How to Interpret Criticism

This is, finally, the follow-up post to The Yin-Yang of Writing.  I previously asked for examples of criticism from readers, and received some really useful comments, which I shall use here.  I’ll also be presenting examples from my own experience.

I’m going to stick to criticism of fiction, because non-fiction is a little different, and doesn’t apply to most of my readers anyway.

You get the most out of criticism when you look behind the words.

Someone once sent me the following crit:

Beautiful writing.  So what?

I’m sure you can imagine my younger self; the indignity, the fuck-you-buddy.  So what?  SO WHAT?  It was beautiful!  You’re just too crass and ignorant to appreciate it!

Years later, with the benefit of age and wisdom, I know exactly what that writer was saying, and why, for years, my stories went nowhere.  Yes, I could write, I could put words on the page in pleasing patterns.

But without conflict, it all meant jack-squat.  That phrase is the best piece of criticism I ever received.  It may not be the most effective phrasing, but it did the job, and it was spot on.  If I’d been less arrogant and dismissive, and actually sat down and thought about it, I might have seen what the writer was trying to say.

Most of the criticism you get will be like that.  The words on the page don’t always equal the meaning behind the critique.  In this post I’ll give some examples, talk about what to look for and how to make the most effective use of criticism.

Get your hands off my words!

From Jaym:

Someone went through a story of mine and ‘edited’ it for me. In the process of doing so, the story became unintelligible. Tense change, no literary tone, the actual bones of the story weren’t there anymore. It was a mess.
Two weeks later I got high praise on it from a top magazine… sans changes.

I sympathise with Jaym.  On a lot of writing boards you’ll run into the dreaded ‘line edits’.  The critiquer will go through your story line by line, and comment as they go, altering your words along the way.

If you are critiquing someone’s work, please, don’t do this.

Part of developing a voice is the way you phrase things, the way you use words.  Rhythm, cadence, use of fragments, use/avoidance of dialogue tags, the dreaded adverb.

You may not like the way a writer puts words on the page, you may think the writing could be better.  But if you change the words, it’s no longer their writing.  It’s yours.  And you are not here to write the story for them.

This sort of thing is an edit, not a critique, and for the most part, useless.  This is the sign of an amateur writer who hasn’t quite grasped the concept of ‘story’, just ‘writing’.

But I told you that in paragraph X?

I recently received the following critique on a short fantasy story.

I’m finding the beginning really confusing. Who is ‘she’? I cannot shout loudly enough: name your characters the first time they appear.

But I did.  The character’s name appeared in the second sentence, and it was clearly a name.  So what’s going on?  Was the critiquer just blind?  Not reading?  Stupid?

While the ego might tempt us to think so, the answer is no, the critiquer is not blind or stupid.  What the critiquer was telling me was that she was lost.  It didn’t matter that I had the character’s name in the second sentence.  My opening had too much going on and not enough detail.  The critiquer was looking for an anchor, something she could hold on to, and I wasn’t giving her one.  The name had no meaning in the context of the story, because I hadn’t given her a context.

If you get a comment like this, where the reader tells you a detail is lacking, when you CLEARLY wrote it in paragraph X, step back for a moment.  What they are saying is that they didn’t see it.  There can be numerous reasons for this; it’s buried in other information, you’ve used confusing descriptions, or you’ve left out all the important parts that are still in your head.

And yes, sometimes the reader just doesn’t see it.  But if a reader has to hunt for details, are you really doing your job as a writer effectively?  We’re not here to hide things in the prose, cleverly disguised as something else.  We’re here to tell a story.  If the reader doesn’t get the story, most of the time, it’s the fault of the writer.  (Not all of the time, but we’ll talk about that later.)

Spouting writing advice.  Badly.

From Joana:

“Each paragraph should be, for the most part, quotes and actions by the same person. There are exceptions of course, but open any book and that’s what you’ll see.”

From JMartinLibrarian:

“Never use semi-colons in fiction.”

From Simon:

“I think you should vary your dialogue tags more. Don’t use ’said’ so much.”

You’ll get many, many variations on this theme.  Don’t use adverbs.  Don’t use ‘was’.  Adjectives are weak.  Don’t use fragments.  Vary the length of your sentences, never have two in a row the same length.  I could go on and on.

If you get this sort of comment from the reader, don’t dismiss it out of hand, but don’t be ready to jump in and change things.  The value of these comments depends on the critiquer.

Sometimes these comments mean that the reader has been pulled out of the story by the issue. Read your story through, looking specifically for the ‘writing fault’ mentioned by the critiquer.  If, on reading through, you find that you have an adverb every few sentences, or most of your story is long, double-jointed sentences, then it’s time to rethink.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time these types of comment are spouted by new-ish writers who have heard the ‘rules’ and think they are set in stone.  That you can’t use ANY adverbs.  NO semicolons.  If the critiquer has picked up one or two instances and you are happy with them, don’t jump to change things.

You should write like this!

And the follow-up to bad writing advice; statements like the following.

From Joyce:

I also found it very helpful when an agent told me I needed a stronger voice and could achieve this through more emotion and inner dialogue.

I cringed when I read this.  On first glance it seems like great advice; everyone wants a stronger voice!  And all you need is more emotion and inner dialogue!

Poppycock, in my opinion.

What this piece of advice is saying is that the reader LOVES stories where the hero/heroine goes on at length in their head, and wails and gnashes their teeth at every disaster that turns up.  It’s personal preference.  But it’s a lie; you don’t need to pepper your prose with inner dialogue and emotion to develop an incredible voice.  And this, I suspect, is a genre bias.  It’s misleading.

What I would take away from the above comment is that the reader didn’t feel an emotional connection with the character, and didn’t understand what they were thinking.  Sometimes this is applicable to your story, sometimes not.  At that point, it’s up to the writer to decide, based on the type of story they are writing.

A better example, from Simon:

“I feel as though this character is so emotionally closed off that just feeling anything at all is a step in the right direction for him. I don’t think he needs to do (action) at the end of the story.”

This piece of criticism is well-worded; the critiquer is telling the writer how he felt reading the story.  However, only the writer can decide whether an action is applicable to the story.  It might be an indication that there is a lost connection between the events and the ending; or it might just mean that the critiquer was expecting something different.  Worth thinking about.

Showing vs telling

The dreaded issue.

From Janette:

“could you show more than tell, just HERE?”

From MCM:

“Show, don’t tell.” To which I said: “Where?” and he said: “EVERYWHERE, you moron!”

(And thanks for the laugh, MCM!)

I really hate it when critiquers say “show, don’t tell”.  Because that’s a huge, broad comment that tells you nothing about what isn’t working for them.  Like the writing rules, it’s a phrase often used when the critiquer isn’t happy with the story, but doesn’t really know why.

If someone says that to you, definitely sit up and take note.  Look at your prose, make sure you aren’t ‘telling’ the story. If you have the opportunity, ask them what, specifically, made them say that.   Because not all telling is telling, and not all telling is bad.  Confused?  I’m not surprised.  But if you do get this comment, it pays to do some further research on the when, the where and the why.  Make sure it’s a place you should be showing and not telling.

What you see and what they see; reader experience.

Readers, bless their hearts, are a pain in the proverbial.  You give them a story about tea-making robots, ask them to read it, and suddenly they’re incensed about their Aunt Julia and how she was SUCH a bitch to their mother.

We as the writer are left confused and wondering what on Earth the reader is talking about.  One the one hand, good job; you’ve stirred an emotion, brought up a memory.  Your writing has touched them.

On the other hand, was that really the response you wanted?

I recently sent a story about with an angel as the protagonist out for critique.  Out of 16 responses, 12  didn’t mention any issues with the angel.  Three said they had no idea what the protagonist was, and one said that I should stop relying on common knowledge about angels and make my own rules.

What does this mean to me?  It means that the majority of people will know enough about angels to understand my protagonist without further explanation.  A small percentage won’t know enough about angels to understand the story.  And an even smaller percentage will consider my story trite and boring.

Should I add explanation to address that percentage that don’t know enough about angels to make deductions?  Well, yes.  If I can do it without including a huge info-dump, I will certainly try.  But you should consider your audience first.  If your story is aimed at an audience who are familiar with science fiction, for example, then you can be broad-brush with your descriptions of space flight (unless, of course, the mechanics of space flight are integral to your plot).  Adding extra information to make the story clear to someone who doesn’t read science fiction may just antagonise the majority of your readers.  The decision is up to you.

You can’t control how readers see your story.  If you can get your point across to the majority, you’re doing well.

The majority vote

It is great if you can get someone else to look at your story.  Two people, three, even better. Seven is probably a good upper limit; after that, critiques start to get repetitive.

The reason you try for a number of critiques is so that you can identify the issues that affected the majority of readers.   If 4 out of 7 critiques mention your character’s inconsistent actions, that’s a good indication that you need to look at how you are portraying your character to your reader.

It also means that you can more easily identify outliers.  Because there will always be one reader who just doesn’t “get” your story.  Whose interpretation of events is so far from actuality that you wonder if they read a different story.

From MCM:

My strangest comment was for a story with no female characters that took place in a single room, was very dark, and dealt with a parent dying. The comment was: “I loved the part where she had trouble hearing the guy at the drive-thru! So true!”

If you only have two critiques, you might find it harder to separate the outlier from the useful crit.  But if you have a reasonable number, it will soon become clear what the majority of readers commented on, and which critiques are going to be less than useful.

Even outliers can be gems

When you’ve dismissed your outlier comments, don’t delete them.  Put them away for a while until the sting goes away.  Work on something else.  Then come back to them, read them again and think carefully about what the reviewer is trying to say.  Because sometimes there are gems hidden in those words.  But if the ego is in control, we’re not going to see it.

The best critique in the world

Any time a reviewer mentions a specific issue with character or writing or plot, you’re on to a winner.  Any time a reviewer makes a broad statement about a facet of writing, you know you’ll be left scratching your head.

Bad: Your story lacked clarity.

Good: I was confused about the location of the characters in each scene. / I found it difficult to visualise your setting. / I had no idea what the MC was doing at that point.

Bad: You should always write a story with an internal conflict.

Good: I couldn’t understand your character’s motivation. / I felt that the stakes weren’t high enough to warrant the character’s actions. / I didn’t understand the importance of (item/action/event).

I hope you’ve found this article useful.  Coming soon, the final in the series; How to Apply Criticism and Not Lose Your Mind.

Feel free to leave comments/criticisms/gushing praise in the comment trail.

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14 thoughts on “How to Interpret Criticism

  1. Pingback: Letting the Snark Out « The Empty Pen

  2. Fantastic post and very useful advice. I once was told that I needed an editor very badly and when I queried as to why I was informed my writing was unintelligible. That was next to useless in helping me to fix any problem and as the next four people I asked didn’t have a problem with the writing I filed the comment away and forgot about it.
    The thing is that I did need an editor and I did need to fix a few things but the way the criticism was given made it next to useless.
    Thanks so much for sharing this post.

  3. Hmm, I think I’ve been guilty of saying “show don’t tell” but I hope I at least gave a location to find the problem area in. I also just ran across the mention in an advice book that comment is usually made when the scene is a narrative summary instead of a fleshed-out scene and the reader is expecting a fleshed-out scene. That distinction makes more sense.

  4. Gushing praise! Gushing praise! ;) I, too, loved this post, Merrilee, and am looking forward to your next! Thanks for taking the time to put this together for us. Great advice, and well-written.

  5. So when do I get to throw you a critique?
    I like the part about the rules, and how they aren’t really rules and bad writing advice. I’ve seen all kinds…even some stuff I used to put in critiques I’ve dropped as being bad advice. Live and learn.

  6. Great article! After a lifetime of trying to get past knee-jerk defensiveness, here’s my best advice on interpreting criticism: don’t hit “reply” too quickly. Once I reign in my emotional response and consider the criticism more objectively, I can see it as a course correction instead of a barrier. Even criticism that is wrong-headed in some way isn’t worthless. Someone has taken time to read and react, so it deserves consideration. Negative comments still sting, but that’s the cost of creation.

  7. I loved this post – useful to both writers and critiquers (is that a word?) alike.

    I actually was on the other end of things, once, when I patiently tried to explain to an author that the tension of the argument was utterly lost by the frequent head hopping between characters, only to be told the head hopping was “necessary” because it was a moral dispute and the reader needed to see both sides.

    I kind of gave up on giving advice, then. :P

  8. Heh. Being the owner of the ‘I didn’t know who she is’ comment, I remember that story start well. I do think you did a good job interpreting my comment, because 1. the name given didn’t sound like a female name, which threw me, and 2. I was just plainly confused about how many characters were there.
    A critique is nothing else than your story seen through someone else’s eyes, someone who most likely has never seen the story before, has never heard about it, and has no knowledge of what’s in your head about plot, characters and setting.
    The bottom line is that if the reader is confused, the reader will sometimes sprout comments that look like nonsense. But if the reader has a problem, then that is always the ‘fault’ of the text. Receiving critique is about deciding how important you think this one reader’s confusion is in the scheme of things such as acceptance by magazines and being asked for partials by agents. In theory, if you shop your material to enough people you will always find someone who likes it (and someone who hates it). The trick is to please more ‘important’ industry people than to displease them ;-)

  9. Without doubt the best piece on interpreting criticism I have ever read. Balanced, sensible, and oozing wisdom from every pore. I grapple with this problem daily and this wonderful exegesis will help no end.

  10. Very well said! I totally know what you mean about when people say ‘show, don’t tell’, thankfully, when I ask for a little more input it’s generally been given.
    I’ve had some stunning outliers, some of which definitely needed some distance to really appreciate. I think that’s the beauty of using Critters sometimes, the sheer volume means you get a good overview of what’s wrong with a piece.

  11. Well, of course it has to be gushing praise from me, since you referenced my comment twice… :)

    Even if you hadn’t, though, this would still be a cogent, comprehensive piece on receiving critiques. Well said, good lady.

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