I believe in two things: that Sour Cream and Onion is the best flavour of Pringles and that constructive criticism is the most useful thing a writer can receive. I will go to the barricades for both of these opinions but for now, let’s put the crisps aside.
There comes a point in every writer’s trajectory where you want to start sharing your work with other people. People reach this point in a variety of different ways – you might have some nagging doubts, or you might be considering sending something out on submission, or you might just want an objective opinion – but sooner or later everyone ends up getting there. But when it’s time to start asking other people what they think of your work, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. Let’s face it, it’s not usually a nice experience to send something out into the world and have a bunch of people tell you that it’s not working. It can be a real blow to a fledgling writer’s confidence. But there’s nothing like good criticism for improving your technical skills as a writer – it all depends on how you apply it.
GOOD THING I’M HERE TO TELL YOU HOW TO DO THAT, RIGHT GUYS???
The first thing to clarify is what counts as good (i.e. helpful) criticism and what doesn’t. Not all types of criticism are helpful, and it’s important to learn which criticism you should pay attention to and which criticism you can ignore. Everybody is going to have an opinion about the things you write, but you won’t be able to turn everybody’s opinion into a teachable moment.
The basic rule of thumb I use is that the more detail, the better. Look at it like this: if somebody tells you that they thought your story was great, what has that actually told you about the way that you write? They enjoyed it, and maybe it’s boosted your confidence, but could you identify your strengths as a writer from that comment alone? No. Whereas if somebody told you that they were really invested in the relationship between two characters, or they really thought your final confrontation scene was really exciting, that tells you a lot more – you’ve identified two different parts of your writing that other people think you’re good at.
This is really important for negative criticism, too. Anyone who says “yeah, this was rubbish” isn’t going to be able to help you grow as a writer. However, people who take the time to break down the parts of your writing that aren’t working – even if it’s just identifying them by name and not going into further detail – are going to be much more useful. Basically, if you can find a critiquing partner who is willing to use the PEE method (that’s Point, Evidence, Explanation, what did you think it was) then they’re gold dust and you should treasure them forever.
Even more important is getting yourself into the right frame of mind to receive criticism. The first thing you have to accept is that if you put stuff out into the real world – whether that’s asking your friends to read through a manuscript, putting your fanfiction online, or actually starting the process of getting your book published – then you have to confront the possibility that not everyone is going to like it. People have a right to share their opinions, after all – it’s a big part of the literary tradition.
There’s two things you need to do here. The first: brace yourself. I’ve never met a writer who has only ever received positive feedback and I work in publishing, so I talk to writers pretty much every day. You’re going to hear some stuff which might knock your confidence, and even if it’s the helpful criticism I discussed above it still might hurt to hear it. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that good criticism is not an attack – and interestingly, this can apply to some really hilarious literary reviews as well. Scathing put-downs are meant for the reader, not the writer, so try not to take these to heart. Even with your loins successfully girded, it can still be pretty disheartening, so just remember that it’s completely OK to put off reading criticism of your stuff if you feel you aren’t in the right frame of mind to hear it. You’ll have to pay attention to it eventually, so don’t put it off forever, but if you’ve had a bad day it’s completely fine to just mooch about with a cup of tea instead of listening to someone list all the ways you’re doing it wrong. If you feel you don’t have the energy to stop yourself getting resentful, maybe just have a quick nap instead.
The second thing you need to accept is this: you can’t please everybody. It is quite literally impossible to write a book that everyone and their mother is going to love. People have different tastes, different expectations, and what will work for one audience will not work for another. That’s completely fine. Most audiences – whether they’re readers, moviegoers or telly-watchers – can usually pick up on pandering, and you don’t want people to come away from your book feeling like it’s been designed by committee. Keep an open mind to what people are saying, sure, but you have to accept that you can’t please everyone. It’d be exhausting.
So. You have successfully sorted the helpful criticism from the kinds you can ignore. Your mind is open, your loins are girded, and you have listened to the criticism you have received. How, then, do you apply it?
The first thing I always do is to go over the criticism again and try and see where it’s come from. Are there any points in the story that I can think of (just off the top of my head) where I could see this criticism applying? Most of the time, the answer’s yes. Then, I go through the whole story again, bearing the criticism in mind, and see if I can identify a few more places where the criticism is justified. The important thing is to look at your work with an objective eye – you’ve got to see what’s actually there, rather than what you hoped you’d written down. If you can put some time between finishing your first draft and your critical read-through, this will really help.
The next step is to consider the type of criticism you’ve received. Different problems require different solutions, and writing advice is no exception. There’s a few broad areas that keep popping up in most writing advice, and they all need to be fixed in different ways:
- Setting: If your critiquing partner is telling you your setting isn’t working there’s two things you can do: background research and working it into the story. It’s important to bear in mind that setting isn’t just a description of the scenery – it’s food, it’s clothing, it’s speech patterns, it’s jobs. It’s everywhere. For example, if your characters are having a scene in a mine, you should know what is being mined, who did the mining, whether it’s still being used, how many people are working there. How many details you work into the story is up to you, but you need to know the answers to these questions even if you don’t spell it out for the reader.
- Plot holes: Every editor’s nightmare. If your critiquing partner has found a plot hole then you need to patch it up. Depending on the size and seriousness of the plot hole you may want to rewrite sections completely, but I’d only recommend this if you’ve got a plot hole that completely wrecks the internal logic of your story. If you don’t agree that it is a plot hole, that’s fine, but you need to make sure that comes across to the reader. Even if you have an airtight justification and it makes total sense to you, you have to make sure that’s clear.
- Characters: If your critiquing partner is telling you that your characters aren’t believable you’ve got a serious problem. Most readers will accept outlandish situations if characters react to them in believable ways, but if they don’t, then suspension of disbelief goes right out the window. There’s two broad-strokes ways to fix this: background information (that, like with settings, doesn’t always need to be conveyed to the reader) and keeping them consistent. Always bear their motivations in mind and make sure they match up to their actions, and you’ll be on the right track.
- Pacing: This is making sure that your story moves along at the right speed at the right moments. Make sure background information is being delivered at the right time – you shouldn’t be giving your reader a bunch of basic background information about a character right before the big climax, for example. Look at sentence length and structure, keep an eye on what information is being conveyed, and you’ll soon be able to spot the parts where you’re going wrong.
- Beginnings and endings: The alpha and omega of writing criticism – literally, because I make great They’re some of the most important parts of a story: your beginning draws the reader in, and your ending sends them on their way. Both should be memorable in different ways. There’s a few different things to bear in mind here, such as genre conventions, pacing, and character arcs, so it can be quite tricky to get these right.
Fortunately, there’s loads of very detailed online resources to help you get the tools you need to fix any issues with your writing. I’ve even done a few blog posts on some of these myself, but even though my writing advice is obviously the bestest and most attractive writing advice, I’d recommend casting your net a little wider and looking at a wide range of resources. Here’s a few I’ve used in the past:
- For worldbuilding: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
- For character motivation: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
- For pacing: https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/7-quick-tips-for-mastering-pacing-in-your-story/
- For loads of other things: https://bleedinginkinc.com/twitter-thread-links-craft-and-storytelling/
Online resources aren’t going to cut it on their own, though. I’ve very rarely found a blog post that I can read that will magically turn me into a better writer (and I definitely haven’t written one). This is where writing exercises come in. If your critiquing partner has identified a few consistent weak spots, such as setting or character, then try a couple of short writing exercises that focus on these. It can be helpful to try working on something completely new when you’re trying to work on your weaknesses as a writer. It’s like warming up before a big sports thing – you need to make sure all the right muscles have been loosened up before you really go for it.
A much more fun way of working on your weak spots is to read stuff by writers who make them their strengths, and see if you can spot them in action. If you have trouble with believable worldbuilding, why not read some Tolkien? If you have trouble with providing a satisfying end to your detective story, why not read some Conan Doyle or Christie? As you read, try and identify the parts where your chosen writer is showing off their skills – there’s nothing like a masterclass to show you how it’s done.
It’s a lot of stuff. Brushing up on your weaknesses as a writer can be very time-consuming, but it’s time well spent. When you’ve done all your writing exercises, read around your weaknesses and used all the resources you can shake a stick at, you’ll have a much stronger grasp of what you need to do to make your writing work. Come back to your original project when you feel like you have a stronger grasp on what you need to improve on, and you’ll smash it.
Criticism can be very hard to hear. But sometimes the most difficult writing advice is the one you need to hear the most. If you have a critiquing partner whose advice you trust and you keep an open mind, it can be one of the best things you can receive as a writer. With a little time and effort spent working on your weaknesses, good criticism can completely transform the way you work as a writer. You’ll never be able to please everyone, of course, but you’ll have improved your skills – and that in itself is valuable.