In part one, I outlined why I didn’t like constructive criticism. As a brief summary,
You damage yourself, It makes you feel like shit, Criticism is negative, Criticism slows you down, Asking for criticism shuts your brain down, Giving constructive criticism makes me feel like crap, Just because society says so, isn’t good enough, Writers deserve respect not criticism, It’s ok not to be criticised.
To see the detail behind the topics above visit part one of the post. Before talking with two people who are experienced with constructive commenting, I wanted to delve deeper into the detail of what constructive commenting actually is. But first, I wanted to thank you all for how many detailed and thoughtful comments you submitted on the last post.
How to constructively comment:
Here’s the meat of this two parter. Hopefully I have convinced you in part one that constructive criticism is dead, and we need to hail the era of constructive commenting. As I ready mentioned my definition is:
A method of constructively appraising a piece of work, using positive reinforcement.
For me the principles of constructively commenting are:
Say things politely and respectfully. (read things back to yourself before you send them back – how would you feel receiving the comment)
Be specific – Give Examples If someone has made a continuity error, tell them, highlight it and point it out. Just saying
‘oh I think you have some major consistency issues‘
Is not helpful in the slightest. Highlight the section and be polite.
‘I wasn’t sure if your character was meant to be wearing blue or red in this bit, but I noticed that it changed part way through.’
See how much nicer and politer that is, whilst still pointing out the problem?
Make suggestions – If someone’s character needs some work, tell them, and tell them what they could do to improve them. It’s no use saying, your character lacks depth, or I don’t feel anything for them. Tell them how to improve. ‘Have you thought about your characters backstory? I would love to know more about their history at this point in the story.’
‘I wanted to ask you, how do you think your character feels here? How do you think this event has effected them? You could expand a little on this event to include some of that’
So much better, and more positive than, your character sucks, and I don’t feel anything for them. I have been told this, and that’s what prompted the thought behind this post.
Be Balanced – Even if you hate their work, there is ALWAYS something good about it. Whether be pacing, dialogue, style, a specific piece of description the options are endless, use your writers imagination. If you can’t find something positive, politely make your excuses and withdraw yourself from giving feedback. Don’t crush them by not giving any positive feedback. But the other point is don’t only give positive feedback. The reason the writer asked for your feedback is because they want to improve. So help them improve.
Top and Tails – Start positive, end positive. Do the constructive commenting bit in the middle. But more than that, summarise. Its always helpful for you to summarise at the end because quite often I find that I get an overall feeling about something, but haven’t found a specific example to highlight it (yes I am contradicting myself) but it could be that generally you feel there isn’t enough detail, or there’s too much emotion and it’s made a chapter melodramatic. Sometimes there aren’t specific examples for overall feedback but it is still valid, and you might not pick up on it until you start to summarise.
I asked my Writers Bureau Tutor Esther Newton about her experiences with constructive criticism and constructive commenting.
Esther have you ever had constructive criticism that you found difficult or hurtful? How did it make you feel, and how did you deal with it?
Yes! I’ve received plenty of constructive criticism over the years. I felt awful at first and as if I should give up writing there and then. But some of it was particularly stinging. Some criticism was helpful but a lot just seemed negative and a put down. The way I dealt with it was to leave it for a few days, then get up and dust myself down, grit my teeth and push on to prove to myself that I jolly well could be a writer!
What do you think constitutes ‘good’ feedback.
Where there’s a balance. I always highlight the good points in a student’s work and focus on those. Then I’ll focus on areas which I think could do with a little work and help to improve the story/article/novel etc., before finishing in a positive light – it’s always good to encourage and I’d hate to ever put anyone off writing.
Do you ever get feedback on your work now? If yes, how do you process it?
Yes. It’s been interesting getting the feedback from my book of short stories. Most of it has been very positive, but my daughter said I focus on death too much! She found the stories depressing. The stories were written over a number of years and prize winners of various competitions, so they weren’t written one after the other. Nonetheless, in each story, my intension was to deal with issues centring around sad events, but to finish in a positive, uplifting way. But I took her views on board and feel fine; not everybody is going to like everyone’s writing and you can’t please everyone. I think I deal with constructive criticism much better than I used to.
As your student, I think you constructively comment. But, I am interested to know, as a tutor who critiques students’ work continually, where you would put yourself on the scale of critiquing?
This made me smile. I’m actually often referred to as the ‘kind’ tutor. I always like to be positive and to encourage others in their work. I think it would awful to slate someone’s work (not saying any of the other tutors do) but I’d hate to feel I’d crushed someone’s dream. We’re not all going to be the next J.K. Rowling, but who’s to say we can’t write what we want to write? There’s a market out there for everyone, even if it’s just the small press, having a reader’s letter published or for ourselves because we love to write.
What techniques or principles do you use to give feedback?
As I mentioned I concentrate on what’s good in a piece of work and point out why. I think it’s important for a student to know what’s going right and then I make reference to anything which could benefit from a little help. I mention why and make some suggestions for improvement. At all times I try and keep that sense of encouragement.
I was a writing student myself and my tutor used this approach, which I found fantastic. It’s what kept me going, learning and enthused. So I guess it’s thanks to him that I do the same.
Finally, having seen my brief explanation of constructive comments vs. criticism, do you agree or disagree with the principle of only asking for constructive comments?
I can completely see where you’re coming from and why. I hadn’t actually realised that constructive commenting is my way. But it is! So, of course, I heartily agree. Though, I do have students who want criticism and so I work on that side of things for them if they ask. Though, even so, I think I still work more towards constructive comments!
I wanted to ask someone who has received my constructive comments what they thought of my style.
Keith agreed to let me use him as an example, I’m (slowly) beta reading his novel The Orphans and employing a constructive commenting method to give feedback. I asked Keith what he thought of my feedback, this is what he said:
How did the feedback I gave you differ from other feedback you have received in the passed?
Most assuredly. With the exception of one person’s feedback that was completely positive (much appreciated but not overly helpful), some feedback I have had has felt like having my work marked. Your feedback felt nearer to a tutorial.
How did the feedback make you feel about your work?
More positive than I was expecting. I particularly appreciated your comments about the aspects that you liked. I am quite readily discouraged, and it is easy for me to look at the criticism and believe that the odd nice or encouraging comment is just put in there to make me feel better. Your comments left me feeling that you really did enjoy the work but were offering some excellent suggestions that could make it even more enjoyable.
In terms of the level, style and depth of feedback how was it pitched?
I found the mix of detailed and general comments to be very useful. While the general comments gave me plenty of meat to work with, the more specific remarks helped to fine-tune my re-working.
Do you think the style of feedback I give is different to constructive criticism you have received before?
Your feedback is less like marking and more like mentoring. I don’t think I can say much more than that.
Now you have read the arguments, seen other research, heard from a giver and receiver of constructive comments I would really like to know what you think about them???