Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Criticism That's Never Constructive

Do you remember that a cappella singing competition one of the networks aired last year? It was only supposed to last a week, but I stopped watching around the time the judges voted off the group affiliated with my alma mater.

After the few times this group performed, the judges only had one real piece of criticism: “Well, that was good, but you were really lacking in your lower register. You need more bass.” But here’s the thing: The group, Noteworthy, is an all-girl a cappella group. Of course they didn’t have any bass--they’re women! And the producers knew that when they invited them--yes, invited them--to do the show.

This is the sort of criticism that I would say is never constructive. Short of completely redefining who they were (which was impossible within the context of the competition and impractical in real life), Noteworthy couldn’t do a thing about the feedback they received.

All the criticism I’ve received has been marvelously constructive, so you shouldn’t interpret this as a not-so-subtle barb at one of my own betas. I was just reading some feedback someone else received on another site the other day, and I thought that one of the people offering criticism was being overly unconstructive. Essentially, the critter was attacking the writer’s voice, saying things like “Your writing style is boring” and “No teenager would ever want to read this.”

While it’s all right to say things like “I think you can infuse this passage with more personality” and “This doesn’t sound like something the character would think or say,” it’s not okay to make blanket statements about how the writer writes or the viability of the project. Voice is one of those sacred elements of writing that is totally unique, so to belittle someone’s voice is essentially to belittle who he or she is as a writer.

We may read something, and we may find it a little bland. We may read something, and we may know that the writer is still growing into his or her own voice. But that doesn’t give us the right to declare that writer’s writing as unreadable or unpublishable. Because if there’s one thing I learned as an economist that this industry has only confirmed time and time again, it’s that there really is no accounting for taste.

I can pretty much guarantee that every book I despise, somebody else loves. And every book I love, someone else abhors (or at least doesn’t like). You know that little series about a lightning-marked wizard that everyone, including me, adores? Yeah, well, my mother didn’t make it past the first few chapters of book one. And you know that book that everyone maligns, that everybody calls the most poorly written piece of slop that ever sucked the ink out of a printer (pun intended)? I actually still like it (although I recognize that wordsmithing isn’t the author’s strongest suit).

To make a long post short, criticism should inspire and encourage. It shouldn’t make the writer want to give up and go home.

Rant over.


JW said...

I think this is a very constructive rant, thank you. Unfortunately, those who need to get it the most never will. And, I am one of those who never got into the wizard thing. Didn't make it past page 2. I wouldn't say the book was terrible, though, just not something I prefer. We all have preferences. People really stuck in lower-level ego will think their preferences are "right" and others are "wrong." It is only when we are able to step above and beyond our ownselves we can see a greater picture at work and live with a bit more grace. And with that, my rant is over, too. :) Enjoy the journey, Janelle

Faith E. Hough said...

Good point!

Carol Riggs said...

Hear, hear! We have to be helpful as critiquers, but not crush the writer spirit. That is a shame. And rude to boot!

Jenilyn Tolley said...

I completely agree! Thanks, Krista.

Krista V. said...

JW, I liked what you said about preferences not being right or wrong. It's why I'm a fan of the form rejection. Agents aren't trying to be vague to drive us crazy; they just recognize that their opinion is only one of many and should be treated with about as much consideration.

Thanks, Faith!

Carol, you're absolutely right - critiquing is all about helping the writer. If you're not helping, then you're not critiquing.

Jenilyn, you're welcome!

Esther Vanderlaan said...

Super post!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Hear, hear! When I do critiques, I want to help the author to make their work shine. I don't ever want to discourage. That's just awful.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

This is not a rant, Krista, you're just speaking the truth. It's something we all need to remember. Our OPINIONS are just that, opinions. If we could keep that in our heads, we'd be much nicer, more helpful critters.

Great post!


Lisa said...

Thanks for the rant -- I completely agree. It's tough to find really helpful critque-mates out there!

e. f. danehy said...

Great post! And I agree -- this isn't a rant so much as an examination of judgments some people make in this industry and the value of good, helpful, constructive criticism versus someone being plain critical. Writing is a constant process of learning and encouragement, persistence, and hard work go a long way toward success in this industry as in any other.

I also believe there's a difference between a person offering negative criticism by itself ("That book is terrible!") versus negative criticism with actual listable, workable reasons for why something didn't work for them ("While the characters were interesting, there was just too much going on for me to follow along." or something). As you said, blanket statements, broad judgments -- especially about entire genres -- ugh!

Okay, thinking about it, I can see how one could work up a rant about this. Yours is tremendously articulate and constructive!

Keary Taylor said...

Amen! Thanks for stopping by my blog! I'm looking forward to reading more about your journey!

Keary Taylor

Krista V. said...

Thanks, Esther.

I agree, Nicole.

Amy, I guess you can see how much of a ranter I am if I think this qualifies:)

True, Lisa. The best critique partners are those who really care about you and your writing, so they can be tough to find.

Erin, I think you feel a blog post coming on:) (By the way, I love the whole e e cummings vibe you've got going on. Is that how you plan to write your name on the cover of your books?)

Keary, welcome! And you're welcome:)

Jemi Fraser said...

Totally agree! An opinion should be a critique not a criticism. Only one of those is helpful.

Abby Minard said...

You are totally right. This business is so subjective! But there is a difference between being insulting and offering constructive criticism and tips.

Thats why American Idol made me mad sometimes, because the judges would just say they sounded like a cat yowling in a dark ally or something, but rarely said anything that actually helped the singer.

There are lots of books I hated that others loved, and vice versa. Thats just the way it is when you are in a creative-type business. But there are ways to give your opnion without being a total jerk.

Myrna Foster said...

I think it's funny that two bloggers already typed my initial reaction of "Hear, hear!" And I commented recently on a similar post over at Adam Heine's blog:


Maybe you guys read the same comment? I know you follow a lot of the same industry blogs.

And I love Noteworthy!

lodjohnson said...

I received some advice that I use when dealing with critiques.

1. If one person points something out, it's subjective interpretation.

2. If two people point something out - consider making a change.

3. If three people point something out - you've got a problem.

Not everyone is going to like the same things, but you're right - there's a right way and a wrong way to let the person know. "Ugh" is not a critique. That's what you do when you leave something in the fridge way too long . . .

Krista V. said...

Good point, Jemi.

Abby, AMERICAN IDOL really thrives on negative criticism. (TV must bring out the worst in people.) In fact, a lot of people on television are overly rude and nasty because it's good for ratings. It's hard not to get caught up in the snarkiness when you're giving your own critique, especially online.

Myrna, thanks for the link. Adam has a great bullet list that's much more applicable than my unwieldy lecture:)

Lodjohnson, that's so true. When three people point out the same problem area in your manuscript, you can definitely take that as a sign.

Adam Heine said...

"I can pretty much guarantee that every book I despise, somebody else loves. And every book I love, someone else abhors."

Ha! Too true. Good is totally subjective, but it's easy to forget that.

Krista V. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Adam.

And everybody else, if you haven't checked out Adam's post on a similar topic (link above, in Myrna Foster's comment), you should. As I mentioned in my response to Myrna, his post is much more useful:)

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post! And very true - there's a difference between criticism, and critique. And we need to be especially careful in this day of electronic, often anonymous communication not to be insulting or dismissive of someone's work.

Myrna Foster said...

I didn't mean to imply his post was more useful. I liked both of them.

Krista V. said...

I agree, Ishta. It's so easy to be a jerk online because you can hide behind this veil of anonymity.

Myrna, I know you didn't. That was purely my own observation:)