#TipTuesday: Constructive Criticism

“Your harshest critic is always going to be yourself. Don’t ignore that critic but don’t give it more attention than it deserves.”

– Michael Ian Black

One of the greatest skills any writer can have is being their own constructive critic. This is a skill acquired over a long period of time, however, as it’s hard to separate the constructive criticism from simple doubts. It can be even worse when coming from someone else, since outside voices often have more legitimacy than our own worries, or legitimize our inner  misgivings.

As such, today’s #TipTuesday will cover how to give good constructive criticism (to both yourself and others), and how to weed out what criticism needs to be ignored.

Good Constructive Criticism

The word constructive means “helping to develop or improve something” (Merriam-Webster). As such, constructive criticism is only useful if it helps improve the story or writer’s ability. To accomplish this, criticism needs to have the following qualities.

  • Brief and succinct, with a clear start and a finish; not endless. People can get confused if you carry on too long and become disoriented. If this happens, the criticism loses all value.
  • Relevant and to the point. If the criticism has nothing to do with the topic of discussion, then it simply becomes a distraction. It can pull people off-topic and then the matter that needed the criticism may never be examined again. Non-relevant criticism is also often received poorly or ignored, as the recipient is uninterested in criticism in that area.
  • Clear, specific and precise, not vague. Vague criticism helps no one. At best, it typically will frustrate the author and make them depressed since they don’t know what to work on. At worst the criticism is considered pure meanness or ignorance and discredits the critic.
  • Well-researched, not based on hear-say or speculative thought. Speculative thought only leads the author off into rabbit holes that ultimately fix nothing and wastes time.
  • Sincere and positively intended, not malicious. This should go without saying, but has been said anyways.
  • Articulate, persuasive and actionable, so that the recipient can both understand the criticism and be motivated to act on the message. “Actionable” often includes suggested solutions, or clues to finding solutions.

(Above items taken and edited from Wikipedia’s article on Criticism)

Constructive Criticism Template

The above rules can be hard to implement sometimes, however, and so having a good pattern to use when first working on being constructive with criticism helps. I recently read an article on Jane Friedman’s website about writing groups and giving good constructive criticism. In the article, Jane Friedman references Ed Catmull’s “Good Notes” principle:

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

These questions are a good baseline to use when trying to generate constructive criticism. If you are struggling to fill to answer a question, however, then don’t. While constructive criticism is helpful, it is only helpful when needed. If you have a hard time finding something to criticize, then the piece may not need it.

Bad Constructive Criticism

Even if your criticism meets the above criteria, it can still be considered detrimental if it falls into some of the following pitfalls.

  • Criticizes the writer, and not the work. No one needs or wants a personal attack, even if you truly think the problem is the person themselves. Instead, focus on the behavior that is causing the problem than the person. This will be generally better received.
  • Phrased poorly. If criticism is phrased in a way that it can be taken as a personal attack or simple insult to the work, it will be ignored. A good rule of thumb to avoid this is to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Happens to be inappropriate. Certain social circumstances may make the criticism inappropriate, such as in front of a large group when the author is trying to sell their book. Instead, in the example situation, it might be more appropriate to give the criticism in private away from the audience.

Criticism to Ignore

Any criticism that doesn’t help often becomes detrimental. It can waste time and effort, or just give fuel to inner demons. If the criticism doesn’t help you identify and work on a problem, then it is usually safe to ignore it and move on with your writing. If you work consistently at your craft, and continue to strive to be better (and are open to good constructive criticism) then you will most likely overcome whatever problem the bad criticism was focusing on.

If the criticism really bugs you, then try to pin down exactly what the critic means. If you feel like you hit a dead end, however, don’t be afraid to ignore it even if that critic is yourself.