Thursday, May 5, 2011

Learning to Accept Constructive Criticism

I think one of the hardest things to learn from when you start writing is how to accept constructive criticism. I think no matter what we write, whether an assignment from school or a personal account of something that happened to you or a fictional story about two movie characters, writing still feels like a very personal thing. It's like putting yourself out there and if it doesn't get the reaction you were hoping for, it can feel like it is an attack on you as a person. I think it's very easy to get a single negative comment that makes you question what you've put out there and can quite possibly make you never want to share anything you've written ever again. In fairness, some people don't know how to pose a criticism constructively and I can sometimes see why it would make someone want to forget about writing entirely. But, sometimes, what they really want to do is help you be better by pointing something out that is detracting from what is otherwise a good story.

The thing is, I don't think anyone bothers to point out the small things unless they actually think it will make the story better. I've come across quite a few stories where I can tell the writer has real potential but they are making certain mistakes that are just too distracting that they take away almost any possible enjoyment of the story.

By that, I mean things that take you out of what you're reading. Sometimes it's incredibly simple stuff, like a spelling error. If you're writing about how, "Leai went over and took Han's hand in hers," you're going to lose me for a little bit because I'm going to be annoyed that Leia was spelled wrong. Or if you say someone "should of" done something, I'm going to probably not absorb the next few words because I'm going to be thinking that it was supposed to be should have. These little mistakes tell me that the writer didn't bother to re-read and edit their story, and why do I want to spend my time reading something from someone who is unwilling to take the time to make sure these little mistakes were corrected? And I'm not talking about one or two mistakes in a story, because we all have those. I'm talking about the stories that have all sorts of little mistakes throughout which completely take me out of what I'm reading and have me wanting to go grab my red marker. (or type in red font)

So, if you are going to take the time to post something, don't just write it and post it! Edit! Re-read it! Let someone else take a look at it! And definitely don't put an author's note in the beginning telling everyone, "Oh, I just threw this together and it's not very good." How is that supposed to entice us to read it? If you're already telling me you didn't waste much time writing it how do you expect anyone else to waste time reading it? Let us formulate our own opinions. I know this is probably a not-so-subtle way for people to look for validation, but it is not the best way to go about it. Let the writing speak for itself. I can understand that sometimes something spews out of your head, through your fingers and onto the computer screen so fast you just want to get it out there and don't want to be bothered taking the time to edit or anything, but patience is usually rewarded. And why would you not want your writing to be as good as it can possibly be?

I think one important thing to do is to think of it all as a learning process, especially when you're first getting started. A lot of us maybe haven't written much since we were in school and even then we just weren't taught a lot of these sorts of concepts. I know that I was taught a fair amount of creative writing in school, but I'm wondering if that's really the norm anymore or if you're all just stuck writing annoying research papers and essays on books you were forced to read which is obviously a very different kind of writing. You you have to want to learn and not be afraid to find out that something you wrote isn't quite correct. Again, this does not mean you're stupid or wrong or not smart. It just maybe means you haven't learned that yet, or weren't taught it in such a way that you truly understood it and learned how to use it correctly from then on. I mean, I swear I think it was barely more than a year ago that I found out that it's not, "All of the sudden" but rather "All of a sudden." Does that make me an idiot? Maybe, but mostly it just means that I had believed it to be one way all these years and nobody ever bothered to correct me.

I can tell someone that a paragraph break is in the wrong place or they are using punctuation wrong around those quotation marks, but it does them a lot more good if I explain why that is the case so they are more likely to learn it, understand it, and do it correctly later. I mentioned in an earlier post that Digs' first several pages of her story were absolutely littered with corrections, and on a lot of them I went to great lengths to explain why things were wrong because she seemed to do them a lot. Again, it wasn't so much the writing but the technical details like paragraph breaks and punctuation. It didn't take long before she wasn't making those mistakes anymore and by the last few pages of her story, I hardly had to correct anything! Well, I suppose it depended on how late into the night she was writing ;)

Once again, there are a lot of people out there writing who frustrate me because I can tell that they have potential to write great stories, they're just doing some little things that detract me too much from really enjoying what they've written. So, please take the extra time to make your story as good as it can be. Learn how to write well. You know, if that's what you actually want to do. Learn to listen to people when they are trying to help you and don't take constructive criticism personally. Anyone taking the time to comment isn't trying to attack you as a person, they just think that maybe next time you might want to use your/you're correctly. Some of you may think I sound petty for getting annoyed by such things, but I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who finds those types of errors distracting when reading. And it does take away from what might otherwise be a totally enjoyable story.

Another issue is point of view. I think that most of us write in third person, but usually even in this situation you want to write as though you are seeing it through the eyes of only one of the characters in the scene. You can switch back and forth between maybe two, but it should be clear when you do that. Maybe not necessarily putting a line or a chapter break, but at least having a new paragraph. And it gets very confusing if you start writing things from several people's points of view. As in, if you had Luke, Leia and Han in a scene and you have what Han is thinking at one point, then how Leia is annoyed with Han and then Luke thinking about how those two just need to kiss already. It's one of those things you might not even notice until someone points it out (I know I didn't) but once you do notice, it does become distracting if someone is writing from the perspective of too many characters at once.

At the same time, it is very important when helping someone correct mistakes to point out the good things so that they aren't so focused on what's wrong with it. Usually the good outweighs the bad, or else it probably wouldn't even be worth pointing out the bad stuff, and it's nice for someone to hear that a certain line or paragraph was really well written and enjoyed, or a certain reaction from one of the characters. I think we're all a lot more apt to accept criticism when we do see that there are things that are perceived as having been well done within our stories.

It's tough for all of us to accept criticism, even when we know it's good for us. Ask Push about when I sent her the first sex scene for my last story. I felt like she had stabbed me in the heart (ok, maybe not that bad... actually, later she said she felt like she had just run over my dog or something) I think those scenes can feel a lot more personal, so when you get feedback on them that is anything less than glowing, we tend to shut down and just want to forget the whole thing. I know better, and I know I shouldn't have taken it personally, but I did. But we worked through it and got what I have up there now. Of course by reacting like that initially it also makes your editor afraid to point out things from then on for fear you'll go jump off a cliff or something (or something less dramatic). But you don't want that, either. I don't want her to be afraid to point things out because if it's worth pointing out, it's probably something other people would notice and something that should be changed and the piece is only going to be better for it.

In fact, I actually agonized over writing this post, believe it or not. More than anything, I just want to see more good writers coming into the Han and Leia fandom. And I want more interaction between all of us. So I want people to take the time to learn to be good writers. I do not pretend to know everything and I hope that I am not coming across as some know-it-all who thinks she is the queen of fanfic. (that would be a fun job, though) I'm just pointing out some things that I've learned along the way and hope that others can learn from as well. And I'll be the first to admit that I'm much better at pointing out these sorts of things in other people's stories than I am with writing my own stuff. Honestly, some of the people I've been editing for have turned into such great writers I wonder why I should bother with my own stuff anymore!

So, just like the main theme of this post, please take this in the spirit in which it is intended: to make you learn to be a better writer. Just some thing to think about. None of us are perfect and we can always strive for improvement. I've been grateful for all of the things I've learned along the way and hopefully you will be the same. Blind praise may make us feel good, but it doesn't help us get better. And who doesn't want to be better?


  1. I think when I first started writing I was terrified of criticism, not so much of grammar and punctuation mistakes (which is lucky otherwise I probably wouldn't have got any further than the first chapter!) but of the story itself. Like Z said, it's such a personal thing, had she sent it back saying, 'What the hell is that?' I may have run for that cliff! Thankfully, she didn't say that and I was just so ecstatic that people were actually reading it that any criticism didn't hit me as hard as I thought it would. Oddly, even though I struggle with grammar and punctuation, I do notice it in other people's writing, especially since Z has made me more aware of it and it bugs me. I feel like such a hypocrite saying that but it really does!

    I really can't stress enough how great it is to have someone who will take the time to not just correct but EXPLAIN what you are doing wrong. It's a nice way to receive criticism, kind of makes you feel like you're being taught and NOT told off. Plus, it's great when you notice your grades go up!! ;) Yeah, writing late and punctuation do not mix - which is my formal excuse for why this is probably littered with errors!!

    Now I have developed a taste for writing, I really do want to improve and the best way to do that is obviously to listen to people and brave the criticism. Although I still get nervous every time I send someone something to read, I'd rather be told that some plot element doesn't make sense or that I've written someone out of character so I can learn from it. Much better in the long run than continually making the same errors and just publishing a load of crap for the sake of it.

    I think anyone who is seriously wanting to improve (and if you don't, why are you writing?) should be open to criticism and anyone who views themselves as above it must be suffering delusions of grandeur! ;)

  2. Side note: has anyone heard anyone ever say the phrase "delusions of grandeur" outside of Star Wars? Anyone? I always kind of hated when Han said that line because it doesn't sound very "Han" to me. He would've been more likely to say, "Everyone's gone insane!" Or something along those lines.

    Admittedly, Digs, considering the amount I had to correct on your first pass, I was afraid maybe you wouldn't come back :) But I thought the story idea was so great that there was no way I was going to let you stop! So in between telling you that you can't end a paragraph with a comma, I'd also point out that I loved the idea and where it was going or some great line of dialogue. I was so relieved that you didn't take the editing as trying to knock you down or anything. You took it like a champ :) It's difficult on the other side of things too because you don't know how someone is going to react. I've gotten to the point where I know I can probably tell Push just about anything. Although the thing is, we always tend to agree anyway, so it never turns into an argument. But Digs, you too, I think I can probably say anything to you now and you will know I'm not just trying to be mean, but to make the story better. Of course, neither one of you need much help making the story better anymore! I can probably retire now.

  3. I completely agree. I would love to see better quality of writing for Han and Leia. Which is probably why it is taking me so long to post. I told Digs a couple of days ago that I needed her to start being way more critical of me. I practically begged you to ripped me apart, remember Z?

    Maybe I am spoiled about all of the grammar stuff because I know I can just send it to you, Z (lol) but my biggest problem is I wish people would be more critical of my storytelling. I love when you challenge my dialogue or actions, Z. I change them every time and usually come up with stronger lines of dialogue or a better sequence of actions. I struggle most of the time with where I should go with the characters, what should do they do, what should they say. I spend more of my "writing time" doing research and that gets so annoying when I realize that I have only written a few paragraphs in three hours, lol. I would love for someone to say "Ya know you have a huge plot hole here?" or "I don't think Han or Leia would say that." or even "You know we have seen this story a thousand times before, why don't you try something else." So next time Z, or Push, or Digs or whoever gets to read my pieces, PLEASE rip it to shreds. Maybe that means I know you are paying attention or that you care but it inspires me.

    Never seen this picture before. Very cute. The background picture is one of my favorites. I cant get over their height difference. It's so freakin adorable.

    And I love that you always point out how bad Digs used to be, lol! ;)

  4. Yes, Jarik is the only one who has sent me something and almost begged to be told it was terrible. I think it's some sort of fetish ;) BUT, if you remember, I definitely have told you in the past that certain reactions they've had seemed out of character to me or didn't fit well with where they were in the story. I mean, sometimes those things come up but sometimes even if you are expecting to get "torn apart" it doesn't really require that much tweaking. And sometimes I also think people can get carried away with wanting to point out something wrong just for the sake of it. Like, you can't just send it back and say wow, that was great. Just leave it because it's perfect. That kind of thing is probably rare, but again, just because you want someone to be hyper-critical, doesn't mean there's anything to be hyper-critical ABOUT.

    As for having seen things done before, well, that's tougher. I mean, if someone sends you a 30,000 word story or whatever and wants an opinion and it's their version of the trip to Bespin, am I just going to send it back and say, 'It's been done.' No, I'm not. I think that even if things have been done before it's always interesting to get another author's interpretation of it. Of course sometimes things do start to get repetitive, and that can be pointed out to a certain degree, but that's tougher.

    And Jarik, I did not say Digs was "bad"! I could discuss some of your constant grammatical errors too, you know! ;) I just think she's a great example of how little, technical errors would've detracted from what was otherwise a great, well-written story. And it's something that is easy to fix.

    That pic of them walking away is seriously the cutest ever, isn't it? When I saw that when I randomly picked up a Star Wars Insider magazine at the grocery store last summer (which believe it or not, I had never bought otherwise) and saw that picture, I was like, ok, that settles it: they totally did it ;)

  5. I was actually thinking of when Threepio says it to Artoo. I'd forgotten Han says it, too. Sounds better coming from Threepio. Wow, I read that wrong at first, I thought you said that, I took it like a chimp!... um, thanks ;)

    Hey! I wasn't bad, just... Okay, yeah, I was terrible! But at least I don't have a freaky fetish! ;) HA!

    Haha, they MUST have done it. That picture is practically a signed confession!

  6. Ok, don't go jumping off a cliff. Maybe it's just because of the topic, but I spotted a lot of small errors in the original post, lol.

    The delusions of grandeur thing...honestly, I think it's just a weird phrase to be in a Star Wars film to begin with. Yes, it makes more sense coming from Threepio, but for whatever reason, my mind always wants to reject it.

  7. I know you weren't calling Digs bad. I just love to give her a hard time. It's my way of saying I really like you, lol. ;)

    And I am sure my writing is way worse than her's ever was. You have pointed out more than once not only my terrible grammar but also some characterization errors which is like fuel to the fire for me. I think some of my best work has come out of you saying "Nope. That definitely doesn't work." There is actually a line of dialogue that you told me to change and I did and now its my favorite, and you haven't even seen the new one yet. But your right sometimes you don't need to be overly critical. I guess I am a freak of nature. ;)

    You know when is the best time to use the phase "delusions of grandeur"? When you're in middle of a huge fight with a friend, roommate, significant other, someone like that and you just yell "You know what!? Your just having delusions of grandeur!" See if that person cant NOT laugh. It works every time. Fight over, lol.

    Maybe its just my circle of friends but we constantly quote Star Wars. It's evolved into our everyday language. I don't think a day goes by where the phrase "sorry about the mess" doesn't come up. I mean you can use it for anything. Try it! New Years Eve I was challenged to only talk by using Han Solo quotes and I did it all night long just like I was talking like my regular self. Best New Years EVER! lol!

    Dont everybody thank me at once. ;)

  8. I remember when I first starting sending my writing to Zyra, I told her that I had "thick skin" and could take any kind of feedback because I really, really wanted someone to tell me honestly what they thought of my writing. But what I found out is that I don't have really, really thick skin! As a matter of fact, I told Zyra today in a personal email that my skin is about as thick as a bubble's. But that doesn't mean I can't accept the feedback, I've just learned (and am still learning) that although it is a difficult thing - showing your work and getting someone's opinion on it - in the end it usually improves your writing and your story. (And yes, the punctuation in the preceding paragraph is probably atrocious, I don't have a beta for these things and it's late and I've been celebrating Cinco de Mayo!)

    Anyway, there have been numerous times when Zyra has sent something back to me and accused me of "glossing" over a certain point in my story and at first I would feel dejected and personally affronted (yes that's how I felt, Zyra), but then I would go back and rework and rewrite it and come up with some of (what I think) end up to be the best parts of my story and I would eventually thank Zyra for challenging me on it. :-)

    I compare writing to anything else in life that you find interesting and worth doing. Like playing a sport or learning an instrument, you can probably do a pretty good job with the natural talent and tendencies you have regarding that interest but if you really want to improve and do well then you have to take some lessons and accept some coaching, right? It's not that you can't do it alone, but you can do it so much better with a little help and an open mind.

  9. Ahh, constructive criticism. Such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I hate getting something back from a beta with two spelling corrections and a "this is good" at the end. Because NOTHING is perfect, and I want to know what exactly could be better!

    But I do get nervous when I get a chapter back too, and even a little bit nervous when I get a review alert (even though most people don't leave really negative reviews, you never know). I think I'm more nervous about certain things than others. I have no problem being told about grammar and spelling errors, and usually don't feel too bad about being told that something seems out of character, but I'm deathly afraid of being told that my plot doesn't make sense, or that I'm writing angst for the sake of angst, or that the names I make up for my OCs and planets and things sound silly. On the other hand, those are the kind of things that I MOST want a beta to catch, because at least then it stops with ONE person, instead of the whole internet secretly laughing at my ridiculous planet names.

    In the end, it really boils down to how personal something is, I think. Writing it's instead of its, for example, isn't personal at all...but when it comes to something that's supposed to be emotionally intense, I'm usually drawing on personal experience (well, to a degree, I've obviously never had my planet destroyed or flown a spaceship or whatever else) and writing about things that I think would be exciting, or depressing, or romantic, or scary. So having those things critiques feels a little like having MYSELF critiqued, if that makes sense?

    That doesn't mean I don't want it. Just that I sometimes want a glass of wine with my criticism? Seriously, though, writing fanfiction and giving and receiving criticism has been great for me as far as getting over some aspects of shyness and selfconsciousness. Not that I'm completely over either but... working on it?

  10. You make a great point about the different types of criticism and how some of it just isn't very personal at all. Being told you forgot to put quotation marks at the end of that dialogue is just an oversight, but being told about things in the plot that don't work or something that seems out of character seems much more like it is criticizing you personally as a writer. And anyone who is trying to help you only wants to make you better, not find reasons to point out what a bad writer you are.

    Personally affronted? Really? And yet sometimes when I DON'T bring something up and later you ask about it, and I say, well, yeah, maybe that should be changed but I didn't mention it before, you get mad at me for NOT having mentioned it. It's so hard to win with you ;) It's hard to be on the other side of it, too. You never know how someone is going to take something, and sometimes really all they want is to know that their grammar is technically correct and they don't really care if you think that Leia is acting out of character because this is how THEY think she would act. So you do need to ask what it is they want you to look for.

    And Push, I hope you no longer feel personally affronted when I say stuff. I'm not trying to attack you!

  11. I know. I was mostly kidding. Oh yeah, and you mentioned one of my pet peeves (when I mention something later that you admitted you held back on) what's up with that?

    And that brings up a point I didn't address earlier. GIVING the feedback, it's sometimes as difficult as receiving it. You don't want to discourage someone but you want to help them. Also, as Zyra said, just because you point something out doesn't mean the writer HAS to fix it. They may want their character to act a little out of character or they may see a character a little differently and that's fine.

    Man, this is all much easier to write about than to actually do! HAHA!

  12. Oh, another good point. Yes, sometimes things are more of a matter of opinion, but I might tell you I think maybe you should change it anyway. But when stuff like that comes up, I tell you that. Like, I don't necessarily think it's WRONG but it made me feel a certain way or something seemed a bit off, but I don't think you NEED to change it, just maybe something to think about. It might be easier if we had a specific example, but I can't think of one. But yes, even if someone suggests something, there is no rule that says you HAVE to change it. It's still YOUR story and if you believe deep down that the way you had it is the way you want it, then keep it that way. Don't feel pressured to change something just because one person suggested it.

    I know, this probably sounds quite contradictory now, but while it's good to accept the criticism, there are also times when you have to go with your gut.

    And as for maybe NOT pointing something out, sometimes it seems so minor and it's not totally clear whether or not it really needs to be changed, you know? It feels like it could go either way. So I sometimes won't point out every minor thing, especially if it's something you liked in the first place so I don't want to start making you question it. But if you ARE questioning it, then I will speak up. It's a fine line!

  13. Giving feedback is definitely as hard as taking it! Especially if I'm NOT the beta, just reviewing. As a writer, I want to know every single thing that goes through someone's head as they read...good, bad, or just "Oooh, I wonder if this is going to happen next?" Sometimes things that weren't even intended as criticism can be the most helpful comments of all.

    But I know some writers just want praise, or nothing. So I do hesitate to be honest with writers I don't "know."

    I want to know if something seems slightly out of character, myself, because that was either unintentional and I want to fix it, intentional and I'm glad that it seemed every bit as weird to the reader as it was supposed to, OR maybe just a different take on the character and we can agree to disagree.

  14. Hikari, I am like you and would like to know EVERYTHING that my story ignites within someone, good and bad. Even feedback that points out what is wrong or not quite believable or whatever shows a writer that SOMEONE is actually reading their words which is an awesome thing to find out.

    I personally think if you have more than few concrits or have serious issues with a story, then a PM is more appropriate than a review. But, that's only my opinion.

    Another place for good concrit/discussion is NHP, although no one does much anymore, I find that posting stories there generates more discussion as you go along. It's almost like everyone on that website acts as a beta reader (which is why I was terrified to post there initially). But, seriously, if you have a story that you want some feedback on before you post if on, and you want some "free" beta readers, I would start there. I would also expressly ASK for this kind of feedback to break that initial barrier for people. You can even point things out that you are struggling with and ask for opinions.

    Ok. That's it for now.

  15. Hey, Hikari: Did you know that if you say your pen name outloud, it sounds like something Bib Fortuna (that dude from Jabba's Palace) would say?

    Bib: "Hikari no tsubasa!"
    Leia: "What do you mean I HAVE to wear this?"


  16. LOL! At least it doesn't sound like Huttese, right? XD