The Art of Criticism
After a conversation with another esteemed writer friend, I got to thinking about criticism, and how we as authors should parse it when it's given. It's a funny thing, really. Most of us are terrified of it because it can strike so deeply, but it's absolutely required for us to improve our craft.
First of all, what criticism should you take seriously, and what should you discard? Well, all criticism is good, more or less, but there's levels of value to it. There's actually a very simple general rule you can use to separate high value feedback from low value, and it's this.
You must pay attention to criticism that comes from a consensus of at least three writers who operate in the same or close to the same genre as you.
It's simple, really. Let's break it down.
You have to look for a consensus of opinion. When multiple people all arrive at the same or similar conclusions about what's wrong with a piece of writing, then it's likely that they're on to something.
Of at Least Three Writers
It should be writers, not readers. Criticism is innately connected to the craft and work of writing, and it should come from those who do the same kind of craft. Their perspective is more likely to be the right one.
In the Same or Close to the Same Genre
This is important because, although good writing is universal, what works in one genre will not work in another. Different audiences have different expectations, and a writer in the same genre will be more likely to flag genre-related issues.
This isn't to say that you'll get a pass on bad writing because "the genre requires it". Never, ever fall into that trap. A genre can have certain conventions, but following a convention should never mean skimping on quality.
What Kind of Criticism?
Here's a question: how do you tell whether the criticism you've received is good or not? Well, I've got you covered there too, my friend. Let's talk about different kinds of criticism using a simple example.
I don't like this part where Colonel Mustard kills the victim in the library with the candlestick.
This is the most often encountered form of criticism - the bad kind. This is utterly useless to you. All you know from it is that this reader dislikes this part of the story.
I don't like this part where Colonel Mustard kills the victim in the library with the candlestick. You've written him as a frail old man, so it doesn't make sense that he'd be capable of bludgeoning someone to death.
Now we're getting somewhere. This kind of criticism gives you something to work with, because now you know why this reader had an issue with the story. The specifics are important, and help you nail down what to do to fix it.
I don't like this part where Colonel Mustard kills the victim in the library with the candlestick. You've written him as a frail old man, so it doesn't make sense that he'd be capable of bludgeoning someone to death. Why not put a gun case in the library and have him shoot the victim instead?
Boom. Now we've got an identification of the issue, and a concrete suggestion as to how to solve it. This is the best kind of criticism, and the kind that you want to hope for every chance you get. If you have someone who gives this kind of criticism, treasure them. You're also most likely to get this from other authors in your genre, hence why it's important to seek them out.
Now, this example is very simple, as it's dealing with a basic factual/logic error. That's a quick fix. But the principle applies to any level of criticism you can imagine, even the large-scale structural stuff. I went through something like this with my esteemed author friend today, while we talked through the first paragraph of one of her stories and discussed exposition. (And that's a topic for another day.)
Criticism: learn how to give it and how to take it, and you'll become a better writer.