Being a Critic, or Never Saying “It’s Good” To A Writer
Last week, I discussed the editing process, and how to accept criticism of your work. This week, I wanted to flip the tables a bit. I recently spoke to a creative writing class in my old high school, and one subject the teacher mentioned to me was how the students were learning how to critique each other’s work, and be more specific in their thoughts. That reminded me of some of the difficulties I’ve experienced in getting critiques of my work, and therefore, this week I’d like to lay out some thoughts on what good criticism is, and how to give it to an aspiring writer.
Being Truthful and Constructive
Being critical of someone’s work is no easy task. What throws more people then anything else is simply being placed in a position of power. No one wants to take another person’s work and tell them that what they have is terrible. So already, they feel a need to sugarcoat their opinions to spare the author’s feelings. While I am against blind negativity towards a work, sugarcoating is just as bad, if not worse. A writer needs brutal honesty to construct their work, and being giving false platitudes simply gives them false expectations about their ability and their work. It also reflects badly on the ability of the critic, as it makes them look unable to speak their true thoughts. Therefore, the first part of being a good critic is knowing how to be constructive, to give opinions that may be mean, have serious thought and meaning that a good writer will be able to take to heart.
Whether good or bad, criticism should allow a writer to better his or her work, and therefore needs to be constructive. I’ve had people tell me my work was ‘just stupid’ or that a scene ‘was pointless’, but nobody could explain why to me. That was frustrating, but what was always worse to me was when someone liked my work, but all they could say was “it’s good.” I dreaded hearing that more then anything, because it meant I would have to press and dig at the person to get a more detailed opinion on anything in the book that they felt could be improved. It was more work for me and sometimes completely fruitless. Therefore, a good critic needs to know WHY they like something or dislike something. For example, I had a critic who said that one scene I wrote was good, but felt like a retread of an earlier scene. So because I had something to go on, I could compare the two and realize that the second scene was unnecessary and take it out.
Still, it can be difficult to critique someone’s work, a position I understand. I’m often placed in a critical position- I write an online comic, Superroomies (which focuses on DC Comics heroines living together in an apartment), on Deviantart with artist Mike Manley (CatsTuexedo). He and I brainstorm the scripts, but he handles the artwork, and as coauthor, I’m often asked to look over his work. And there have been many times where I have had to say no to his designs. Perhaps the most prominent example was his design for Clark Kent. Mike wanted to get away from the idea of how no one sees past Clark Kent’s glasses to Superman, and create a Kent design that was totally different from Superman. Unfortunately, what he came up with didn’t look like Superman, but was too out there to pass for a regular person. So when I spoke to him, I explained how I respected his idea, but that Clark Kent needed to look normal so that he could blend in, and that his design would stick out just as much, if not more, then Superman would. I suggested using a smaller, but distinguishing feature, like a beard or hairstyle to differentiate. And because I was respectful of his intent, and gave a legitimate reason and suggestion in response, Mike accepted my thoughts and did a redesign of the character.
Being Able to Critique
Beyond the emotional side, the other issue that keeps critics from being constructive and detailed is generally not knowing the details of critiquing a particular field. After all, there are always general thoughts, but if you don’t read a lot, or don’t read a specific field, it’s a lot harder to give your thoughts. This is a lot harder to give tips on, since no one can be expected to be an expert on every genre. For a writer, I can suggest giving your work to someone either familiar with your chosen genre, or to someone who reads a lot in general. But if you want to improve your basic critical skills, my best tip is to simply read, to learn more about basic story structure and what makes it work. And if you aren’t a big reader, there are plenty of other options, like film or TV, to learn from. Regardless of medium, these are still stories being told, and therefore are graded by the same standards. Plot, character, believability, all of those things we look for in books are all brought into film, and if you can explain why a movie or TV show doesn’t work or does work, then you can probably do the same with a book. I can personally attest that the inverse is certainly true- I have watched films like GalaxyQuest, and understood their value because its characters are designed to be satirical and function as both a statement on the Star Trek characters and actors they directly parody, and the fan culture it more subtly touches on with its race of aliens that believe the TV episodes they witnessed were in fact, factual documents. And on the flipside, I watched films like Talladega Nights and was unable to get involved because the central character was portrayed as so unlikeable, his fall from grace was deserved, and I felt little desire to see him regain his former glory.
Being critical of someone’s work is certainly difficult, and someone doing so must strike a balance between being honest and constructive. So I implore people to try the methods I’ve described to better their skills, even if they are writers themselves. Being able to critique another will allow you to better critique your own work, and learn how to handle it when you receive it. And if you aren’t writing, but trying to help someone, then doing this has one other benefit- testing to see if the person involved can handle any kind of criticism. Because if they can’t handle well-said, intelligent, constructive criticism, then you step in and stop them before they write another word.