The Art Of Criticism

Fun fact: before I found my calling as a writer, I was an aspiring artist…specifically, an aspiring comic book artist who was, for two and a half years, enrolled in the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art.

Long story short: I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t a great artist, and art was not my true calling, so I left. Today I rarely draw, and certainly not with the zeal I displayed back in high school, so going was, for me, ultimately, a waste of time and money.

However, I did learn some things there that have benefited me as a writer, and one of those things was how to properly view criticism.

One of my teachers was a character named Benito Ruiz, who taught human figure drawing (we often joked that his name made him sound like a boxer. Sometimes, as he entered the classroom, students would call out, “And in this corner! Weighing in at 220 pounds! Hailing from Dover, New Jersey…Benito ‘The Human Figure’ Ruiz!”). He had a Cheech Marin-esque accent and would punctuate his monologs with his unconscious catchphrase, “I mean, shit, baby!” It was hard not to dig the dude.

His most famous speech came one day when he overheard some students assessing some of their favorite (and most reviled) comic book artists in one of two absolutes: “He’s good” or “He sucks.” Ben then challenged these students to qualify what they meant; he wanted to know why a particular artist was good or sucked.

It proved tougher than it sounded — not so much because these guys had never really thought about what made an artist “good” or “bad,” which they hadn’t, but because they were using the terms as substitutes for “I like this artist” and “I hate this artist” respectively.

Benito forced us to consider what made a given artist, in our minds, good or bad; how to properly express our thoughts and opinions when delivering a critique; and made us understand that it is entirely possible to reconcile our critical judgment with our personal tastes, i.e., we can hate something that is, from an objective perspective, high-quality and/or love something that we know in our heart of hearts was utter garbage.

That lesson has carried over into my writing life in a big way. When I ask for criticism of my writing, I explicitly ask folks not to simply tell me whether they liked it or hated it, but to tell me why they liked it or hated it. I demand detail. I insist on specifics.

Fortunately, my reader squad always delivers. I’ve received some excellent analyses from them on my various projects, and my writing — as a whole and in regards to specific stories — has improved because of it. Thoughtful constructive criticism is one of my best and most reliable tools.

I don’t offer critiques of others’ writing anymore, because I give what I get, and that has not gone over well in the past. My criticism, no matter how thoughtful or how tactful, has too often been taken as an attack on the writer him/herself, a tacit insult to their very ability as a writer. To them, I’m not offering advice on how to improve, I’m pissing all over the fruits of their heartfelt labor.

I know that this isn’t my fault; people who react badly to well-stated criticism don’t really want an honest opinion, they want a pat on the back. They want encouragement, even (perhaps especially) when it’s undeserved, but I’m not wired that way, so I decided it would be better to simply refuse to take a look at other people’s writing and maintain the peace.

What I will do is throw out a few suggestions for would-be critics for the writerly family members and friends in their lives. But! You use this advice at your own risk, because people who hit you up for an “honest opinion” might not in fact be looking for an honest opinion, and will hold it against you for giving them one.

1 ) Be honest

This is deceptively difficult. When someone you care about says, “Hey, could you take a look at this and tell me what you think?”, they of course want to hear praise and encouragement, and you want to give it to them, but if they are at all serious about becoming a writer (or, for that matter, serious about pursuing whatever their chosen passion is as a career), false praise will do them no favors. To use a metaphor I’ve used before, you strengthen a chain by fixing or replacing the weak links, not by acknowledging the strong links.

2 ) Start with the good stuff

This is a little bit of psychology at work here, but the criticism goes down easier if you start by acknowledging the stuff that works, the stuff that’s solid. Dive right into the negative remarks and it might feel like an attack, so start with praise, follow with criticism.

Related note: never leave your feedback at “I think it was great. There was nothing wrong with it.” No first draft is perfect. Ever. That’s the kind of response parents give their five-year-old kid when he draws a farm with pink horses and a green sun. Serious artists want, need, and deserve more than a feel-good platitude right off the bat.

3 ) Don’t just like or hate something; explain why you like or hate it

Last year I wrote a comedic sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel manuscript entitled Strongarm & Lightfoot – Adventurers for Hire. Two of the characters were female elves, and were often referred to by others as “she-elves.” I didn’t think much of it. It sounded good to my ear. It gave the narrative and the dialog a faint otherworldly flavor by dint of its unusual nature (I mean, we don’t call woman “she-humans”).

My wife (and best critic), however, hated the term. She loathed it. To her, it sounded somehow denigrating or insulting rather than a neutral descriptive term. I did not initially agree, but as I thought about it, I understood her position, so I removed all uses of “she-elf” to see how it read, and it did not impact negatively impact the prose, so I left it out.

Having had ample time to think back on that decision, I realize she was right — not so much because of the insulting air of the term, but because the setting I created is fairly gender-balanced; the cultures are more likely to be gynocracies or gender-neutral. In that context, “she-elf” makes little sense.

The point: if you dislike a certain element of the story but cannot articulate your distaste beyond, “I just don’t like it,” you can’t help the writer fix it — or, at the very least, make him think about his choices and if they’re the right ones for the story he’s trying to tell.

4 ) Don’t try to re-write the story yourself

Personally, the phrase “You know what would be cool?” fills me with dread. This is because it’s often followed by a truly awful idea. Well, maybe not awful in a general sense, but awful for the story I’m trying to tell because it clashes with everything I’ve established in regards to plot, characterization, theme, etc.

If you’re critiquing a story for someone, stick to pointing out what works or fails and why and don’t try to help write it. If the writer asks for suggestions, okay, but don’t offer extensive advice on how to fix a problem or make improvements.

5 ) Be prepared to walk away

There are certain times when, as a test-reader, you will need to withdraw from the process: when the writer takes offense at your comments (see above); when you honestly have nothing else to contribute (which should NEVER happen on the first draft); and when you find yourself getting into an argument with the writer because he won’t accept one of your suggestions.

People nowadays are very argumentative, and it’s natural to want to be on the winning side of a debate, but critiquing someone’s writing has only one potential winner or loser, and that’s the writer — and whether he proves the winner or loser depends on whether the story goes anywhere or languishes on the author’s hard drive for all eternity, and whether your specific criticism played any sort of role in its ultimate fate.

If the writer adamantly disagrees with one of your remarks — even if your argument is valid, completely defensible or, yes, right — you need to let it go, because it’s not your story. It’s not your creation. At the end of the day, it’s not your name going in the byline. You did your job, so let the writer do his.

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