Criticism: the Third Certainty

The title of this article comes from “Nothing is certain except for death and taxes,” a famous quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin.  To this I’ll add another certainty, the one of Criticism, which, if you’re an author, often comes publicly in the form of a bad review.  This review is usually penned by someone you’ve never met and who you never invited to see your Fringe Festival show in the first place, gosh darnit.  To many people, critics are the original trolls, predating the internet by millennia.  They are the party poopers who turn your much anticipated book launch into a chagrin-filled scat-fest.  They’ve been around since the first poets scratched cuneiform verse onto clay tablets, only to have them smashed over their heads without warning.  They’re not going away any time soon, and that’s a good thing.

This article, however, is not meant to address how a writer should handle a bad review.  That topic has received much attention on the internet and elsewhere.  This article is more about how to handle criticism or feedback in general, both kinds, the good as well as the bad.  For as often as we deride critics who tell us we stink on ice, we usually do not pass the same judgement upon those who say we’re the best, and such an opinion may be equally without merit.

First criticism

I began my writing career as a playwright.  As a young adult I’d receive feedback like, “This short story is pretty bad, but the dialogue is well-handled,” which made me think that theater was the place for me.  But for anyone who has tried to write a play, you know that writing drama is much more than creating snappy dialogue.  I learned this lesson the hard way, but I had learned it by the time I submitted my first full-length play to a public reading.

The play was a comedy titled 13 Bodies Buried in the Cellar, an homage to Arsenic and Old Lace in which a man who has watched too much HGTV buries human remains in his basement so that the police, thinking they’re on the trail of a serial killer, will dig the whole thing out for free.  During the reading, everything went well.  The audience responded as I hoped they would, they laughed where I wanted them to laugh, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  When it came time for audience feedback, I found the comments varied and inconsistent, no doubt because the audience, numbered between fifty to sixty people, was a mix of theater professionals, professional theater goers, and those who were not theater people at all.  The theater folk criticized the structure and how the stakes weren’t high enough.  Some thought the script needed tweaks, others that it needed more profound changes, and a couple who thought it needed a complete rewrite.  The non-theater people couldn’t understand this criticism since they heard everyone laughing through most of the play.  For my part, I didn’t know what to do because most of what I heard sounded like opinion that contradicted other  opinion.

How to handle feedback

Later at the bar, which is how these stories usually end, I sat drinking barley wine (14% alcohol because I had decided to do the needful) with another playwright who gave me some unsolicited advice about how a writer should handle feedback.  He said that handling feedback can be accomplished with two simple steps.

  1. Take the people who tell you you suck and throw them away.
  2. Take the people who tell you that you’re the greatest writer they’ve ever read, and throw them away.

The first  step is easy, and you may already be doing this.  The second step is harder because we like hearing  from these people.  These are the people we quote on our book covers and on our websites.  But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see that the people who tell you you are the  next James Joyce are as equally out to lunch as those who say your writing  is beyond redemption.  In both cases, the feedback is worthless because you can’t use it.  Those who tell you you suck and those who say you’re the best leave no room for improvement.  Feedback that  you can’t use is meaningless and should be discarded immediately.

When should you solicit feedback?

In general, you should solicit feedback as early on as possible.  Many [beginning] writers wait until they’ve written the first full draft of a manuscript before they show it to people.  This is not a good idea.  If you moved into a house, would you completely decorate the living room before asking your roommate if they liked where  you put the sofa?  No, because that would greatly increase the amount of re-work you’d have to do.  You would arrange the large pieces first, solicit their opinion, and go through an iterative process until you got it right.  Then you would fill in the rest.  Likewise, finding out there is a major flaw in a finished manuscript can be devastating.  You don’t want  to hear,  “I just don’t understand what this book is about,” after you’ve written 400+ pages.

Who should read your stuff?

There will be people who disagree with what I’m about to write, but I think other writers make lousy reviewers.  I say this with years of experience behind me, and I include myself in this category.  Writers like to write, and when we’re asked to be part of a feedback session, we often transform it into a collaboration session.  We can’t help ourselves.  There have been so many times I’ve attended a reading where the author, after patiently listening to a deluge of great ideas from other writers about how to improve their script says, “That’s all great, but that’s not the  story I wanted to write.”

You can turn this negative into a positive if you include other writers very early in the process.  Writers are good at pointing out issues with structure, character, style, diction-level, high and low context relationships…all the nuts-and-bolts essential ingredients of a compelling story.  If used early enough, they can tell you if you’re on the right track, or it the track you’re on leads to the waste paper basket.

If you’re writing a play, actors are the best source of good feedback, in my opinion.  Give your script to actors and they will point out issues with your script within the framework  of  your story without trying to rewrite it or turn it into a different story altogether.  The job of an actor is to inhabit a character and figure out why the character behaves the way it does.  They will give you a goldmine of the pluses  and minuses of the characters you’ve created.

If you’re writing a novel or a short story, solicit feedback from avid readers, people who  love to read and have read voluminously.  Similar to an actor, they have inhabited many different characters in many different stories.  They will know what does or does not ring true almost intuitively.  Editors are obviously another great source of feedback.  I’m not limiting it to professional editors, I mean people who have the mindset of an editor, who are analytical and good and picking things apart.  They can tell you what does and does not “make sense.”

Trolls and cheerleaders be damned

If you manage your expectations appropriately, the process of getting feedback and using it to improve your work can be very rewarding.  Without exception, my experiences in the process have resulted in better manuscripts/stories than what I brought into it.  Criticism, like most things in the natural world, follow a Gaussian distribution, a bell curve.  Focus your energies on the big, meaty part in the middle.  That’s where the useful feedback is, not on the edges.  Discard those who are trying to be cruel, because they obviously have issues that have nothing to do with you.  Also avoid the people who think the best  way to help you is to blow the proverbial smoke up your old wahzoo.  You don’t need them either, now matter how good it feels.

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