Criticism is a vital part of any writer’s career. We depend on editors and friends and strangers to give us feedback on our writing, so that we may improve and develop our craft. But every once in a while we’ll get a review that is not only unhelpful, but purposefully hurtful. These reviews are in the realm of “You suck! This is awful! How could you write this?” Occasionally, a review like this actually has good stuff to look at, and the critic is just particularly passionate about the issue. If you, as a writer, are prepared to brave reading that review, I applaud you; however, if you are reluctant to even look at a bad review, here’s my guide to both taking the criticism and effectively giving it to someone else.
What is constructive criticism?
Let’s define constructive criticism before we continue. Wikipedia defines it as “…the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one.” For a lot of you, that definition probably makes sense, but I’m going to offer another definition.
I have three criteria for what constitutes constructive criticism:
- The criticism offers suggestions and reasons for those suggestions.
- The criticism points out problems and explains why they’re problematic.
- The criticism doesn’t comment on who you are as a person.
Using these criteria as a definition, I find it easier to identify when someone is being purposefully hurtful and when they’re trying to help me out. It also helps with developing constructive criticism, if I want to give it.
So you got a bad review…
So what? There are tons of people on this planet, and their opinions are not going to align most of the time. You’re going to get bad reviews. It just comes with being a writer. The most important part of getting a bad review is not taking it to heart. I don’t mean disregard it completely–unless the person is just blurting out terrible things that obviously have nothing to do with your work, which does happen. I mean remember that this person has no idea who you are other than what they’ve read in your online bio or maybe parts of your writing, and that’s just a tiny, tiny glimpse of you. And at the end of the day, it’s just their opinions. All opinions may be valid, but none are true. It’s your job to pick out the good criticism and apply it to make your writing the best it can be. In essence, a bad review is just an opportunity to improve.
So you want to write a bad review…
Maybe you read this book that made you so angry you’re about to burst a blood vessel. *cough* 50 Shades *cough* You have two options: angrily rant about how terrible the book and its author are or give some constructive criticism. As much fun as it is to completely rip a shitty book to shreds, nothing good is going to come out of it. You’re just going to be met with conflict. It’s essentially a stalemate. No one wins.
As I said, a bad review is just an opportunity to improve. When you give constructive criticism, you are offering your opinions with the intention of helping someone improve. Offer suggestions; give your reasons for them; point out the problems; explain why they’re problematic; and never, ever comment on who the author is as a person. I wouldn’t want someone telling me that I’m a terrible person, so I wouldn’t say that to someone else. If you don’t think you have it in you to give constructive criticism or you just want to tear someone down, don’t say anything.
Reviews and feedback are a service. Neither you nor anyone else is under any obligation to provide that service. Don’t waste the author’s time and your energy being angry and spiteful. It’s a disservice to everyone–especially yourself. And if you do give constructive criticism, a good writer will take it graciously.
I’m not sure if I’m giving constructive criticism…
If you want to say something that’s in a gray area of the criteria for constructive criticism, here’s a list of questions to ask yourself:
- Does what I have to say offer insight into the topic?
- Do I have good intentions?
- Is my language professional?
- Am I being helpful by adding this point?
If you answer “no” to any of these, reconsider your criticism. Conversely, if you’re not sure that someone is giving you constructive criticism, you can use these questions by changing them to the third person and analyzing what the critic said.
Now, read the bad reviews, take some notes, and criticize the criticism.