Thursday, 8 April 2010

Writing Feedback - taking critcism

Today I want to discuss bad criticism. We've all received it... well, if you've ever had a group read your work. Even highly popular authors will receive bad reviews on their books.

For instance, one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth George, received these reviews on her latest best-selling book - Careless in Red (Amazon Reviews):

1) 600 pages! Elizabeth George is not Tolstoy. She desperately needs an editor with a CTL-x button.

2) Like a lot of people, I eagerly awaited George's latest creation but this book is so b-o-r-i-n-g! The plot goes on and on, with many superfluous characters, not many of them likable, so by the time one is halfway through the book one has resorted to skimming. Who cares about Dellen? or Ben? or Santo? or Madlyn, etc. etc. Daidre was interesting. Her friend whose name I have already erased from my memory was not. I couldn't care less about most of the characters, they ALL deserved to fall off cliffs as far as I was concerned.
Here's two examples of bad critiques I've received:
1) The subject of the story is a little dark for me. While no babe in the woods, I have a difficult time with murder and cold-blooded response to anything. Your writing is, of course, brilliant, but I didn't like your character. Hard to reach out to someone, or identify with another who is in the act of murder, regardless of the reason for it. I loath abusive people, whether they are male or female, and the act of depravity that drives people to this level of emotional response is beyond my ability to comprehend. Perhaps as the story unfolds, I will warm up and understand better, but right now, I'm not sure if I would continue.
2) Unfortunately, I do not believe I will be able to offer anything really constructive to you. As for the fact is is formatted as a transcript.
Though very sparse and at times difficult to read as there is little to picture, the dialogue is both
solid and believable. Angie is more like the typical "Stupid American" who is blissfully ignorant to the world outside her own.   (...)
Ordinarily, I would like to know more about where this will lead to, but I will not be able to even
struggle through the format. Sorry I could not be more helpful . . .
So, when you receive criticism like this, what do you do? Go to your local gun shop? NO! Don't do that.

Instead, count to ten and calm down. Along with those two brutal reviews, I received many more encouraging ones. Ask yourself, what do the majority think?

There are reasons people give bad feedback:
1) Perhaps they feel they need to be harsh because that's what you're expecting.
2) Perhaps they're having a bad day.
3) Perhaps they're jealous.
4) Or, perhaps what you wrote is bad.

This may come as a surprise to some, I never started out as a good writer. Most of my first novels I destroyed because I thought they were rubbish. But, I improved because I took the cricism to heart and tried harder.

I also think all writers need bad feedback. It's vital. Here are my reasons:
1) If all you've ever receieved is pats on the back, you won't be ready for the publishing world where rejection and criticism is handed out by the truckloads.
2) Without bad feedback once in a while, you may never believe you need to keep improving your craft.

SO tell me, I spilled my guts, tell me what types of criticism you've received over the years?

Read a wonderful post today from Women of Mystery about how to find overused words in your manuscript: Use Wordle.


Fran Hill said...

I think what's most revealing is when you receive the same kinds of comments time after time. That's the time to think uh-oh. Need to change .... My downfall used to be adverbs which I used continually, remorselessly and usually uselessly. Now it's long sentences which no one can follow because there are so many clauses in which I don't really say an awful lot but which do go on and on and on.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm not that far along my writing journey. I do have 2 crit buddies who are honest but kind. Still stings when they point out what I should have caught in the first place!

Arlee Bird said...

Are you talking about bad critiquing or a negative response to what has been written? Criticism to a great extent is quite subjective. The examples that you give, while written in a style that would not be worthy of a literary journal or newspaper criticism, do reflect valid problems for that reader and others with the same sensibilities. What doesn't appeal to one may be different from another's perspective. Perhaps I've missed your point, but I don't consider any opinion of writing bad unless it's merely an ad hominem attack upon the author.

Interesting topic for reflection.
Blogging From A to Z April Challenge

Ann Elle Altman said...

Fran, I agree. If something keeps coming up again and again in your feedback, change it.

Jemi, well, at least they noticed it. It looks horrible when an editor, agent, publisher or buyer notices.

Arlee, I'm just talking about the constructive but negative feedback. I'm going to talk about the bad and worthless feedback tomorrow. I think you're right, those that go after who the writer is rather than how he/she writes is not helpful.


Patricia Stoltey said...

I've received all the usual rejections from editors and agents over the years, but the two critiquing comments that stuck in my mind were:

1. (This one almost made me stop writing in my 20s) -- "This is ridiculous."

2. (One I received a couple of years ago from a critique group member when I tried a first chapter for a YA mystery) -- "This is predictable and boring."

I'm much tougher now and don't take critiques and reviews too seriously (although I try to learn from them), so #2 didn't bother me nearly as much as #1 did.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I haven't put a lot of work out there yet, I did start sharing a first draft of Dog Show Detective with an online critique group, but then I realised there were changes needed that I already knew about, so I should work on it more first.
From the critiques I did receive, I wrote out notes to use when I edit. I find most people give critiques with love and genuinely want to help. It's up to you then to decide which advise will move your narrative forward and which ones you need to discard.
I think the critiques you received show you're writing is definitely promising! :-)

Charmaine Clancy said...

oops left the last comment signed in with the wrong account - tis just me :-)

Elisabeth said...

Some of the criticisms you quote from here seem to me to say more about the reviewer than the writing reviewed. It's important to bear that one in mind when considering critiques.

Once in a writing workshop, one of our number, a brilliant poet took umbrage when a few people suggested ways in which she might tweak her poem.

I find myself unsympathetic to people who will not even consider another person's perspective on changes that might be made. On the other hand, I also remember a suggestion that Olga Lorenzo, an Australian writer, made to our writers group one day.

It's like your on board a liner about to take off to sea. You stand on the deck waving to those on shore who've come to say farewell.

Someone throws you a bouquet. You catch it and you wave it in the air by way of acknowledgment. By the time the ship is is out to sea, you take a good look at that bouquet. If you decide it's not for you, then you throw it overboard.

This is a useful way of dealing with criticism I think: you take what's useful to you, what resonates, what might be helpful and chuck the rest.

Thanks for a terrific post.

Kimberly Franklin said...

It's probably weird that I love when my crit buddies point out stuff that's wrong with my writing, right? But they are honest and that's what I love about them. It will only help me and my writing in the long run. Criticism is a great! As long as it's not mean spirited. :)

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Or it could be that it just absolutely is not their cup of tea. And the next person will love it.

TirzahLaughs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TirzahLaughs said...

Actually on a review site that I no longer got to, I had this lovely woman who reviewed every single thing I posted with basically the same review. I finally memorized it.

'You suk. You'd do the world a favor if you quit now because you'll never be successful. Who writes this kind of crap?'

It really hurt the first few times. Then, since the reviews were more or less the same each time, I decide she just must be nuts.

Oh and she always spelled suck as suk.

Hah. I really hated that woman.


Some crits I agree with. Some I disagree with. The only ones I object to are the mean ones for meanness sake.


Linda said...

I know my writing can improve and so if I receive honest criticism, I hope I am woman enough to listen and learn (that has come with age, I must admit).

I do not share my WIP with everyone, though. Some of my "friends", when they found I was finally taking my writing seriously, have developed negative attitudes about the whole idea of anyone wanting to be published. These folks can stand in line to buy the finished novel (and no discount from me, thank you very much LOL).

Criticism is always swallowed best when it is thoughtfully presented--not sugar-coated per se, but what Mother used to call "constructive criticism", not blatant negativity.

A final thought about online criticism (such as I find when reading reviews for a possible new addition to my TBR mountain): if the reviewer/critic cannot spell or construct a grammatically correct sentence--albeit an informal one--I highly discount their opinion. Harsh? Perhaps.

Fewer people tend to be as free-wheeling with praise these days as in times past and it is such a shame. Whatever happened to "if you can't say anything nice, then it is best to stay silent?"

So, if I am critical of another person's work, I also try to be courteous enough of their feelings to find something positive to say as well.

Lorel Clayton said...

I've loved this entire series of posts on feedback--thanks Ann!

I notice with many of the bad review examples you give, it's all personal taste. Someone is squeamish about murders, or they just don't like the genre. There's nothing you can do to change that, which is why it's so important to get unbiased critiques, especially from people who generally like your type of book. You're never going to get a good response on your chick lit piece from someone who only likes 19th century poetry. That said, it's also true that you can write something bad (I have stacks of the stuff) and it's good when someone tells you that so you can learn.

Laura S. said...

I handle constructive criticism okay because I expect it (and need it!) when I'm in a workshop. But negative criticism- the mean kind- is very disheartening. But I try not to take it personally because it's silly to think everyone is going to like my writing. It just won't happen. But I like what Fran said- when hearing the same things over again, it's definitely something to change. Writing helps us develop thick skins, that's for sure!

Christi Goddard said...

I've been told my writing is good in small doses, but once I have pages of my 'voice' then I'll lose readers who don't 'get' it.

Natasha said...

Another great post!

Detailed criticism I would welcome, even if I don't agree with it. At least it shows someone has read and taken the trouble to comment.

~ Rayna

Jan Morrison said...

You can give someone very difficult criticism if it is done respectfully - if you attack the person then that isn't criticism - it is agression. I am good with receiving good constructive crits but I'm not interested in hearing personal attacks. I also do not understand a criticism that includes a dislike for the genre such as the first one - if you don't like this genre take yourself off the job. The worst criticism I received was for a play - the reviewer hated us, hated the play and as it happened really hated the artistic director. He went so far as to call our play ruinous for theatre in Nova Scotia! He hated the song titles. His piece was so vitrolic that people thought he was crazy and or personally involved with one of us. It wasn't helpful I can assure you. It took me a long time to get over it and it hurt our play's progress (small city). When I ask for feedback - I state exactly what I want - I never say 'just read this and tell me what you think' as that is not helpful to me or to the reader.

Jim Murdoch said...

Surprisingly little considering I've been at this game for over thirty years. The majority comes under the general header "Not for us" with no reason given. When there are reasons mostly they've been valid. I don't do plots for example and so my slice-of-life stories don't appeal to a lot of people. That doesn't make them bad, just not for them.

I would also say I've not had a huge amount of praise aimed in my general direction over the years either. People will say they like something but aren't crazy on being drawn why even when I know they're not just being polite; I can usually tell the difference.

It's always bothered me that I've been a bit on my own and left to trust my own instincts. Looking back on early stuff I can see improvement and that's the main thing.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Patricia Stoltey, wow, that was harsh and not at all helpful. I guess we can learn from remarks like that but that's crazy.

Charmaine Clancy, I love my online critique. In the last few years, my writing has improved greatly.

Elisabeth, yes. I'm always polite to all those who write negative reviews. Most negative reviews are meant well. I like to quote from the movie Madagascar, "Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave."

Kimberly Franklin, yes. I think negative are good. Thanks for the comments.

KarenG, that's exactly it. I don't expect everyone to like my genre or stories. I'm not a fan of some best-selling authors and I doubt they'll care.

TirzahLaughs, oh crap, Tirz, that was me. ;) I've read you're work and I know that you write strong words. But, I also know you write good words and great poems. Well, it may not count for much but you've got a fan in me.

Linda, that's a good idea. If people can't write well, don't take their opinions too seriously. If you don't like what they write, you can't expect them to like what you write.

Lorel Clayton, thank you so much for that! I'm glad you liked the series. I'm going to do one more post today about really bad comments.

Laura Marcella, you've said it exactly. Good and bad are both needed. Now, I prefer the bad more than the good.

Christi Goddard, What!? That's crazy. I think that person may not like your novels but don't give up. If you like your MC's voice, someone else will also.

Rayna, yes. Even if they took the time to be negative, they obviously felt it was worth the time. Sometimes I am guilty of not spending much effort on manuscripts that I don't feel are ready for publishing.

Jan Morrison, it's frustrating when that happens but I think that happens with every artist. I think if a person wants to give a bad opinion, they should do so quietly but usually the strong ones rarely do.

Jim Murdoch,that's sad that you've not received much criticism either way. I've read one of your poems and personally, I was touched by it. Perhaps because you've written so much people don't feel they need to respond but it still is nice once and a while.

Thank you everyone for your comments.


Talli Roland said...

Great post, Ann - thanks for sharing and reminding me that we're not alone in receiving critiques whatever stage of our writing we're in!

I've got all the usual suspects... but the harshest one I received was from a professional reader who gave me very thorough, helpful and honest feedback -- but it was quite brutal. Now, I know she was doing it to make me a better writer, but at the time I burst into tears and wanted to give up!

It's so hard not to take things personally, even if they are well intended!

Jeni Decker said...

I loved this article, Ann. First, the funniest thing is that from the two reviews, I know which pieces the reviewers were talking about because I've read BOTH of your pieces they discuss. And my thoughts/reviews of both were vastly different. I loved the murderous wife, but I don't think I have to empathyze, sympathize or even like a particular character. I just have to enjoy the journey. As for Jayne and the structure that story took, I found it completely engaging because the dialogue was so good. You managed to pull it off within the confines of a structure that, let's just be honest, is very difficult. You pulled it off and I remember being so proud!

As for reviews. I think one must take reviews as a whole, not piecemeal. If multiple reviewers bring up the same issues, that's where the warning bell in your head should start to ring.

And the most important thing for a writer, I believe, is to get to that place of discernment where they can sift through the reviews, take the advice that really works for the piece they are writing, as well as their voice--and then trash the rest.

Taking every bit of critical advice can be the downfall of the writer and the drowning of their individual voice. Once a writer gets to that place, the world of editing is a vastly different one than when we first began putting our work up for review.

But, my Oh!My! those early days of getting reviews made one feel like chum in the vicious, shark-infested waters, did they not? Ha!

I used to physically start trembling when opening up a review. But somewhere along the line, I found my voice and my comfort zone. From there, sprang a feeling of self-confidence in my own writing and that's a wonderful place to be. It is what I wish for every writer.

It's a journey, but it's worth every moment, every review, every lambasting, every bit of 'tough love'.

And can I also add--I love my fellow writers. They have given me so much and my only hope is to give at least as much in return.

(you are among those writers who have a special place in my writing life!)

Jeni ;)

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