Why I love constructive criticism?

Can you -show- not -tell- her

 

Criticism is most often thought of as a negative. Who wants to hear that their outfit is unflattering, their singing voice is out of tune, they lack rhythm when they dance, are a horrible kisser—that in sum, they suck? As a person, I much prefer compliments to insults, and I really don’t like when people provide unsolicited opinions, especially when they are unfavorable. But there is a difference between flat-out insulting someone and offering them constructive criticism—insulting someone most often serves no purpose but to make the person who delivers the jab feel good, but constructive criticism is usually delivered with the hope and intention of helping someone get better at whatever it is they are doing.

I don’t like insults, but as a writer, I have learned to LOVE constructive criticism, so much so that I seek it out from people I know won’t hold back. It stings to receive negative reviews of my published novels, but I have learned to embrace negative feedback for my drafts. I didn’t always have such a lovefest with constructive criticism. I took it in stride and learned from it, but I credit loving it to one of my author friends who, when she asks me (or anyone) to provide feedback, she asks us to rip it apart and she means it. She never gets offended or hurt by it and, to the contrary, is excited about the hours or days of revising ahead of her because it means her finished product is going to be even better for it. At the end of the day, we all want to write a top-notch book and sometimes it takes (more than) a few tries to achieve it.

When I hand a manuscript off to my beta readers  and later my developmental editor, there is a small part of me that hopes they’ll come back and say, “This is perfect. It’s the best book I’ve ever read. Don’t change a thing.” But the fact that I choose extremely critical beta readers and ask them to be completely honest with me belies that desire. I know these readers will spot things in the manuscript that, as the author, I can’t see anymore because I’ve lost objectiveness or I’m too close to it, and they will bring all of them to my attention. They won’t stroke my ego for fear I won’t like them anymore. They point out pages where the story might drag. They might tell me that I’ve lost my characters voice on Page 43. They remind me that my character’s friends and families have lives too. They tell me when my character is being too bitchy even for her or when she’s uncharacteristically behaving like a doormat. My beta readers show me the places in the manuscript where I need to flesh out how a character is feeling or what is going on in the background. They remind me to use my five senses. What does it smell like on the school bus? Are they eating anything at the restaurant or just talking? They say, “Your characters blush too much” and “Stop using the word ‘beam’ so much!” “This character is supposed to be mean, she hasn’t really done anything to evidence that yet.” “This character seems kind of crazy. Is that your intention?”

I seek out these comments before the book is published because I’d so much rather hear it when it can still be fixed than after the book is up on various platforms, and readers are writing reviews that say “The characters blush too much,” “The story dragged in the middle,” “The main character never thought about anyone except herself.” I don’t always agree with my beta reader’s comments and I trust my instincts, but I’ve learned to see the difference between not wanting to make a change because I’m lazy and tired and not wanting to make a change because I truly believe the novel is better off without it. But either way, I would rather know how readers might react and be given the opportunity to fix things rather than be blindsided by a bunch of reviews that say the things my beta readers and editor were too bashful or afraid to bring to my attention.

In the same vain, I have a side business of conducting manuscript critiques for other authors and I am extremely critical in my work. I tell my potential clients this up front. I would never attack their work or provide feedback in a cruel manner, but they are paying me to help them write the best book they can and I can’t take their money without pointing out every potential weakness I find. What they do with it is up to them, but I like to assume other authors will want to hear everything negative a reader might say while they still have time to fix it.

One reason my later books have been stronger than my earlier books is because I have honed my writing skills and become a better writer, but another reason is that I have embraced negative feedback on my unfinished product and purposely relied on tough critics to tell it like it is.

And that, my friends, is why I love constructive criticism.

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constructive(?) criticism

Back in the 8th grade, I made the consequential decision to cut my cute bob-style hairdo into a bi-level (read: female mullet).  I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as Donald (my hair stylist at the time) cut that first side of hair over my ear.  But my grandma (“Nanny Tessie”) drove the point home when I returned to my house that afternoon.  She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “it’s not very flattering.”  

My Nanny Tessie did not sugarcoat when it came to vanity and as soon as the words came out of her mouth, I flew up the stairs into my room, slammed the door, climbed into bed and cried (and cried and cried…)  If your Jewish grandmother doesn’t say you are a ‘shaineh maidel’ (pretty girl), you know you’re in trouble.

I share this story to illustrate my point that sometimes criticism serves no purpose.  By the time Nanny Tessie saw my new and severely worsened coif, the damage was already done and there was no need to tell me it didn’t look good.  She didn’t need to lie, but she could have remained silent. 

When I started writing Just Friends With Benefits, I asked my sister Marjorie (my biggest fan and most honest critic) to read the first sixty or so pages.  While she was vacationing in Key West, I was chewing my fingernails waiting for her thoughts since she promised to read the book on the plane and by the pool.  Eventually, she sent a text saying she LOVED it so far, BUT thought things seemed too perfect in my main character’s life. I was pleased that she LOVED it so far and shrugged off the criticism since I knew I’d be throwing my main character some serious curve balls later into the story.  

I had registered for a novel writing class at a writer’s workshop around the same time I asked for my sister’s comments.  The gist of the workshop was reading each other’s works in progress and providing feedback, both good and bad.  I was terrified to hear what my fellow classmates thought about my writing.  I was afraid all of the other students were writing the “Great American Novel” and would laugh at my attempt at romantic comedy/chick-lit.  And I was afraid they would tell me, in not so many words, that I had zero talent.  

On the bright side, they did neither of those things.  The students in my class were incredibly diverse and among us, we were writing literary fiction, science fiction, young adult, dark comedy and general fiction and there was no judgment or snobbery.  And the students had many nice things to say about my writing.  They thought I had an easy-breezy writing style, a strong voice and they really liked my main character.  

But not all of the news was good. 

In my first critique session, the general consensus was that my novel read too much like a memoir; there was not enough action.  And, like my sister, they thought I wrapped things up too nicely at the end of the chapter and were concerned that my story lacked sufficient conflict to keep readers turning the pages.   

I know from organizing a book-club that, in general, opinions tend to differ as to whether a book is great, horrible or just “meh”.  For instance, we read Beginner’s Greek by James Collins a couple of months ago and some members found it so boring, they could not get past the first 100 pages while others devoured it in one or two sittings.  In that case, there was no “right” or “wrong”; it was simply a matter of opinion.  However, when twelve out of twelve people, plus my sister, tell me I need to add more conflict and roadblocks throughout my story to keep it engaging, I cannot dismiss it as merely subjective.  And thankfully I didn’t. 

I started revising my book the following day to increase the tension.  I also took paragraphs of narrative and turned them into dialogue in order to increase the action and make it less memoir-like.  When I turned in my second submission, my teacher and classmates were blown away by the improvements I had made.  But there were still some issues.  For instance, I wrote a scene between my main character (Stephanie) and her love interest (Craig) and a subsequent scene where Stephanie dishes to her best friend (Suzanne) about Craig.  In the original version, Stephanie gave Suzanne a full account of what went down with Craig.  But my teacher and classmates had already read the scene between Stephanie and Craig and didn’t need to read about it twice.  I knew they were right and revised the scene.  I sent the next set of pages to my sister and my class at the same time.  My sister sent me a text “These were my favorite pages yet.  I LOVE IT!”  And my teacher and classmates had NO constructive criticism to offer.  One went as far as to say I must have had divine intervention because the pages were perfect.  We were only talking ten or so pages but I could not remove the smile from my face for about 24 hours. 

I share the above to illustrate that sometimes criticism does serve a purpose.  I don’t take every negative comment as seriously as others because I trust my own instincts and, as mentioned earlier, much of what works/doesn’t work in a book is subjective.  But accepting and learning from constructive criticism helped me write a better first book, is helping me write a better second book and is making me a better writer in general.  I still twirl my hair, chew my fingernails and bite my lower lip while waiting for someone else’s thoughts but I know how important they are.  I also know that if someone is honest with me about what she doesn’t love, it is likely she is also being honest when she tells me what she does love.