Monday, 21 September 2015

Critical Comments

One of the workshops I attended at the NAWG Festival of Writing looked at criticism: how to give it and how to accept it.

As writers, one of the best ways of developing our craft is to listen to other people’s feedback, and then decide if that improves our work or not. Sometimes making that decision is easier than other times. For example, if six people all make the same comment about one particular aspect of your work then perhaps they’re onto something. But it’s not always possible to get several people’s opinions on a piece of text, and so listening to just one person’s opinion can be daunting - how much do you trust their opinion?

A good way to make that judgment is to consider what you’ve been told. The most constructive criticism is that which offers a solution (or at least one potential solution) to the problem identified. If someone says they found your introduction boring then that doesn’t really help you. But if they explain that the opening sentence was so long they had difficulty in following it and grasping the point you were trying to make, then you have something practical to work with.

Criticism isn’t about identifying faults. It’s about offering solutions and improvements to your work. And once we’ve learned how those improvements benefit our writing, we find ourselves including those tips in our writing automatically.

Something else to bear in mind is that if someone offers a solution to a problem, try it out. But if you don’t like the result there’s nothing stopping you going back to your original version. At least you tried. And if you don’t like their solution, then hopefully you’ll have learned from the process and understood why that solution didn’t work for you.

It’s also important to understand why you are seeking criticism and what you’re looking for feedback on. What is it that you need help with? It can help those offering their feedback if you can guide them on which particular areas you’re unsure of. For example, asking people if your dialogue sounds natural gives them something to focus on. That doesn’t mean they won’t pick up anything else they spot, but they will focus on the aspect you’ve asked them to.

If you do that, you’re more likely to accept some of the suggestions you’re offered. You’re more likely to see it as help rather than criticism.

So when it comes to having your work critiqued, remember three points:

1. Criticism is only negative if it offers no solutions. If someone says something doesn’t work, ask them why it doesn’t work and what steps you can take to change that.
2. Accept that seeking criticism is your desire to grow as a writer. Asking other writers for help means that you’re keen to improve your work.
3. Help guide some of that criticism by analysing your work yourself first, and identifying areas that you’re not happy with. If you’ve already self-critiqued your work, you’ll be more accepting of the solutions offered.

Good luck!


  1. "Something else to bear in mind is that if someone offers a solution to a problem, try it out. But if you don’t like the result there’s nothing stopping you going back to your original version."

    This is true, of course, but if it's an editor who's interested in your work, and would like you to make the change as a condition of acceptance ... then I'd say you really need to listen, for the sake of a sale. Unless ... there's a strong ethical, moral or personal reason for you not to do so.

    1. Oh, gosh, yes! If it's an editor then give their feedback more 'weight' than, say, someone from your writers' group. In fact, during the workshop we had a long discussion about this. Many literary agents (when rejecting writers) often advise joining a writers' group. That's good advice, but only if the writers' group comprises people who are experienced in writing and/or reading. So, yes, when receiving criticism it is always worth thinking about the experience, background and knowledge of the person who is sharing their wisdom with you.

    2. Exactly. And much of the problem of asking friends and family for feedback - which many beginner writers, perhaps nervous of showing their work to those they don't know, seem to do - is that they usually lack those important qualities. You've got to get your stuff out there to those whose opinions carry value - and be prepared for the responses, whatever they may be ... :)

  2. This is really useful, I'll give the link to the members of my new writers workshop. Thanks