If You Can’t Take The Heat…

A short while ago a comment asked how, as a writer and games designer, I deal with criticism (apologies to the person that asked the question, I trawled through all of the many comments but couldn’t find you again…). So, this is the Mechanical Hamster Guide to Taking Criticism.

Wheat and Chaff

‘Criticism’ is a much-loaded word these days, and has been mostly superseded by the much friendlier ‘feedback’. It is important to remember that being criticised is not necessarily an attack, and that there are different types of criticism. Learning to negotiate your way around the different responses you’ll get from people is part of being a creative and putting your work out to scrutiny. If you really can’t handle both constructive and destructive criticism, you’re going to be in for a bumpy ride.

The first questions to ask (internally) of any critic is why are they providing criticism, and on what basis is that criticism being made? There are ‘professional’ critics (editors, reviewers) and there are ‘amateur’ critics (readers, gamers, friends). Writers will tell you that you should always pay attention to the former, but it is equally important that you don’t ignore the latter – for all the influence editors and reviewers have, it’s the people that pay money to read your books, play your games that you are attempting to please.

While the person making the criticism should be borne in mind, the content and style of that criticism is equally important. A well-worded, carefully thought-out single comment from a fan is just as useful as a page of notes from an editor. The real distinction usually comes with a better ability of the first group to structure their thoughts and arguments, whereas it can often prove difficult to glean something useful from the second.

There is a third group – the attackers. This isn’t just those folks that are negative about your work, but who include personal insult, negative emotive language and a general level of unpleasantness in their criticism. Ignore them. Seriously, if someone cannot construct their criticism in such a way that they cannot make their points without resorting to abuse, they really aren’t worth your time. It doesn’t matter if there is a valid point beneath the vitriol; their conduct excludes them from rational discourse.

Confirmation Bias

People don’t like to think that they are wrong. Our brains have a trick of seeking out and remembering evidence that supports our views whilst ignoring things that challenge them. This is called confirmation bias and affects everybody, whether talking about their favourite TV show or world politics. As a writer, be aware of confirmation bias. This doesn’t just mean being careful not to focus solely on praise, it equally means don’t just see the criticism.  Listening to just your detractors can be as dangerous as paying attention only to your fans.

As a creator, you should be seeking to build on your strengths and guard against your weaknesses. Pay attention to criticism of your strong areas, it will serve to make them even stronger. Equally, look for positive things people have to say about your weaker areas so that you can build on them.

Live and Learn

It is important to actively seek out criticism. This is why many authors will tell aspiring writers to join feedback groups or forums; to enlist the help of knowledgeable associates who can provide constructive criticism.

Criticism is only useful if you act on it properly. Try to understand the processes at work behind a particular remark or piece of feedback. This can prove to be really tricky. Quite often fans, in particular, will say what they like and don’t like, but it is often hard for them to articulate why.

Don’t concentrate solely on criticism of your own work. Look at what other people are saying about other authors and books you’ve read; how do their views overlap and differ from your own opinion. You may find out something that helps with your own work. You may hear someone say that Author A is great at characterisation, but what does that actually mean? Have a look at Author A’s work and try to find out what methods he or she uses to bring individuality to their characters.

Sometimes a reviewer or fan will say what they think is good, but again you may be left wondering what makes it so good. Be prepared to go back to your own work and read it again, bearing in mind the comments others have made. It may be too late for that particular piece, but the lessons can be learnt for future projects. Gaining experience as a writer is a constant process of doing, evaluating and doing again, whether it is rewrites on a single piece or throughout a career.

The important thing to remember is that criticism will make you better. Seek it, embrace it, learn the lessons so that next time around the criticism is different. If you can’t find someone with something bad to say about you, it doesn’t mean you’re perfect, it means you’re just not trying hard enough!

Take a Deep Breath

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are and how much confidence you have in your work, taking criticism can be difficult. After labouring so hard, putting heart and soul into your work, it’s an entirely natural action to push back against criticism. Even now, after years of it, I sometimes have that ‘you’re missing the point!’ reaction. It is also easy to get trapped into a defensive or passive-aggressive mindset when dealing with criticism.

Never respond to criticism immediately. Your thoughts simply aren’t clear enough to consider what it being said, and certainly not rational enough to compose a reasoned response. And I don’t just mean fan comments; the same is true of editorial feedback. There’s usually at least once piece of feedback on every novel I write that gets my back up. On occasion it gets me really agitated – we’re talking the ‘lying awake at 1 am’ sort of agitated. Often you just have to let it lie, for a few hours usually, sometimes for several days. It’s only after you’ve vented the unjustness of it all, called people names in your head and ranted a bit at the wall that you can go back to analyse the criticism and see if it has genuine merits.

When dealing with fans, don’t get tempted into thinking that you can change their minds. You probably can’t. You might be able to point out that a plot hole isn’t really a plot hole, or that a character really would act in such a way because of x, y and z. You might change people’s appreciation of a piece, but you can’t make them like it.

Accepting feedback doesn’t mean being a doormat to everything your editor tells you. If you think you have a case to argue for not making a change or doing something a particular way, then make your point. Many writers, especially when starting out, are craving acceptance and legitimacy of their work and are desperate to please. That can be just as damaging as refusing to take on board any feedback.

When getting back to your editor, do this with a conversation if at all possible – emails usually make it more difficult to explore nuances of ideas. Find a compromise if you can.

Often writers don’t like being told what to do, so perhaps you can acknowledge the problem highlighted but come up with your own solution to it. In this way you can feel that you are still in control of the work.

And always remember this – an editor’s job is to make you, the writer, even better.

Being a Good Critic

I’ll just finish with a few pointers to fans who like to express their views on their favourite games and authors:

Be civil. Manners never hurt nobody, and your point is not made any more relevant by being nasty about it.

Give reasons. This is a tricky one, because sometime we just like or dislike something. If that is the case, just say so, don’t try to rationalise an emotional response. However, if you can put your finger on what it was that swayed your opinion, pass that on.

Give examples. Often as a writer I will read criticism and wonder how somebody came to that conclusion. If you can give two or three examples of what you found to be good or bad, it is a massive help. If you can only find one example in a given work, you might just be nit-picking.

Be balanced. Critics are just as prone to confirmation bias as everybody else. If you like a work, also try to find something that was less than satisfactory that would have made it even better. If you didn’t like it, try to think of something positive you can say amongst the negative (even if it is just a single character or particular scene).

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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good post Gav, loads of useful advice there for me.
    I had the initial, ‘You just don’t get it!’ reaction when I got criticism for my work, but now I keep my mouth shut and see if its valid first.

    The old maxim, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, is so true.

    Like

    • There’s two reasons why someone might not ‘get it':

      1. They are genuinely stupid, or their taste/ expectation is massively different to yours.

      2. The work fails to explain itself adequately.

      If one or two people don’t get it, it could be the first. If lots of people don’t get it, you can be pretty sure it’s the second! In that case of thelatter it’s usually too late to fix things for that work, so it’s something to be learnt for the next.

      Which leads me to something I forgot in the main artice – moving on. Everybody makes mistakes, smart writers don’t repeat them. Don’t get bent out of shape dwelling on things that can’t be changed. Just be better next time. :-)

      Like

  2. Again thanks a bunch Gav, tis a very useful and insightful article, especially at the start of November with many undertaking the Nanowrimo competition to put into practice and act upon ideas rather than just thinking about them. The next step after learning to actually put pen to paper is to deal with ‘feedback’ in order to improve and so this provides a nifty tutorial for the next step in the natural progression of the writing experience!

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    • It’s important not to simply hand over control of a story to others – it is your story in your words, your characters doing what you want them to do. Sift feedback through a filter of what you hand in mind when you started writing the story. I suppose one way of thinking about this is as a ‘comparison to brief’.

      For instance, if you want to write a funny story, you need to find out which parts made people laugh and which didn’t, and understand why. If you wanted people to contemplate the fundamental effect of entropy and decay, look to see if readers were aware of that theme whilst reading.

      I find it useful to imagine what would be the perfect review and what would be the worst review, and then compare that with what people are actually saying.

      Like

  3. Hmm, this is probably the best text on criticisms I have read so far. I know my feedback isn’t very specific, but I just like this text as it basically says everything in comfortable amount of words. =)

    I have one question, though: if editors are supposed to make writers even better, how come they are not star writers themselves? (I’m a total newbie, so sorry if the anser is obvious)

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    • “I have one question, though: if editors are supposed to make writers even better, how come they are not star writers themselves? (I’m a total newbie, so sorry if the anser is obvious)”

      Some editors are also good authors. Writing and editing are very different processes. The first is to take a blank page and fill it with words that tell a story. The second is to take a page full of words and make them tell the story in the best possible way.

      An editor (amongst many other things) is a professional critic. As such, they are able to analyse and deconstruct a piece, and provide a commentary from that analysis. This does not mean that they could create the piece in the first place (which is why the ‘could you do any better’ defence is naive when fans starting arguing). I could (with my art ‘A’ level :-) ) look at a painting and comment on its composition, subject, themes and technique. However, that’s a long step from being able to paint like Rembrandt.
      I find editing difficult, simply because I fall into the trap of reading other people’s work with the mindset of ‘how would I do it?’ rather than with a view to how they would do it. A good editor doesn’t attempt to write your story for you, they guide you along the path to best doing it yourself.

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  4. This is a really useful article.

    I’d triple underline the bit about not trying to change fans’ minds – unless someone makes an accusation that is genuinely defamatory, there’s little point in getting into an extended argument with a reader.

    At best the writer will run rings around an incoherent critic, and just look like they’re shooting fish in a barrel. At worst you come across as prissy and unstable to any third parties who may have liked your work in the first place, but will now have a lower opinion of the author!

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  5. This is a much needed bit of discussion. Often times there are many people who just flame, or on the other extreme gush, with little thought or body to it.

    I also find myself jumping into my own confirmation bias, and this article definitely made me identify that.

    Thanks for the guide, Mr. Thorpe :)

    Like

  6. Thank you for this article. I know it will help me to deal with all sorts of criticism, not just criticism of my writing, which makes it worth a lot to me. =)

    I was particularly interested in the ‘confirmation bias’ bit, because I kept wondering why I could make really good arguments against things in my head, now I know it’s probably because I wasn’t aware of the strongest arguments for those things.

    I must also thank you for ‘Annihilation Squad’, one of the first BL books I read (it may have been preceded by ‘Witch Hunter’ by C.L. Werner, but I read them one after the other, so it could be the other way around). Kage’s bleak, uncaring world view acted as apathy-tinted glasses, that showed a gritty, selfish side of Imperial Guardsmen that I doubt I could have fathomed otherwise. I look forward to reading ’13th Legion’, and ‘Kill Team’.

    Disappointed to hear that you’ve left Games Workshop, but then, all good things must come to an end, eh?

    Oh, and that guy who asked you about how you deal with criticism, was the chap who made the fourth comment on your article, ‘Who is Gav Thorpe and why should I care?’.

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  7. […] a good summary of how criticism works on Gav Thorpe’s blog. He’s been doing this thing for much longer than I have, and it’s all good advice. Of […]

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  8. I agree with this post.

    I’ve been working on the LATD codex for a long time now, and every time I get feedback I make an attempt to incorporate it. It has made the document much better as I don’t always see loopholes or unclear wording that an outside person can spot instantly. I can’t please everybody though so it is a fine line to walk

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  9. Thanks Gav, great article as usual.

    How do you deal with contradictory feedback, especially when both critics have a valid point?

    Do you find that there is a danger in improving one thing at the cost of another, make one person happy and you upset someone else? In effect that your work becomes different, but not necessarily better to everyone.

    On an unrelated note, how do you concentrate on writing when the very computer you are typing on contains so many wonderful distractions?

    (Sorry for the barrage of questions. I’m redrafting my thesis at the moment, and while its not going to be a widely circulated fiction novel it’s still 90k words and I want it to read well. The perspective of a professional writer is not something you get every day!)

    Mat

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    • How do you deal with contradictory feedback, especially when both critics have a valid point?

      This usually comes down to specifics and style. If both critics have opposite views on the same subject, it may be the case that it’s their own preferences that are informing the criticism, in which case as the writer it’s up to you to choose whether to address one or other, or neither – often this sort of thing may mean you’ve hit a comfortable middle ground. As a blunt example, if someone were to say a story had too many action scenes and another said there were not enough, you simply cannot please both so it’s up to you to decide what you want from the work.

      Do you find that there is a danger in improving one thing at the cost of another, make one person happy and you upset someone else? In effect that your work becomes different, but not necessarily better to everyone.

      Yes, there is a danger. Camels are horses designed by committee and all of that. If there’s a weight of opinion on one side against a minority on the other, it’s not an issue. If there’s a fairly even division of opinion, then see answer above! This is about retaining control of the work and using feedback to make sure it does the best job of what you want it to do, not turn it into something else simply to please as many people as possible. As another crude example, it’s like painfully inserting a romantic interest into a film or novel simply because that will appeal to a certain audience rather than because it develops the characters and story.

      On an unrelated note, how do you concentrate on writing when the very computer you are typing on contains so many wonderful distractions?

      With difficulty! There’s no substitute for self-discipline, but also remember that regular breaks are essential to keep yourself fresh and for your comfort and health. I saw a TV piece on Iain (M) Banks; he has two PCs, one with email, internet and such and one with just his word processor. Guess which he uses for writing?

      Like

      • Thanks Gav, insightful as always. I’m waiting on that most hatful of editorial feedback, how to cut 10k words from a piece that is over word count. If anything being told your work is good but needs cutting seems worse than being told parts are bad. Any author who knows how to delete whole chunks of prose they spent months working on without getting rather down is a better man than me!

        What do you tend to do with cut work? (I’m assuming that you have ideas and sections that for some reason or another don’t make the final draft)

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  10. […] rumblings are inspired by a post made by Gav Thorpe on his blog about criticism. He’s specifically talking about criticism of his work as a writer and how he […]

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