Critical Concerns: Taking and Giving Criticism in Writing
Criticism is a difficult thing to take, sometimes, especially if you’re particularly proud of the piece you’ve written. The basic thing to understand, though, is that not everyone will be pleased by what you’ve done, and often people will pick out one small detail they find negative in your piece and focus on that, eventually overshadowing and overriding any – and perhaps all – meritorious things that your piece has. It’s pretty difficult, as well, to criticize, especially if you know the effects of criticism or if you’re not entirely confident that your critique is value-adding. To be an effective writer and critic, though, you must look at the piece both ways in order to know where to weigh in and what to weigh in.
As a writer, you should learn to pick out who critiques your work. You can give it to your friends, those who are casual readers and are willing to read your piece, but there are generally two kinds of feedback you can get: “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” These points will be followed by what they liked and what they didn’t like, which are certainly helpful. But you have to ask yourself, as well, what you’re aiming for, and if these kinds of feedback are helping you in your writing. In other words, weed out the good criticism from the bad. There are those who will read your piece and rely on their feelings, draw from experience and try to pool it into the comments that accumulate that pertain to your writing. You have to learn, though, that feelings are not just the only thing that drives a piece – whether you’re the writer or the reader. Talking about how you feel about the piece only works on an elemental, basic level, because that would mean the reader is reacting to the piece, and is employing his or her own compass of what makes a good piece or a bad piece. But it’s important – and you may notice that a lot of things are important – that you don’t let their feelings cloud your writing. At the very least, you should know that at least there are readers who are reactive to your writing.
So who’s a good critic? Someone who knows his or her stuff. Someone who does not just operate on a “like” or “don’t like” basis, who views things in terms only of which characters were static and which were dynamic, and employing this schema to categorize your work into good or bad. Peer reviews are useful, but the opinion of someone who has worked with a lot of texts and read them through different lenses – in other words, someone who works in the field – is important. You should learn that, as a writer, there is no actual set of rules governing what is a good text or a bad text – good and bad is a consensus arrived at. Perhaps badly written, yes – in terms of incomprehensible syntax, impractical use of language, repetitive, unimaginative phrases, points that don’t make sense at all – but even “badly written” texts are actually meticulously plotted pieces. What matters is that you give your piece to the right person, who will help in developing your work – plot-wise, dialogue-wise, focus-wise – instead of just telling you that these parts are wrong, therefore fix it. Give it to someone who knows – and has employed – devices in terms of plot development and in terms of character development, and take their advice. Give your texts to writers or readers who study texts and not just simply read them.
As a writer, too, you should learn to look at your piece with the eye of a critic. You should be able to find the disjoints in the narrative that a casual reader might find confusing. You should be able to find your focus, focus on a particular audience, and write for that particular audience, and you should be able to look through the eyes of this audience and find what can be improved and what should be left.
Both critics and writers should have discerning eyes and complex notions of what makes writing “good” or “bad” – not just a narrow set of rules governed by personal preference, but rather a wide range of lenses that can adjust to certain views, but not stunt these viewpoints. Have someone who is a helpful critic, a critic who cares about your piece and cares about improving your piece, as much as you care about it, and everything will eventually – hopefully – fall into place.