Keeping “Constructive” in Criticism

Giving feedback or criticism is one thing. Making it constructive is entirely another (and those of you who’ve sat through horrible crits know exactly what I mean).

Too many people think that criticism is either tearing someone down or being completely positive (to avoid hurting any feelings). Unfortunately, neither version is particularly good for revisions or mental health. If the crit is negative but not constructive, the writer is liable to scrap everything already written or ignore the advice completely (and it’s safe to say that hard feelings are likely – including but not limited to cursing and crying). Positive reviews that aren’t constructive can either falsely inflate the ego (eep!) or be equally ignored (huh. The same as the negative. Go figure.).

But the purpose of feedback, especially in a writing circle, is to help the writer weed out flaws and see what works in what they have written so far. It’s not to make the story more suited to your personal taste or to include this great idea you had for it. No. Absolutely not. (Bad, critic! Bad!) No, the point is to pick out the problems and the strong points of the story to help the writer improve it. And that goes for all criticism.

Whether the feedback is positive or negative, it should be something that can help the writer improve the story overall.

When it comes to negative feedback, focus on the parts that need the most work. “I didn’t like it” doesn’t help. “That action doesn’t fit Zork’s behavior in the rest of the story” or “I didn’t realize that that scene was a flashback until they mentioned it later” gives the author something specific to look at. He or she may decide not to change it (if enough people say it does work or if it’s not a big part of the story for example), but at least the writer knows to think about that section to decide if it needs fixed. That’s the main goal of negative feedback.

Something people don’t always realize is that positive feedback needs to be just as specific and useful. “I liked it” isn’t any more helpful than “I didn’t like it,” so  concentrate on positive comments that can help the writer improve the story. Give specific details: “I liked the imagery you used here” or “the dialogue in this scene had really great pacing and characterization.”

If you’re not sure what to say, try to think of the best feedback you’ve ever gotten – not necessarily the one that made you feel the best but the one that was the most helpful to your writing. Think about what was so good about that critique and try to do the same when you critique others. Stay focused on the reason for giving the feedback and try not to get sidetracked by personal preferences.

Remember that “constructive” means “serving a useful purpose,” so make sure that the author can use whatever feedback you give. Negative or positive, it’s all about improving the story.

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