When Does Constructive Criticism Cross the Line?

Some friends and I were recently swapping stories about critiques received or given. What became very obvious in the discussion were the varying interpretations of the term “constructive criticism” and what specifically differentiates constructive from destructive comments.

 I think that perhaps the real questions should be:

  • Why did you choose a particular person to read your work and offer comments?
  • What do you hope to gain from their critique?
  • Why are you writing in the first place?

 There may be a variety of reasons you chose someone to read your manuscript. I am just going to focus on the most obvious – whether or not the reader likes the book. Since you are looking for a general opinion on the book’s appeal, then wouldn’t it make sense to inquire whether the genre is something that person would buy in the first place? One can argue that good writing is good writing regardless of the genre but I think that also assumes a certain amount of sophistication in the average reader that may not exist. I have a dear friend who has no interest in reading romance novels, so asking her to read my work in progress and provide a critique is unlikely to provide me with any insight on whether to story would interest my target market. She is an excellent business and technical writer so perhaps asking her to serve as an editor would be better but if she can’t stand the genre then there is a risk of her not being as focused or engaged in the process as I need her to be.

 Perhaps my viewpoint is more business oriented than creative but in essence you are performing market/consumer research when you ask people to review your work. If you aren’t taking the samples from a population of your targeted consumers, then the information has little use in determining whether your book will have market appeal.

Critiques, constructive or otherwise, are valuable to an author. Even a comment like “this sucks, try again” conveys insight on your work. No, it doesn’t mean toss the manuscript in the nearest shredder or drop the reviewer from your Christmas card list. What this statement means is that the reader did not like the book and you should either follow-up with the person to determine why – if possible – or widen your sample population to see if this comment is an outlier or indicative of a problem you may be too close to see.

 I like to have someone read my story to find the technical problems (grammar, punctuation, typos, etc.) and a different person to read for the creative aspects. Can one person do both? Sure, they are called professional editors. Your friends, family, and other writers might be able to do that for you but it may be more effective to split the purposes.

 The last question, why you write in the first place, will also help you determine who to ask for critiques. If you write to entertain others then your focus for critiques will be different than if you write to educate or to enlighten. Writing to entertain is more or less writing for others even though you may also be writing to quiet those pesky voices within. Thus, your focus should be more on what is going to appeal to your readers. Writing to entertain does not require quite the level of technical finesse and wordsmithing as say a piece geared towards a peer-reviewed journal. There are a number of very popular authors whose grasp of the basics in sentence structure and punctuation leaves much to be desired but their readers either don’t mind or don’t notice because they enjoy the stories.

 So, when does constructive criticism cross the line into an attack on your story or your craft? When you let it – until then it is simply feedback.

 Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead reviews books for Crystal Reviews (www.crystalreviews.com) and writes paranormal romance. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.


Filed under Mairead Wapole, writing

11 responses to “When Does Constructive Criticism Cross the Line?

  1. swissknifev

    You have a fantastic point. I’m a copy writer and …
    there’s lot of thought in what you’ve said. Lemme think…. Yes … very true…

  2. For the most part, I agree, Mairead. However, when someone says something in a purposely nasty way – that’s not constructive. You can be negative, but still say it politely. “This sucks” followed up by saying how it sucks or how it can be improved, then it’s constructive.

    I’ve been to a “writer’s group” that turned into a group trashing session. None of them were published, none were ‘experts’ with credintials. They said nothing positive, only problems and in the nastiest ways possible. That’s not constructive in any respect, it’s viciousness. Anyone who didn’t write the way they thought they should got ripped to shreds. Needless to say, I didn’t go back.

  3. This is really good advice. I probably have gotten better advice from writers who read a wide variety of fiction than from friends. The writers often seem to switch gears and experience a genre they don’t normally read. Friends are less used to doing it and often tend to read in narrowly defined areas. That puts them outside the target audience.

    Otherwise, I think I would rather know if a person thinks my book isn’t worth it than to have then give me some sugar-coated feedback suggesting Ron Howard is going to be calling me within a few weeks to discuss the screen play.


  4. Mairead

    Thanks Malcolm.

    I’ve always found that criticism (even mean-spirited) usually contains some kernel of insight, if only one can get past the knee-jerk response in order to identify and use it.

    Granted, like anyone else – hearing that someone didn’t like my story isn’t the best feeling in the world, but it’s reality – some will like it and some won’t.

  5. I’ve just been searching for the constructive in my ABNA review. Guess I’ve got a lot to learn. But thanks for the article. And yes, there was some useful information there.

  6. swissknifev

    When writing an article, as Mairead rightly said, it depends on the audience and their taste for the theme. Just an actor or a musician is accepted or rejected by their fans at the box office, the writer also has to have a larger audience appeal. At the end of a day they are the people who take the words in or puke them out. No matter who tries to put your work down a good piece of writing finds its path up, automatically.
    Now the problems are the roadblocks created by the middle men. They can be your publisher, the client, the eds and all the pen club elite who may criticize constructively or destructively. Sometimes destructive criticism can be a back handed compliment. But then the next question is – how will we know if someone is calling a spade a spade? How will we know if someone is calling a spade a rusty spade? Or we can be easily misled if someone calls our rusty spade a golden wonder.
    There a technique that I would use is to show my work to a selected panel that I trust.

    1. The impartial judge
    2. The pathological critique
    3. The well wisher who can stump you with kindness
    4. The common people who will finally pay for what you’ve written.

    That way on a scale of 10 we could come to some conclusion about the general direction and quality of our work.
    Or we can pen away in life no matter what people say and remember Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher said.

    He is famous for his work ‘The World as Will and idea’. Sixteen years after its publication he was informed that his edition was waste paper.

    A bitter Schopenhauer said that works like this are like a mirror. ” If an ass looks in you you cannot expect an angel to look out.”

    He also said : ” Would a musician feel flattered by loud applause of an audience if he knew that were all nearly deaf?”

    Optimism, said a wise man, is tough under such circumstances.

  7. Linda Stamberger

    I can give you an instance of destructive. When a literary assistant who loses your work, claims that you didn’t send an sase (basically calling you a liar), when you paid 6 bucks for it and know you sent it along, doesn’t bother to send you a rejection letter, surpasses the 4 week agreed upon mark, then when you call her on it, starts ripping your… Read More work to shreds, and most amusingly, can’t write and uses improper grammar in the email! This could be very destructive for one who couldn’t see beyond the obvious; say intimidated individuals and those just starting out.

  8. christinehusom

    Lot’s of great advice, thank you. And it’s true, after you get past the knee-jerk reaction of a negative review, it helps to put it in perspective and glean what you can from it.

  9. swissknifev

    Linda S.:
    The literary assistant you are talking about doesn’t deserve to be called by such an educated name. ‘Literary clerk’ is more appropriate for an insensitive person who can be careless about someone’s hard work. You say that she can’t write, right? That’s the problem and to her grapes look sour.I suppose it’s part of life in all artistic fields. I suppose we’ll have to learn to deal with green eyed foxes.

  10. Mairead

    swissknifev: I like your technique for finding an evaluation panel. (I may have to assemble one like this for my current work in progress…)

    Linda S. – Sadly, unprofessional behavior happens everywhere (and more frequently) these days. I agree with swissknifev, that individual doesn’t deserve a title of any esteem, it is just a pity that it cost you the cost of postage and the SASE to discover the “literary assistant” was merely a wannabe. Best wishes for the next time you entrust your work to someone. Don’t give up.

  11. Linda Stamberger

    This was from a TOP Literary Agency…and it was submitted to a legend in the field, not this person, who “the legend” passed my work along too. But that is how it goes, sloppy and unprofessional people in every industry. I am just excited about the technology available to writers today. We really aren’t at anyone’s mercy. I thought I would try the traditional route, but I am thinking that with the new technology available, there is no need to go that way for this particular work. And it has been worked on and rewritten. I def. benefit from criticism and take direction, I just don’t like people bullshitting me.

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