Castigation #2: Constructive Criticism

Here goes something rambly again, but much less ranty than the first.

If ever there was a phrase that sounded like an oxymoron in writing, it’s “constructive criticism.” The problem, though, stems not from the phrase itself but misinterpretation by average folks. “Criticism” has a very negative connotation, but that really shouldn’t be the case. (Seriously, do people know what goes into peer review of papers for academic journals? It’s not without its problems, but how’s that for a bunch of strangers questioning the validity of your life’s work? Ha!) The “constructive” part of the phrase is surely an attempt to steer the whole idea way from the negative connotation, but clearly this doesn’t work most of the time when so many people (idiot kids and immature adults both) do it wrong on both ends. By that, I mean many readers/reviewers don’t know how to properly criticize a written work, and many writers fail in how to interpret criticism of their written works.

Firstly, I’m going to use some semantic hair-splitting: Terms and definitions I use subsequently are within the context of the writing process, not other forms of media. Writers, by “publishing” anywhere accessible to the public, invite reviews of all kinds to their work. This, of course, includes both positive and negative reviews. But, to me, a “review” isn’t the same as constructive criticism. The difference is that while reviews, broadly, are just sharing one’s subjective opinion, true critiques include other objective (technical) suggestions at both holistic and atomistic levels with the understanding that the work can actually be altered. That’s where the “constructive” part of constructive criticism comes in: The purpose of reviewing isn’t to change the work at all and certainly requires much less effort to write; constructive criticism requires a more substantial understanding and investment in the author’s work because the purpose is to offer suggestions for changes, usually for the better.

I would argue that reviews are “good” or “bad” in the sense of the reviewers’ opinions of the work being “good” or “bad” according to their tastes, but constructive criticism should have minimal positive/negative prejudice from the locus of one’s opinion. There’s no hard and fast measurement as to how a constructively critical critique compares to a subjective review, but I’d say critiques (I’m using this is a direct synonym for the phrase now) are a step above reviews in being more academic. It’s not just a matter of “I don’t like this;” there must be articulate reasons and suggestions.

On the other hand, I’d also argue that one can’t write a “good” or “bad” review because opinions are opinions and always individual since there are no standards. Critiques, however, can be “good” or “bad” in the sense of being poorly or well written. In fact, I’d say a bad critique is basically one where the reader attempts to be academic in evaluation but instead injects too much subjective bias or words it in such a way that the “critique” becomes nothing more than an opinion review, which in itself is fine, but it’s best to distinguish them from the beginning. This isn’t to say that constructive criticism should be devoid of subjective evaluation–I mean, the formal definition of criticism includes “judgment,” which requires the personal perspective. No, the critic should understand the difference and include both aspects with clear differentation in wording. Citing grammatical errors is measurable and objective, but saying a character is behaving insanely is subjective and hence an opinion. To reiterate–a “bad” critique is just an opinion review.

I should add here that in discussing a proper review or critique, I’m assuming that the reader isn’t attacking the author; in both cases, the reader should be commenting on the work itself without inferring the author’s value as a person, even indirectly by attacking the person’s ability. However, in some cases, especially amateur writing like fan fiction, it’s quite clear that the author is either editorializing or inserting too much of him/herself into the writing–in that case, it’s too difficult to tease apart and evaluate the work from the author’s thought space. It’s just bad writing no matter how you cut it. But I’ll get back to this point later.

From the point of view of the critic, then, what is a “good” constructive criticism? Firstly, to write one, you must have the ability to view the work both holistically and in its parts, especially when offering technical suggestions like “this paragraph would work better if moved to the end for the conclusion.” It’s easy to imagine the process of constructive criticism, I think, by comparing it to actual construction: removing weak and moldy beams, moving furniture, adding a room for more space, upgrading the kitchen, finishing the basement, polishing the woodwork and painting the front to encourage more visitors, etc. The house may have been just fine before, but it can almost always be “improved,” and in doing so, we might evaluate changes in technical terms like air flow and real estate value instead of just screaming “OMG this SUCKS!” Think of construction as creation and alteration for the betterment of the work; anyone can tear it down, but it takes a lot more understanding and investment to adjust. (Yes, quite the metaphor I have going there…)

The second ingredient in a good critique is maturity. This is completely psychological. Wording and tact play a role in writing criticism that’s actually constructive and not, in its negative reputation, overly disapproving. While I wouldn’t go as far to say that “what” one says in a critique doesn’t matter compared to “how,” the “how” is crucial in making the “what” palatable. This is a fine art and–let’s be honest–extremely few average people are capable of linguistic finesse in that regard.* It’s entirely possible, however, that a work may not invite much constructive criticism at all. Perhaps only wording in some areas are odd, but beyond that, the technical and creative quality seem fine. Suggesting changes for improvement isn’t the only thing a critical reader can do. For example, one might point out a particularly good passage that makes good use of literary devices and then suggest that this method be used further. Remember, “criticism” isn’t limited to the aversive sense, but includes the broader definition of “serious examination.” In terms of wording, the easiest way to avoid reduction to a pure opinion review is to carefully modulate the use of first- and second-person pronouns when writing the critique, but one must also avoid wording an opinion like a fact. If you can’t tell the difference, don’t bother trying to give constructive criticism at all. I might give examples elsewhere, but there are definitely ways to structure and word critiques appropriately.

The third aspect of a good constructive criticism is the ability to separate the writer’s creative authority from technical aspects; specifically–know your purpose. You as the critical reader have no hand in the creative content because you don’t “own” in any sense the creative work itself (ignoring the legal aspects of fan creations, of course). Offering suggestions that involve changing storyline or character activities is absolutely not legitimate–unless the author asks for such intervention. If there are logic errors or lack of clarity, then frame those areas and leave the creative maneuvering to the writer to change storyline or whatever. If there are blatant clich├ęs and the like, you could point that out, but it’s still up to the writer to manage that.

Back to the point of “attacking the author”–maturity also plays a role here, but on the part of the author. Perhaps the biggest obstacle I see in the amateur writing process is that so many “aspiring” writers are spineless and cannot stomach actual constructive criticism, never mind just bad or neutral reviews. These people take criticism of the work very personally and as an affront to their worth as human beings, which good critiques and legitimate reviews would never do anyway. It’s an immature way of thinking that speaks volumes about the writer’s self-esteem (ironically, writers with very poor self-esteem may often come off as arrogant, and the narcissistic are usually obvious). Of course, it’s true that in the realm of fan ficton, good critiques are also rare.

There are multiple mentalities at work in this case, however. Amateur writers may write for a variety of reasons: to express personal creativity–rest of the world be damned, to show off abilities, as practice for serious writing in the future, to address an unsatisfactory issue or existing work, to expand upon an issue or existing work as a fan, to vent, and whatever else. Depending on the writers’ motivation for writing, they may not be looking for constructive criticism. It’s up to the writers, however, to make their intentions clear. For example, I’m writing “Syncope” as practice for future serious writing, to expand an existing somewhat-unsatisfactory universe, and… yes, probably to show off a little bit (if only the more technical aspects). For those reasons, constructive criticism is… critical (sorry, couldn’t avoid that one). Still, even if the writer isn’t after constructive criticism, it’s my feeling that a good critique is never misplaced. The decent writer will take real suggestions to heart, and I’m all for improving the quality of public writing at large (see Castigation #1).

Here’s the thing: In my opinion, as an “aspiring” writer with substantial experience writing and editing other things not fiction, I really do want to be critiqued, but only by people who know what they’re doing in re reviews versus critiques. Everyone else can leave reviews–that’s perfectly fine, and I do appreciate them (yay!). I don’t feel I “owe” the fandom or readers anything in this hobby, but if one can argue that I do, then I argue that I deserve good constructive critcism on par with my efforts.

Aspiring writers simply must keep in mind that there is always–always–room for improvement. If you take actual “constructive criticism” as a personal affront, you are not cut out for public writing. Go back to being a closet writer. Grow up. In fact, being able to take “criticism” in general is a requirement for being able to work well at a job. Any job. Of course, we expect the critic to constructively criticize with tact as well.

* This is what separates the mediocre managers from the exceptional, from my own experience.

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