Recently I’ve been offering criticism for other writers’ stories–mostly short stories or a chapter or two in a manuscript–in an effort to help keep my skills sharp. I’ve been enjoying it, and I realize how much I’ve missed it. It has also gotten me thinking about how I prefer to word my criticism versus how other writers might do it.
I prefer to be kind in my criticism. I am straightforward, but I am not mean- spirited, overly critical, or even unnecessarily tough. The way I view the world of writing is that writing as a craft is tough to master as it is, but it is an art that many do for enjoyment and self-fulfillment. Writing is not the military where it must be tough because soldiers might find themselves in a life-or-death situation. So I don’t see the point in being, well, mean. You never know what your criticism could do to someone.
I understand. You have to have thick skin, but to me that’s only insofar as understanding that your story IS NOT PERFECT. You cannot ever hope to get published without receiving criticism from someone else. You have to be open to changing your story, even going so far as to perhaps tearing the entire thing up and starting over again. But that thick skin should not extend to having to endure meanness. And unfortunately, I see a lot of it out there.
I can recall when The Stars Are Infinite was an entirely different story in its infancy. I put the prologue (when it had one) up on some writer’s website where people could read and rate it, and the whole idea of the website was that publishing professionals would be drawn to it and use it to request partials or fulls. My chapter had 4.5 stars despite being very amateurish and was actually on the front page, which meant it was popular. But I remember one commenter who was rather brutal–and they were the only one. It didn’t hurt my feelings, and I did take the criticism and run with it after thinking on it; however, I would have taken the criticism anyway, even if said person had worded it kindly.
It was just overall unnecessary, as though this person had a chip on their shoulder or was jealous. And when I see other writers commenting similarly, that’s what I think: you’re jaded and are tired of one too many rejections.
I actually did not grow as a writer from that person. I grew from Georgia McBridge, owner of Month9Books. When YALitChat was around, I was an intern for it. In exchange for helping out, she offered to critique TSAI. She was only able to help with the first five chapters, but never was she once harsh. She taught me how to write a good hook, how to write some solid first three chapters, and when I was struggling with chapters four and five, she told me to sit down and outline the whole book. And as I was outlining, that’s when I realized TSAI needed When Stars Die first.
Without her, I never would have gotten this trilogy off the ground. And again, she didn’t have to be mean at all! I feel like I learned many years worth of material under her than I ever would have learned without her. So ultimately I learned nothing from that harsh critic despite readily accepting their criticism.
Ultimately, I do not understand this idea that writers should just accept severe criticism as a part of doing this craft. So next time you’re critiquing a writer, perhaps think of how you’re approaching their piece and realize you can be thorough and even strict without being callous.