Category Archives: Grammar

How to Give Good Criticism, or ‘Do as you would be done by’

This post follows on from my earlier one, about how to take criticism.

Now, before you get defensive, criticism is a good thing.  It can help you develop as an artist in whatever field you choose to pursue.  It can open your mind, make you a bigger, better human being.

BUT

It has to be CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM.

Constructive criticism is given from a place of concern and interest.  It is offered by someone who cares about your work and wants you to be the best you can possibly be.

Most people don’t know how to do this, which means criticism gets a bad rap.  It is seen as something damaging and negative, something that can potentially destroy you as an artist, and believe me, it is, if you do it wrong.

This is a guide on how to do it right.

 THE ONLY RULE IN GIVING CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM IS EMPATHY

Everything comes from this.

Put yourself in the place of the person whose work you are reviewing.  Think about what you want to say about it.  How would you feel if someone said something like that to you about your work?  Would you feel hopeful, buoyed up, enthused, or would you be utterly crushed?

Take the time to think before you type or speak.  This is especially important if you are reviewing someone’s fanfiction or online work.  It’s so easy to plonk a few keys and fire off a comment before you have thought about it, before you have considered the impact on the person receiving it.

Don’t say what you would have done instead.  So many readers think that helpful comments should be about ‘well, I would have written it this way.’  No.  Criticism is about pointing out what doesn’t work for you as a reader.  It is down to the writer/creator to decide what to do about that.  (However, helpful suggestions are often very well received.)  Remember that this work comes from someone’s unique perspective, and that they have made many artistic decisions for specific reasons.  Those are reasons that you may not share, understand or even perceive.    Give the writer/creator your respect.

Gauge the level of criticism the writer/creator may be ready to receive.  This can sometimes be quite hard, especially if there is seems a lot wrong with a piece.  Is the writer in need of help at the most basic level, i.e. the nuts and bolts of language and grammar?  This may, of course, be because the language used is not their native language, so they are learning.  If that is so, they may be very grateful for your help.  Perhaps the comments you need to make are at a higher level, in terms of plot, pace, character, structure or dialogue.  Again, this may be a problem with linguistic mastery.  Try to choose one area to comment on at a time.  Don’t deluge someone with criticism of all major aspects of their work, or they will go to pieces.

Knowing the writer’s other work helps.  This way you can refer back to it, and they feel known and appreciated.  If someone is commenting with knowledge of your back-catalogue, they can comment in context.  They know where you are coming from, and how your work has changed over time. It’s not necessary to read everything a writer has written before you comment, but if you have read one or two of their other works, and you think they are relevant, it can be a great boost, a recognition of the progress they have made and what they do right.

Practise constructive criticism in a writers group.  You can join them online or face to face.  Watch notice boards in your local library or bookshop, or scan the pages of literary and writers magazines like Mslexia to find a good group.  Alternatively, form your own, and workshop your work together.  Make the rule that all comments must be caring and constructive.  Always ask the recipient how they feel about what was said at the end of their workshop session, so that they have a chance to talk about any comments they found difficult to handle – trust is crucial.  (I’ll write more soon about writers groups and how useful they can be.)

Always point out and praise what does work, and be positive.  The writer/creator has put a lot of time and effort into producing something for your consumption and enjoyment, and that in itself is a great achievement.

Don’t EVER get personal.  This is about the work, not the person.

If you react in a strongly negative way to a piece, ask yourself whether this is because the content is touching on your own issues and triggers?  If it is, DO NOT comment.  I suggest you spend some time writing your rant out in your journal, rather than firing it off to some innocent writer who doesn’t know about your ‘stuff’.

Some examples of constructive criticism:

(These are all actual examples of constructive criticism I have received on my work, and are offered as illustrationss of general points.)

“I’m not really sure I understand the character’s motivation at this point.  Maybe I need to see them in a scene that shows them being attacked about this issue so I know why they are reacting so defensively later on, or maybe point to some backstory that suggests this?”

“And then he said it.  The thing he wasn’t supposed to say.  The one thing I never expected from him.”  – (section of text from my story)  This feels like overwriting to me.  If it was the one thing he wasn’t supposed to say, surely it is unnecessary to add that it was unexpected from him.  You are repeating the sense here.  Just take the second sentence out, and its perfect as it is.”

“The word xxxxxx stands out as awkward here for me.  Would they really use that kind of language?  It sounds more like modern slang than a Victorian expression, and it kind of bumped me out of the flow of reading.  Could you substitute something similar but gentler?”

“(Example given)  This sentence is really long.  It has so many commas that I got a bit confused as to what you were trying to say.  It would make much more sense for me if you made shorter sentences, so that I don’t have to consciously keep track of where you are going.”

 A final note:

Remember, it takes a lot of guts to put your creative work out into the public arena.  For many creative people it feels like sticking one’s head into the lion’s mouth.  Respect that fear and the bravery that outweighs it.  Always respect and have empathy for the creator of the work on which you comment, and it will be hard to go wrong.  If we support one another’s work lovingly, we can all learn together.

Incidentally, I would love to know if you have more tips on how to receive or make constructive criticism – if you do, please comment/reply!

Happy creating,

EF

Advertisements

Flow, or How To get Out Of Your Readers’ Way

flow at Ardnave

Ardnave Beach, Islay – I didn’t have an illuminating photo of a stream, so rocks will have to do!

You’ve probably heard of Flow.  It is that psychological state of perfect concentration that we fall into when our attention is completely absorbed in something, whether it is running, painting, reading, crafting or anything else that involves us completely.

As a writer, Flow is what you are after in your reader.  You have probably felt it yourself.  Remember those books that were so engrossing that you could lose hours at a time between the pages, and not notice?

The trouble is that when you are reading, the tiniest thing can jolt you out of it – from the cat meowing for its tea, to your baby crying to be picked up, or even something as small as the rain tapping against the window.  As a writer you are up against this too-human tendency, and your job is to make sure that you do not add to the distractions.

This is why getting the nuts and bolts right is so important.

For example, have you ever come across a typographical error in a printed novel?  It seems to be happening more and more these days, and I find I notice at least one in every novel I read.  It is irksome.  It makes you suddenly aware that you are in the act of reading a book, rather being so caught up in the action that you are in it with the characters, a part of the crowd.

I have judged a number of short story competitions in my time, and I never fail to be amazed at how writers fail to take account of this. Being aware of your readers’ flow can improve your writing immeasurably, and can make the difference between a prize and publication, or languishing at the bottom of the reject pile.

Its not just about presentation – lets face it, in this digital age, your work could be presented in any number of ways, so even if you make sure you conform to the industry standard of 12 point, double spaced text, (which I would always advise) your reader may not ultimately be consuming it that way.  You can make the difference, and keep your reader in the moment, by observing a few simple rules:

1. Pay attention to punctuation.  It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference.  Read your work aloud, and notice where you take a breath, or pause.  That’s where a comma should go.  Read a good book about it.  You can’t do better than this one.

2.  Don’t trust the spell checker.  It can’t tell the difference between ‘passed’ and ‘past’, and that little difference could be enough to annoy your reader out of their flow, and maybe give up completely.

3. Get to grips with language.  Knowing the meaning of words is really important, so don’t just take it for granted – Fanfiction writers, I am looking at you!  Just because someone else uses the word ‘ravage’ instead of ‘ravish’, doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistake! (And ‘leisurely’ is not an adverb. Grrr!)  When in doubt, look it up!

4.  Don’t use overlong sentences.  You aren’t Henry James.  Thank God.  Keep it to one or two clauses at most.  Don’t ramble.  Short sentences may increase the pace of your scene, but you can slow things down in other ways if thats what you want, through description and reflection.

5.  Don’t repeat yourself.  This is a private bugbear of mine, I have to confess.  You don’t need to use the same word three times in a three line paragraph.  You’ve got vocabulary – use it!  If you want to understand how the breadth of language can be used to write a whole book about just one thing, avoiding  repetition, read Patrick Süskind’s dazzling novel,  ‘Perfume’.  It proves you really don’t have to repeat yourself.

6. Proof read.  And then do it again.  And then get someone else to proof read for you.  Seriously.  There are so many typos and spelling mistakes (commonly referred to as ‘smelling mistakes’ in our house) that you often can’t see without help.  (And now I am having a mini-nervous breakdown that there will be typos in this article that I haven’t seen – you see, we all do it, so beware!)

These are just a few simple things you can do to give your reader a smooth ride.  If you do that, not only will they keep reading to the end, but they are far more likely to come back for more.  And thats what you want!

Happy writing!