Being a writer is terribly difficult because, for many of us, our writing is deeply personal. We put our own time and energy into what we write, and that time and energy is often accompanied by a part of ourselves. The idea of giving our work to someone only to have it criticised can be terribly demoralising, thus while it is important to understand how to receive constructive criticism, it is also important to understand how to give constructive criticism.
What is Constructive Criticism?
Constructive criticism is not criticism for the sake of pointing out faults and flaws, nor is it criticism for the sake of being negative about something. Constructive criticism is defined as:
“criticism kindly meant that has a goal of improving some area of another person’s life or work”
Note the use of the word ‘kindly’ and the phrase ‘goal of improving’. Constructive criticism is not about being mean and this is something that both the giver and receiver of constructive criticism should keep in mind. Keeping in mind it has a ‘goal of improving’, constructive criticism should be a positive experience for everyone involved. It is not about shredding a creative piece apart, but about constructing it with strong foundations to make it strong and worthy of its place in the literary skyline.
How do you give constructive criticism?
Rather than offering brusque, negative comments like “I didn’t like it” or “it was pretty crappy so I couldn’t read past the first paragraph”, constructive criticism asks you to be constructive in your criticism. Explain why you did not like it, or what it was that made the work ‘crappy’ in your opinion. Don’t be afraid of saying something ‘negative’ about the creative piece – after all, if it’s constructive, it’s not negative, just remember: the goal is to improve the work.
The easiest way to give constructive criticism is to explain your opinion. Explain to the writer exactly what it is you did and didn’t like about the work. Give your opinion (I dis/liked it), then your reason (because … ), and then point out a particular example (in the paragraph when you described … ).
Use the sentence starters what worked well for me and what would work better for me (if the writer was to re-write the piece) to help articulate constructive criticism.
Compare the following:
The beginning was boring.
What would work better for me would be less description in the opening paragraph; I wanted to get to the action sooner.
If you are more confident about giving feedback, go into more detail about what did and didn’t work for you in the piece. If the writer has specifically asked for feedback on certain aspects of their work, be sure to focus on those areas. Alternately, you might ask yourself the following questions in order to provide quality constructive criticism:
What was interesting about the piece?
Did you find the setting plausible? Was the writing compelling? If there was nothing interesting about the piece, question yourself as to why you found it boring or uninteresting: Is the genre different to what you normally read? Did you struggle to believe the world that was constructed in the story? Was the writing too descriptive or not descriptive enough?
Could I relate to the characters?
This is a vital part to any piece of writing and if you cannot relate to the characters then the writer needs to know. If you can relate to the characters, explain why you feel like you could be friends with them. If you cannot relate to the characters, explain why you would prefer not to get stuck sitting next to them at a dinner party. What qualities do the characters have that make you like/dislike them?
Who would I recommend this piece to?
A big part of the reading process is being able to recommend a book to your friends – and if you can’t think of anyone to recommend the creative piece to, then the writer needs to know why. It’s also very helpful for the writer to know if they’ve appealed to their target audience. If you’re more comfortable recommending a creative piece to your eight year old cousin than to your sixteen year old best friend, explain to the writer why this is so. Why are you making such a recommendation? What makes you think the piece would be more enjoyed by a boy than a girl? Why do you think the plot is more appealing to a teenager than to an adult?
Why would I keep reading this piece?
Is it well-written? Do you care about what happens to the characters? Ask yourself the question after every paragraph – unless you’re so absorbed in the plot and characters that you cannot think beyond what will happen next!
Constructive criticism is feedback that will improve the creative piece. If your feedback is not constructive and does not have this underlying intention to better the creative work, then your feedback is not constructive criticism but mere criticism – and no one likes a critic.
This month I am facilitating a workshop Critique vs Criticism, presented by Budding Writers League. If you’re in Singapore and interested in learning more about giving quality constructive criticism, sign up for a seat and come on by!