Close to my Heart: Honesty and Critique

So, this will be a bit of a turn from the usual post, as you can see, but it is one of the most important topics I can write about.  There should be no wonder why a writer asks for critique.  In fact, I am surprised that writers have to actually ask for it at all, especially from other writers.  And yet they do.  They must.  And even with a full paragraph plea for some kind of feedback from their readers, we writers are still left in the dark.

Some consider feedback as a click of the ever-present “like” button.  I consider this little button my most common enemy.  The overwhelming amount of tweets, blog posts, links, etc. a reader must filter through in a day makes this button their best friend.  It is feedback, it is positive, it is fast and easy.  But when I ask for feedback, especially critique feedback, I want the thought behind the “like”.  And I don’t mean the dreaded two-word enhancement, “Loved it!” or “Well done!”  Although these responses are by no means ignored, and certainly appreciated, they are not something I can work with.  Critique for me is a stepping stone to improvement.  I want responses I can learn from; I want to know what is working for me and what I should change.  The more of this feedback I get, the more I can grow as a writer.  As Martin Hall, golf expert and teacher, always says, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting.”

And some readers would say, “But it’s not my opinion that matters; it’s the writer’s work, and only he or she can determine if the work is good or not.”  This could not be farther from the truth.  Yes, a writer’s opinion matters when it comes to their own writing, but a writer does not write for himself or herself.  A writer creates a piece of writing and posts it online for others to read.  If the audience doesn’t like the writing, the writer is doing something wrong, and needs to know what is wrong to make it right.  There is no point in posting writing if the writer doesn’t care what the reader thinks.  And if a writer doesn’t care about what the reader thinks, then he or she shouldn’t be posting it.  Some writers just post for the ego boost of the “like”, the “Loved it!” and the “Well done!”  And that is perfectly fine.  But these are the writers that do not ask for critique, and when they do get critiqued, they become defensive.  That is their problem.  And this is where honesty in critique is most important.

When I ask for critique, I want the full force of it.  If you hate my writing, tell me so, and tell me WHY! Don’t just say, “You suck.” Again, another two-word dread.  I don’t mean that as I’m scared or angry that you don’t like it, I mean I don’t know why you don’t like it.  I want to know what you, the reader, does like. I want to attempt to conform to you.  Perhaps not the specific piece that you don’t like (if you hate my fantasy story because you don’t like fantasy to start with, I’m not going to change the whole genre just to make you happy), but knowing what you like as a reader can open new doors for me.  If you don’t like my narrative style, perhaps I can try a piece in the style you prefer.  A challenge for me and a good read for you is a win for both of us.

On the other side of the comment spectrum, if you love it, and use the two-word dreads I’ve mentioned earlier, I still don’t learn anything.  Knowing why you liked/loved a piece of my writing is a good ego boost, but not a stepping stone.  I want to know where I went right, be it the narrative style, the dialogue, the pace, what have you.  Critique involves detail, the more minute the better.  Even if your only constructive critique is, “I love this line…” that is still a way for me to improve.  Anything is better than nothing, and to me the two-word dreads are simply not much.

So please, when you see the “critique” tag, or see “critique” somewhere in any given post, from me or any writer, give yourself and the writer a couple more seconds and give feedback.  Real feedback.

And yes, critique on this little blurb is greatly appreciated. 🙂

 

~S. Virginia Gray

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11 thoughts on “Close to my Heart: Honesty and Critique

  1. A few thoughts on this — and I’ve been writing for a living since 1979.

    People usually don’t say much because: 1) they don’t have time; 2) or it’s not a priority; 3) they do not wish to be (or even appear to be) hurtful or unkind because 4) they have no idea how thin-skinned the writer will be in reply; 5) many people are poorly educated and lack the language and tools to actually offer anything as insightful and useful as you need to improve!

    My newest book has 68 reviews on amazon, some of which are thoughtful and rational. Some of the criticisms are spot-on and fair while others are simply bonkers — personal attacks on my character, not my writing skill.

    So my sense of this is that any writer really hungry to improve has to take a class and/or, if producing a manuscript, find smart “first readers” (as most of us do) to help you there.

    • I can certainly understand the idea that people are concerned with hurting the writer’s feelings, but to me if a writer asks for critique they must expect to get comments they do not completely agree with or appreciate. The writer has the responsibility to explain himself or herself and understand that every reader has their own opinion. This is not a personal attack, and if it becomes one, the writer has the right to end the conversation respectfully. That is the best thing about online networking to me; when you get stuck in a one-sided argument or a discussion with someone ignorant to others’ opinions, you can choose very easily to get out of it. I have no problem with uneducated comments on my work. If the comment is worth expanding upon, I do so. If the person on the other side has no intention of compromise (if compromise warrants the discussion at all), I can simply agree to disagree and ignore any other empty, confrontational comments he or she may have. Any of these situations can teach me about my writing, and that is what is important to me.
      Lol long response is long. Thank you for your input! 🙂

  2. As a book reviewer and blogger, I’ve interacted with all types of writers. I recently left a thoughtful (atleast I think it was) review of a book which I found to be good but had tons of editing mistakes. That review got voted down on Amazon by 8 people withing 10 minutes of it being posted (while all 5 star reviews were voted up the same 8 times).
    The book had been given to me by the author to review. The author did not in any way contact me after the review was posted, she did not even reply to the email I sent her. But, she did come out with a “brand new” second edition of the book soon after.
    For me this all seems very suspect and makes me not want to post negative reviews on Amazon.
    And don’t even get me started on the number of spiteful internet “wars” between authors and bloggers over 1 and 2 star reviews I’ve come across in the past few days!
    With these kind of things happening, it makes us bloggers very vary of giving any kind of feedback to authors. Why bother?

    • I can completely understand. I have an account on deviantart.com where I post thoughtful comments on art for artists, and sometimes this kind of thing happens. The artist asks for critique, I give it to them, and they attack me for being mean. It is very hard to tell what artists or authors are looking for true critique and which are looking for mere praise.
      That is an absolute shame that your author came out with a ‘2nd edition’. Beyond being unprofessional and rude, her dishonesty is mind-blowing. I think the problem that this arises from is younger people who like to write (I’m talking high school fan-girls). I certainly do not want to put down these writers, it is fantastic that they want to write in a world so full of illiteracy. But they come into the virtual world expecting immediate fame for stories that are (and again this is not to be downgrading) what I call ‘teen fan-fiction quality’. These writers don’t want to be told they aren’t author material yet, and they find a young fan-base that encourages them. When a real critic comes in to see what’s going on, and they bring the real-world commentary with them, the writer refuses to believe that he or she is not a mature writer yet. It sounds to me that this is the kind of writer you were dealing with, and her friends were the ones who voted you down. Just like in writing drafts, you have to take the negative sometimes. If you are the reviewer who puts your foot down and says, “No, just because you have a following does not mean it’s okay for you to take a dump on literacy and grammar,” you too will gain a following for being firm and honest in your reviews. Real writers will come to you more often, looking for real critique, and even though sometimes you have to deal with that ‘teen fan-fiction writer’, it will be more than worth your reputation as a good reviewer. I know I would love a review from someone honest like you! 🙂

      • That is what is surprising. This was a mature writer, who has written 2 books previously. And, the book was good, which I said in the review. There were things I did not agree with, and then, there was the editing. Well, some people can’t take a critique.

        • And that is just sad. To people like that I can only say different people have different opinions. Just because one person doesn’t like your work or actually cares if you use proper spelling and grammar doesn’t mean you should flip out at them or ignore them completely. You are very right, some people just can’t take critique, even when it’s polite, honest and true.

  3. Well, this is not something that’ll deter me from writing reviews. In fact, I’m going to write another 3-star review today! LOL
    But, what I find even worse is other authors jumping in and defending whatever another writer does, no matter who is right. I’ve seen writers asking friends and fans to go and leave nasty comments on reviews and down vote them everywhere, defame the reviewer and get personal by insulting the person (and not even the review). And, these are indie writers! They are the ones who so desperately need reviews.

    • Agreed. The civility of critique is dead, if it isn’t dead everywhere else as well at this point. I’m glad it doesn’t deter you. I’ve known many people who won’t comment anymore on writing or artwork. I’ve even met artists who get so sick of the critique wars over their work that they stop posting at all, or at least refuse comments on their work. My personal way to avoid the aggravation is if I have to write more than 2 responses on top of my original comment to defend myself, then it’s not worth the waste of my time. 🙂

  4. Pingback: A new writing prompt? Another challenge! « Virginia the Viruliferous
  5. Rana,
    I find both the “nice guy” critique and the nasty slam critique equally worthless. People need to learn to give honest critique in a constructive way. Many people are afraid to give any negative feedback, and so remain either quiet or say something nice but empty. We once tried to sell our one home “For Sale By Owner”. People would look at the house, say fantastic things about it – to the point we were sure they would buy it – then we’d never hear from them again. We finally broke down and got a realtor, and she sold it in a week and for a better price. She explained to us that people don’t like to give negative feedback on even a small matter to the homeowner, making an issue that could easily be worked out a deal-breaker, but will be straight up with the third party realtor (whom they view as a kind of mercenary!) The overwhelming percentage of people, I find, express negatives through silence. (Which drives me crazy) To me this translates to either not wanting any hassle or to simply wanting to preserve their “nice person” image. Either way it is self-focused, and cares little for the other person. Regarding your liking the “full force” of a person’s critique, you are certainly very brave, and if you can take that kind of heat, you will definitely grow as a writer. I ask people for brutal honesty, and then deep down sort of brace myself and try not to take any of it personally. Again, for me it’s the silence, more than anything, that I hate.

    Regarding your fantasy writing, I’m honestly not in a position to critique it, in that I rarely read books from that genre (I like biographies, historical writing – exciting stuff like that!) But in the little I’ve seen in your posts, I do see in you a keen sense of logic and clear communication. I thought your poetry was interesting as well. (And I don’t read much poetry either – my mind usually drifts, and in all the imagery I become uncertain of the author’s meaning. I’m a really direct person.) I do not have an artistic bone in my body, but I enjoy art and enjoy creative and artistic people.

    A few fantasy books I really enjoyed, however, were by Wendy Alec, and I read all three. The are: Book I The Fall of Lucifer, Book II, Book II The First Judgement. Book III Son of Perdition. In one of the books (I forget which), she portrayed “Jacob’s ladder” in the book of Genesis, where Jacob had a dream of a ladder going up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it, as a kind of portal from the spiritual world to the natural world. It really clicked with me. I would highly recommend these books – not only for the content, and entertainment, but for the style, creativity, and imagery. Reading good books is probably the single best help for my own writing.

    • 🙂 Why thank you again, Greg. Wendy’s books sound right up my alley! Especially since one of the pieces I’m working on is an Apocalypse story. I have a post or two about it on here, but haven’t been working on it lately.

      If history is more your thing, I’ll have to let you take a look at my World War II piece sometime. I have the first chapter posted on here somewhere. *goes rummaging through the blog* Look for a story called “Curls.” That is supposed to work as the introduction chapter to the book. I haven’t had time to compile the rest of that one yet, but it’s mainly historical outline with a few fictional paranormal-like events twisted in. All of history stays the same, but spiritual aspects of it are framed into something unexpected. I think you’d find it very interesting.

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