Constructive Criticism

JMilz

Moderator
Constructive criticism can help all of us become better writers, but sometimes, it can be hard to hear. How do you get the most out of constructive criticism? How do you handle bad reviews? Share your tips here!
 

Blue Kat

Member
Okay, I am going to tell you the story of the worst review I ever received.

When I was a teenager, I was super into the Lord of the Rings. This was during a time when there was a lot of flaming on fanfiction.net and the LOTR fandom in general had a lot of gatekeeping. I started writing a fic when I was 14 that was a classic girl-falls-into-Middle-earth fic and it developed a pretty decent following--nothing massive, but I had a couple hundred readers. I was a competent enough writer when I started writing the fic and my reviews in general were very good. However, it was also a massive learning process for me, so there were a lot of issues with plotting and character development that I was sort of learning as I wrote. It's not a great fic by any means, but I like to think of it as kind of a weird growth chart, if that makes sense.

Anyway. When I was 16 or 17 I got this review where the reviewer basically tore my fic to shreds. She pointed out a number of problems with the fic and declared my OC a Mary Sue and seemed to find nothing redeeming about her. At first, I was pretty upset: it's hard to hear someone say that something you worked really hard on is bad and this reviewer was particularly blunt in her assessment of my fic (looking back, there were some major problems with the way that she approached this, which I'll get to).

But after a few days, I was able to remove myself from some fo the immediate emotional response and look at some of her points more objectively. The more that I assessed these points, the more I realized that the story that I was telling was not actually the one I wanted to tell. I wanted to work with a more complex character; I wanted to diverge more from canon and familiar storylines. Ultimately, I arrived at a place where I could think more critically about my own writing--which was a process that needed to happen. I think I ended up becoming a better writer because of that.

That beings said, looking back, there were some really problematic aspects of how this person chose to express those thoughts. The review veered more toward being unnecessarily mean than being constructive or helpful. Some of what she was criticizing was simply a matter of a difference in taste--she didn't like that my character was sarcastic, which she presented as a flaw in my writing rather than a matter of her own personal preference. I was 16 or 17 at the time I received this review and I was upfront about that in my author's notes: she faulted me for not having the experience, maturity, and understanding of a grown adult.

Anyway, this turned into a very long comment. But I guess my advice is:
  • Allow yourself to feel angry, hurt, sad, whatever. Experience those emotions--but wait a couple of days before you try to respond or make any decisions about the direction of your work.
  • Look at the comment as objectively as you can. Think critically about the story you want to tell and the story you are telling--are they the same story? If not, why not?
  • Remember these things:
    • If a comment shames you for something you don't know, that is not constructive criticism.
    • If a comment presents a matter of taste as a measure of quality, that is not constructive criticism.
    • You're allowed to say "Hey, you have a point, I want to work on improving this."
    • You're also allowed to say, "thanks, but I'm happy with the story that I'm telling."
 

JMilz

Moderator
Okay, I am going to tell you the story of the worst review I ever received.

When I was a teenager, I was super into the Lord of the Rings. This was during a time when there was a lot of flaming on fanfiction.net and the LOTR fandom in general had a lot of gatekeeping. I started writing a fic when I was 14 that was a classic girl-falls-into-Middle-earth fic and it developed a pretty decent following--nothing massive, but I had a couple hundred readers. I was a competent enough writer when I started writing the fic and my reviews in general were very good. However, it was also a massive learning process for me, so there were a lot of issues with plotting and character development that I was sort of learning as I wrote. It's not a great fic by any means, but I like to think of it as kind of a weird growth chart, if that makes sense.

Anyway. When I was 16 or 17 I got this review where the reviewer basically tore my fic to shreds. She pointed out a number of problems with the fic and declared my OC a Mary Sue and seemed to find nothing redeeming about her. At first, I was pretty upset: it's hard to hear someone say that something you worked really hard on is bad and this reviewer was particularly blunt in her assessment of my fic (looking back, there were some major problems with the way that she approached this, which I'll get to).

But after a few days, I was able to remove myself from some fo the immediate emotional response and look at some of her points more objectively. The more that I assessed these points, the more I realized that the story that I was telling was not actually the one I wanted to tell. I wanted to work with a more complex character; I wanted to diverge more from canon and familiar storylines. Ultimately, I arrived at a place where I could think more critically about my own writing--which was a process that needed to happen. I think I ended up becoming a better writer because of that.

That beings said, looking back, there were some really problematic aspects of how this person chose to express those thoughts. The review veered more toward being unnecessarily mean than being constructive or helpful. Some of what she was criticizing was simply a matter of a difference in taste--she didn't like that my character was sarcastic, which she presented as a flaw in my writing rather than a matter of her own personal preference. I was 16 or 17 at the time I received this review and I was upfront about that in my author's notes: she faulted me for not having the experience, maturity, and understanding of a grown adult.

Anyway, this turned into a very long comment. But I guess my advice is:
  • Allow yourself to feel angry, hurt, sad, whatever. Experience those emotions--but wait a couple of days before you try to respond or make any decisions about the direction of your work.
  • Look at the comment as objectively as you can. Think critically about the story you want to tell and the story you are telling--are they the same story? If not, why not?
  • Remember these things:
    • If a comment shames you for something you don't know, that is not constructive criticism.
    • If a comment presents a matter of taste as a measure of quality, that is not constructive criticism.
    • You're allowed to say "Hey, you have a point, I want to work on improving this."
    • You're also allowed to say, "thanks, but I'm happy with the story that I'm telling."
I couldn't agree with you enough. The Lord of the Rings fanfiction community was incredibly gatekeep-y so I can only imagine how nasty her comment was. Even Harry Potter fans can gatekeep sometimes, so it's really important to keep everything in mind that you mentioned here. So glad you were able to move past that. Sometimes, nasty people can ruin our desire to work hard.
 

Blue Kat

Member
I couldn't agree with you enough. The Lord of the Rings fanfiction community was incredibly gatekeep-y so I can only imagine how nasty her comment was. Even Harry Potter fans can gatekeep sometimes, so it's really important to keep everything in mind that you mentioned here. So glad you were able to move past that. Sometimes, nasty people can ruin our desire to work hard.
Right? I think a lot of that had to do with the movies coming out and bringing more of a mainstream audience in. I'd read and loved the books and the movies reignited that interest, but I felt like a lot of people looked down on you unless you were a Tolkien scholar and that was super frustrating. I have found the HP fandom to be way more chill in general--demanding your fan "credentials" is not a thing that I've seen and I find that incredibly refreshing.

Oh! I forgot the best part about this story! So last year, I read this fic that I really liked and left a review for the author. She replied and said how much she enjoyed my current fic. We were chatting a bit and then she suddenly goes, "I just realized why your name looks so familiar to me." She then goes on to tell me that she used to read my LOTR fic back when I was posting and that she actually used to print out my chapters and put them in a binder to read like a book. She mentioned a handful of really specific lines that had stuck with her as examples of good worldbuilding. It was one of the coolest things to happen to me in the world of fanfiction and it happened with a fic that I've kind of grown to think of as not that great.

In library science, there's an academic named Ranganathan who came up with 5 rules of librarianship. One of my favorites is "every book its reader." I love this because that is just the perfect distillation of what books--and writing in general--mean to people. Though I certainly have my own strong opinions about books, I also really believe that just because something isn't right for me doesn't mean that it's not right for someone else. As an adult, my teenage fanfic is kind of dorky and not my favorite or best work, but as a teenager, it was what I needed to write to get to where I am today. And it meant something to at least one of the people who read it. I think that principle is also really important to remember when you are working on your writing: a lot of success depends on getting your work to the right audience.
 

JMilz

Moderator
Right? I think a lot of that had to do with the movies coming out and bringing more of a mainstream audience in. I'd read and loved the books and the movies reignited that interest, but I felt like a lot of people looked down on you unless you were a Tolkien scholar and that was super frustrating. I have found the HP fandom to be way more chill in general--demanding your fan "credentials" is not a thing that I've seen and I find that incredibly refreshing.

Oh! I forgot the best part about this story! So last year, I read this fic that I really liked and left a review for the author. She replied and said how much she enjoyed my current fic. We were chatting a bit and then she suddenly goes, "I just realized why your name looks so familiar to me." She then goes on to tell me that she used to read my LOTR fic back when I was posting and that she actually used to print out my chapters and put them in a binder to read like a book. She mentioned a handful of really specific lines that had stuck with her as examples of good worldbuilding. It was one of the coolest things to happen to me in the world of fanfiction and it happened with a fic that I've kind of grown to think of as not that great.

In library science, there's an academic named Ranganathan who came up with 5 rules of librarianship. One of my favorites is "every book its reader." I love this because that is just the perfect distillation of what books--and writing in general--mean to people. Though I certainly have my own strong opinions about books, I also really believe that just because something isn't right for me doesn't mean that it's not right for someone else. As an adult, my teenage fanfic is kind of dorky and not my favorite or best work, but as a teenager, it was what I needed to write to get to where I am today. And it meant something to at least one of the people who read it. I think that principle is also really important to remember when you are working on your writing: a lot of success depends on getting your work to the right audience.
Wow! What a small world! I'm really glad a good experience came out of that fic!
 

Kamiccola

Member
I love reviews, they definitely help me grow as a writer.

I feel very blessed to not have gotten any nasty reviews yet. Maybe it's because my writing style/topics/themes don't attract the type of readers who are likely to be nasty?

There were some reviews that upset me because it felt like the reader did not understand what I was trying to convey. They make my head spin and I tend to overthink them.

Interpreting reader reactions is a tricky skill. We try to make readers feel something, that's the whole goal, and when it doesn't work, it could be because we didn't write it right.

But just how much control do we have over other people's feelings?

There are several scenes in my book that make me cry like a baby and I keep hoping I’ll make one of my readers cry. So far, no one admitted to shedding any tears and it's a bummer. But is it really my failure as a writer? Not everyone cries while reading, it doesn't mean they don't feel for your characters.

As for critical or negative reviews, it's important to remember that readers reactions are not always as bad as it might seem to you.

Rule #1 to remember - same words spoken or written sound very different.
 
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