. Strange, maybe, but the reasoning is sound, and you’ll get even more out of them.
A final piece of advice for your investigation – pay special attention to notes that seem to be about nothing. Where the reader is bored, they can become more attentive to what’s wrong with a scene. This can lead to notes that don’t seem to make sense; the reader knew something was wrong, but they picked the wrong thing.Don’t ignore fuzzy feedback – the reader is telling you where they got bored, they’re just not sure why.Click To Tweet
Earlier, I talked about my friend making notes on my action scenes. His notes were all about the realism of the fights, something I couldn’t understand since the story was sci-fi, and the characters’ varying abilities necessitated some pretty strange combat. In retrospect, the problem was simply that the scenes were poorly written. I’d described the physical action in too much detail and he’d become bored.
Don’t discount this kind of note – it’s easy to dismiss what seems like surface-level feedback, but even when it seems facile, it often points to where the reader was feeling most critical. Fans of movie criticism may have noticed this effect at work – it’s common for an actor’s poor accent to be called out when the movie, or their performance, is lacking. Plenty of rubbish accents get a pass, but if the audience aren’t engaged, it’s a go-to explanation for why they don’t believe in the character.
Making the cake
In the midst of all this investigation, don’t forget to account for personal taste. When you track back to the point you lost your reader, you may in fact find that they just didn’t take the necessary facts on board. Likewise, they may hate a character because they hate that kind of person, rather than because you failed to win them over. Be very careful about these thoughts, of course. It’s easy to give yourself excuses, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because it took effort to distill a note, that note has to be useful. It’s also important to appreciate each piece of feedback as the experience of a single person.
I talked earlier about how all the criticism you receive is going into one big pot. What I meant by this is that critical reaction is raw data – collect it from one person and you know about that one person’s experience. That’s potentially useful, especially where it flags issues that you can see with the benefit of hindsight. Where this data is really valuable, however, is in reference to other, similar data.
There’s nothing more important for an author than reader consensus. One piece of feedback can mean anything, but if everyone is touching on the same points, they’re almost certainly right (by which I mean many other readers are likely to feel the same). This is the place where those vague, surface-level notes become important: Reader 1 might have made some odd, inconsequential notes on one section, but it might only be when Reader 2 gives you more concrete feedback on the same section that things become clear.
Finding multiple beta readers or an active writing circle can be difficult, but the more people you consult, the more their individual feedback will mean. Reader 2’s notes add new perspective to Reader 1’s musings, and Reader 3’s thoughts enhance them both. Remember, also, that any new data you collect is useful. Getting a single egg for your efforts may be frustrating, but it’s still one egg closer to that cake.
Make criticism useful
At their heart, the critic is a wild beast. You can direct their attention, but they’re always just moments away from bounding off to do their own thing. By consulting readers for feedback, you’re hunting for truffles, not buried treasure – there’s no single goal, or if there is, there’s no way to ensure they’ll find it. Instead, try to keep up with them and dig where they’re pointing. It may not be the ordered process you’d like, but it will yield results.
For tips on how to apply the useful criticism you now know how to access, check out Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor, or if you need to make improvements without consulting anyone else, try How to Improve Your Writing by Cutting Eight Words for some instant advice.
Do you struggle to find good feedback, or do you think I’m putting too much focus on the writer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.