Constructive Criticism: What it is and how to use it

Editing, constructive criticism, writing, publishingWith the possible exception of a multi-best-seller author, all writers should seek constructive criticism of their work. The bigger the work, the more important this is. This may be proofreading for typos, or it may be seeking help with plotting and character development; that depends on your experience and skill. Here are some pointers for finding and dealing with constructive criticism.

Trusted Sources

Make sure your sources of criticism are trustworthy. Posting a segment of your W.I.P. to your author’s web site or a writer’s forum and asking for feedback will get you many comments, not all from knowledgeable sources. Not all will be helpful. Separate the grain from the chaff. One way to do this is to look for commonality in the comments: if multiple comments mention the same item as a problem, it is likely a problem and deserves to be looked at.

If you are using a publication assistance service and they offer an editing service for an additional fee, check it out carefully. According to Writer Beware they may be adding a finders fee to an outside editor’s fee.

Take editorial advice from successful writers and skilled editors, not your neighbor’s cousin who reads a lot. Freelance editors may or may not know as much as they claim to: check references, especially if you located one another on social media. Those woods are full of wolves.

Ignore all feedback that comes as a personal attack on you or your characters. Calling someone an untalented hack is not constructive criticism, it’s being a troll. Ignore all trolls!

Applying Constructive Criticism

First, if you ask for criticism, expect to get it. If your skills are young or your work is in it’s first review, some of the feedback may sting. Be prepared for that; hold to the mindset that you ASKED for criticism so that you can find ways to make your work better.

Do not take negative feedback personally. If the feedback is directed at you personally, see the above statement about trolls. As long as the statements are directed at your work (and from a trusted source) look at it carefully as someone’s attempt to help you improve. The writer cannot see all of the flaws, we are too close to the work. It takes an outside viewer to catch most of these.

A good critique tells how or why something does or does not work. Simple statements like “this is good” or “this doesn’t work” hold little value. Seek out and get advice from those willing to guide you.

After reviewing critical remarks – go for a walk. Do not, under any circumstances, respond right away (unless, of course, the report is filled with glowing reports of how wonderful your work is). Negative criticisms tend to sting. The thinner your skin, the more wounded you may feel. You do not want to respond out of pride or anger. Mull them over for a while. Think it through and look realistically at the comments. When you do respond, be professional about it.

Once you’ve cooled off, also look for the positive comments among the negative. The editor may be suggesting you rewrite or cut your favorite scene, but are they also in love with your protagonist? You may need to focus on what you got right for a while before addressing what needs work.

Make sure you understand the comments. If they are at all unclear, ask questions before proceeding with edits. Ask nicely, but don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you need it. Do avoid justifying yourself unless there is a compelling reason why something needs to be the way it is. If it’s not working, it needs to be looked at and fixed. That is, after all, why you asked for help.

Lastly, once the discussion is done, thank those who helped for their help, especially if the help is being offered for free. Even if you’re using a paid editor, thank them for their time: especially if (and you may not realize this until the book is done) they were patient with a petulant, thin-skinned writer and helped mold that awkward first draft into a polished novel that holds potential to make you proud. Always thank those who help you along the way.