How to Take (and give) Constructive Criticism

An important part of being a writer is learning, growing, and getting better at your craft. The harsh truth is that no one starts out great–no matter what your ego tells you. We all stumble, struggle, and write crappy manuscripts that can’t be saved. But eventually, we start writing things that can be saved, and then things that don’t need saving. How do you get better at writing? How do you grow and transform from a novice bumbling their way through the darkness into a reasonably knowledgeable practitioner, to even, possibly, an expert?

Reading, of course, helps you become a better writer. It’s a clear window into how those experts do things, and you can imitate it until you figure it out. You can also seek out writing knowledge. There’s no shortage of books out there telling you how to write. But also, one of the most valuable teaching tools for a writer is feedback. If no one tells you what’s wrong with your writing, you don’t know what to fix. That’s where constructive criticism comes in. Of course, criticism can be hard to swallow, even when it’s well-meaning, especially when you’re a new writer. We don’t like to be told we suck, even politely.

Constructive criticism should:

  • Point out specific things that are wrong, whether structurally, grammatically, or story-wise. Vague overall criticism doesn’t provide much guidance or highlight the weak spots. Saying “this chapter doesn’t work” isn’t very helpful. Good criticism should explain why it doesn’t work.
  • Offer solutions and suggestions for fixing the problems. You can’t repair something without a guide.
  • Also point out the things that are well done. Bad news is easier to swallow if there’s something sweet to wash it down with.
  • Encourage and validate, and be delivered in an honest way.

Constructive criticism shouldn’t:

  • Belittle, degrade, or bully the author.
  • Be a personal attack on the author instead of focusing on the writing itself.
  • Make the writer want to quit writing forever.
  • Be used as a vehicle to tout the critique-giver’s superiority or brag about how they know more than you.
  • Shame or mock.

This is just abuse, and you should take your manuscript back and walk away.

As I said though, even if the criticism is specific, helpful, informative, and delivered gently by the hand of someone who cares about you and your dreams, it can still sting like hell. Writers pour their heart and soul into their work, and being told it’s just not that great is a painful experience. It’s going to smart. But when taking constructive criticism, remember:

  • What you learn will help you grow as a writer, and it can be an invaluable lesson. Apply what you’ve learned to your work and see how it changes.
  • Next time you won’t make these mistakes, because now you know. And that’s great!
  • Not everything you write will be gold, but if you listen to criticism and learn from it, someday, you will write gold.
  • No matter what level of writer you are, you don’t know everything. Keeping an open mind and being willing to learn is important at all stages of your career.

If you happen to be a person who gives those critiques–a beta reader, an editor, just a friend of an author–remember that us writers are delicate creatures and it’s hard to learn our precious creation is misshapen and ugly. However, many of us want to be told that, so we can make it prettier, we just hope that you won’t take one look at it and start screaming.

Remember that even the best writers in the world, those internationally-famous bestsellers, started somewhere, and they really sucked when they started. They were willing to learn and take criticism and improve, though. They loved their craft enough to put in the time and effort to make something awkward and ugly into something shiny and wonderful. It’s impossible to believe they don’t still make mistakes from time to time still, as well. So take heart, and take criticism–it’s good for you!

10 thoughts on “How to Take (and give) Constructive Criticism

  1. I was an art major in college and part of our grade for many of the classes was participating in criticism of projects. It really helped me learn to take it. Although, I have yet to really get good at giving it out. I’m not sure I can help it. I’m a fangirl at heart. LOL

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    1. LOL hey, at least you got some practice in!

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  2. This is a great checklist of what to do and what not to do. I try to be encouraging in my comments when I’m editing, because I try to picture whether I’d get mad/upset or not if those comments were directed at me and I was reading them without hearing the voice of the person who said them. And yes, always with humor if at all possible.

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    1. Yes, I think it’s important to be both honest and gentle–and a little humor helps that along! It’s always hard to hear something is wrong, but I’m always glad in the long run that I learn how NOT to do things.

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  3. Victoria Marie Lees December 18, 2017 — 11:04 AM

    This is so true, Megan. Thanks for sharing this with your followers. All best to you in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

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  4. Good points! We won’t learn unless we know what we are doing wrong and how to fix it.
    I’ve been fortunate with my critique partners. They’ve all added humor to their comments which made it easy to take.

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    1. Always better with a little humor added in! 😀

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