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‘Criticism’ is a much-loaded word these days, and has been mostly superseded by the much friendlier ‘feedback’.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.
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).