Constructive Criticism: You’re Doing It Wrong

There’s an art both to giving and to receiving constructive criticism.

Garden variety criticism is best left at home, but at some point, any creative person is going to need constructive feedback. (This idea of the artist as a lone genius is a myth. Everybody has a scene, especially at the beginning.)

Giving good feedback — and giving it well, which is different — is harder than receiving it, although in my experience, most people think it’s the other way around. But then they also think the hard part about receiving feedback is dealing with the sting. Not true.

Yesterday I sent out the beta draft of Episode Three of my serial novel. Some wonderful volunteers are going to read it in the next couple weeks and give me their top-of-mind reactions. Some of it will sting. I’m honestly looking forward to that.

The sting of critical feedback is the muscle burn of intense exercise. Would-be professionals crave it because they understand it’s the only way to perform at that level: feedback + practice, over and over until you die.

Not everyone wants to be a professional, of course. and in that case there’s nothing wrong with keeping your work to yourself. But if you want others to enjoy your creativity — particularly if you want them to give you money for it — then you need the sting.

I’ve seen lots of folks get hung up there, but that’s not even the hard part. The hard part is making a common sense of disparate points of view and not letting your ego discount it all with dismissive statements like, “my fans will understand.”

Your fans don’t owe you shit, certainly not their patience. They may choose to give it to you, but the longer you lean on their good graces, the fewer fans you’ll have. They don’t owe you. they are your customers. You owe them.

This is why, for writers anyway, beta feedback is so important. Lots of big name authors (who can get away with cutting corners) publish what I would call a beta draft. The manuscript is in reasonable shape, the characters are well-constructed, but something’s missing: the plot is poorly engineered or the dialogue runs flat.

For me, the beta draft is the frustrating draft because it’s nearly impossible to see what needs work. You’d think then that getting various points of view would make that easy, but no. Every reader comes with a different set of eyes, a different set of expectations, of life experiences, of second-guesses as to what you’re wanting from them.

For example, Reader A may talk about the pace being slow in certain spots, but that she liked Character X. Reader B might say he couldn’t really get behind Character X, but that otherwise the story kept moving.

With some detective work, you may find that the slow spots identified by Reader A mostly involve Character X, which, coupled with the feedback from Reader B, would indicate that character, rather than the pace, is the real problem.

(Here I follow Neil Gaiman: when people tell you something doesn’t work, they are usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong.)

And then there’s the meta-level: analyzing the feedback received across multiple stories. Are there themes? Are your beta drafts consistently bulky? Do you have the tendency to fall back on the same tropes and limitations?

(practice + feedback)1 + (practice + feedback)2 + … (practice + feedback)N = self-awareness

All of THAT, rather than the sting, is the real art of receiving criticism.

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art by Robert Bowen

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