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How To Give Constructive Writing Criticism (That Actually Helps)

Since we’ve already discussed Surviving Criticism without Losing Confidence in Your Writing, I thought it would be fun and helpful to also talk about the best way to give others feedback on their writing.

How to Give Constructive Writing Criticism

I recently read, Creativity, Inc. – Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Aspiration by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. They produced such modern-animated classics as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Frozen.

I learned there are distinct differences between criticism and constructive criticism.

Catmull conveys that with constructive criticism, you’re constructing at the same time as you’re criticizing. You’re building as you’re breaking down, making new pieces to work from what you just ripped apart.

It’s an art form we all should learn.

Ugly Babies

Creativity, Inc. says originality is fragile. Early on, your story is far from pretty. Even if it’s just page one of your someday four-hundred-page novel, your writing comes from deep inside you and you already love it.

Catmull describes this infancy stage of your work as an ‘ugly baby.’

How would you feel if a stranger; or worse, a friend, family member or writing mentor saw the child snuggled in your arms and shouted, “What a Gawd-awful ugly baby! I mean, his eyes are almost crossed, and will ya look at the schnozzer on that kid? Disgusting!”

It would crush you.

Many writers feel as attached to their stories as they do to their children. Some have been so hurt by criticism that they quit the craft altogether.

It’s a shame.

Be gentle when critiquing an ugly baby. Don’t be responsible for ruining what could’ve been a beautiful story – if it had the chance to grow up.

Here are three ways to help your fellow writers without insulting them.

1) Use Candor, Not Honesty

Most everyone agrees honesty is the best policy. Nobody wants to be known as dishonest, or worse; a liar. Catmull says, “A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”

However, there’s baggage that comes with honesty and he suggests we use candor instead. “Candor is forthrightness or frankness – not so different from honesty, really. And yet, in common usage, the word (honesty) communicates not just truth-telling, but a lack of reserve. Everyone knows that sometimes, being reserved is healthy, even necessary for survival.”

Do not misunderstand me, you can argue or disagree heatedly about a story. Certainly the other person needs to know what didn’t work or confused you about their writing, but you can temper your final judgment until their piece is more fully formed.

“Creativity has to start somewhere, and we (Pixar and Disney) are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”

Don’t insult someone’s ugly baby, especially early on in the writing process. Ask questions to help the author find their story. Sometimes they’re too close to their own words to achieve objectivity.

Example:

Don’t say: “Nothing about this plot works. It’s already been done a thousand times.”

Instead, try: “I’m intrigued by this idea. At this point, what do you think the overall message is you’re trying to convey? Let’s brainstorm, so your story can have a really fresh twist.”

The first comment is too raw and direct. The second still conveys something is off, but it isn’t as disheartening.

2) Candor isn’t Cruel

If you’ve ever shared your writing with others, then you’ve probably experienced painful criticism. It hurts, doesn’t it?

Catmull says when critiquing, “Your objective is not to destroy the other person. On the contrary, successful feedback is built on empathy…we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it before.”

Yes, it’s important to be candid about where someone’s writing needs improvement, but it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Example:

Don’t say: “The dialogue in this scene isn’t realistic. Nobody talks boring like that.”

Instead, try: “I like you’re characters, but I know you want people quoting your novel long after they’ve read it. Let’s brainstorm ways to bring your dialogue alive.”

The first comment falls flat and doesn’t help. The second still says something is wrong, but is much more open and encouraging.

3) Start with the Positive

This last suggestion is mine, not Catmull’s. Whenever I hear someone slam my work, it’s hard for me to not shut down. Sometimes, I don’t hear another word after that initial cruel punch.

When offering feedback to others, I try to find at least one aspect I like about the writing and start there. Yes, it was a challenge, but it was always early on in the author’s story when he/she was still finding their way.

Try to treat others writers the way you want to be treated (The Golden Rule, baby).

Example:

Don’t say: “Your main character is static. As a reader, I don’t care what happens to her.”

Instead, try: “I’m intrigued by your character. Keep working on her (her goals, motivation and conflict), so that she comes across as more three-dimensional and real.”

Recap – Constructive Criticism

1) Yes, writers need to hear what’s wrong with their work in order to improve it, but there’s a positive way and a negative way to convey that message.

2) It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

3) Constructive criticism done right, leaves the receiver excited to make revisions to their story, rather than feeling shattered.

What’s the most constructive criticism you’ve ever received about your writing? And/Or how about telling us about how you give constructive criticism. Share in the comments.

This post is by Positive Writer contributor, Marcy McKay.

About Marcy McKay

Marcy McKay wanted to write stories ever since she read about Oompa Loompas in fourth grades. She's the Amazon best-selling author of Pennies from Burger Heaven. Join her on Facebook. Marcy is also a contributing author to The Audacity to be a Writer.

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Like a good friend, Bryan guides you through the process of facing your inner demons, conquering the craft, and creating work that matters. ―Jeff Goins
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  • I review a lot of books. I want to love them all, but unfortunately, I don’t. I think your article is important because I’ve come across other reviewers who don’t take the above into consideration. You wrote a bad book, your problem. But like you said, all projects need work in their infancy. I really like looking at it from an emphatic perspective. I mean come on, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all possessed a little more empathy. I think we all need to remember that in every situation.

    • Clearly, you understand the importance of constructive criticism, A.E. I especially liked you mentioning “empathy.” Sometimes, we can be very graceless to each other, which is so sad.

      Thanks for your two cents.

  • Sylvie

    I agree that it’s in the how you say it that makes the difference between hurting someone and helping them.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Thank you, Marcy! The Golden Rule needs to be stuck to all our walls!

    Love ya
    Kitto

    • Exactly, Kitto.
      Most every writer has felt attacked before, so we should all try to tell each other what’s wrong with our wok in a more effective way.

  • Robert

    Let us back-space about eighty years, to DALE CARNEGIE.

    His thoughts on complaining should be a good guide. He said to begin with compliments about … and then go on to what might need improvement.

    Such as, “Your character is a good place to start, he had warmth and likeability, but he could stand some further development in dialog…” or “That is a great story line, and the plot-twist in chapter two is intriguing, but let’s look a bit closer at character development, because a stronger character might highlight the plot-twst more …”

    If we wish to become the best of critics, our goal in criticism should be to help the work to become more useful/functional/likeable as well as to help the writer develop themselves by developing the work. “You can’t have one without the other”

    • Oh yes, Robert. That’s the critique sandwich:
      * This is what I liked.
      * Here are some suggestions for improvement.
      * Ending with more praise.
      Really a great idea. Dale Carnegie was quite a man. I appreciate you reminding us of his contributions.

  • May Woodworth

    What about: Please don’t say anything unless you’re asked? Many writers are not ready to ask for help in the early stages. As you said, they can be emotionally attached to their work. Once they see lack of sales or interest in their work, they may be ready for constructive criticism, even seek it out. Good writing is a process. I like that you mention not to nip in in the bud too early.

    • Brilliant, May! I didn’t even think of that – people giving their unsolicited advice. I’ve definitely known folks like that.
      Thank you for adding that to the conversation!

  • I’ve been working with a writing coach this year and she is fabulous. Always right on the mark but she says everything in a positive way. I always feel like she is evaluating my writing and not dissing what I am writing about. For example, I tend to tell more than show and she’ll often say things like, “I love this story. I really want to be there with you, want to know what the room looked like, how it smelled, what you felt like..” etc. to help me paint the scene. I think constructive criticism is a discussion about how to make a story better, and not ever saying the story isn’t good enough to tell.

    • stillmind

      When I write something that “tells”, I immediately think about the ‘show, don’t tell’ advice that we all get. Sometimes you do just have to tell. “The car drove off”, for instance. But sometimes, “his face reddened and the whites of his eyes bulged out of their sockets”, might be more effective than, “he was angry”. (OK, that’s a lot of words, but hopefully a better writer than me could be more succinct…..anyone?)

      What do think? Are there times when you do have to tell rather than show?

      • There are times when telling is better than showing, but I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast rule about when it’s best. You have to trust your gut.

      • Yes, I agree that sometimes you can only tell. There aren’t many ways to convey the car veered off the road. However my coach has showed me ways I can use words to allow the reader to infer meaning through the set up of a scene or whatever. Thus the reader is picturing and understanding that a character is uncomfortable or whatever versus my just saying it. So maybe you could have the character describe the feeling of free-falling and seeing things upside down and then landing in the field or something. It’s a challenge and is helping me improve my writing.

    • What a wonderful writing coach you have. That’s awesome.

      You nailed it, Tracy when you said, “I think constructive criticism is a discussion about how to make a story better, and not ever saying the story isn’t good enough to tell.”

      Amen, amen!

      • Thanks Marcy. She is a great coach, I’ve learned so much from her, it’s been a great investment.

  • stillmind

    John Yeoman told me that my short story was entertaining, a good read and had a great ending. He also said it took some time to know what the story was really about. “Working in something in the first few lines to give the reader an immediate idea of what this story is about, could make this a much stronger tale overall.”

    I changed the beginning five times and I’m happier with the story now. But I remember the advice every time I write something now.

    • Wow, congrats. What a wonderful gift he gave you. I especially liked, “He also said it took some time to know what the story was really about.”

      Thanks for sharing this anecdote.

      • I agree with you, it was a great advice, to tell what the story is realy about at the starting.

  • I’ve learned a staff development technique that reminds me of your approach. When meeting to discuss an idea or proposal or project in progress, we start all of our initial comments with, “I wonder what would happen if…” instead of “This isn’t working,” or “I think you should change…” It seems to lead to more constructive discussions. Playing “What if…” appeals to creative people especially, because it is often the way they started that novel or script or article. It feels familiar and welcoming.

    • I REALLY like this idea, Cynthia. It’s open and encouraging and leaves room for so many possibilities. Thank you for adding a new too to my writer’s toolbox!

  • Catherine North

    I loved this article. I think you’re so right that it’s our choice of language that makes the difference between a supportive and a destructive critique. It’s also worth bearing in mind that many writers are revealing themselves and their innermost feelings through their characters, and this can leave us feeling very vulnerable when showing our work to a reader for the first time. So it’s probably best not to rant about how much you despise and want to slap the characters (especially if you’re critiquing for a friend or partner :). It’s always possible to phrase the criticism in a more positive way, and as writers it’s good practice for us to be aware of the emotional impact of our word choices.

    • very nice Catherine, I like this: ” It’s always possible to phrase the criticism in a more positive way, and as writers it’s good practice for us to be aware of the emotional impact of our word choices.”

      • I agree, Adnan!

      • Catherine North

        Thank you, it’s always nice to get a positive comment on a comment!

    • I’m glad you agree, Catherine. It’s interesting because as writers, you would think that we KNOW our words have a profound impact on others, so we would choose them more wisely when giving critiques.
      Alas…

      • Catherine North

        Yes, and those critiquers often defend their lack of sensitivity by saying ‘I’m helping you to toughen up and grow a thicker skin.’ But in my experience the best way to help an author to gain confidence and become more resilient to criticism is through positive encouragement and support.

        • Correct. You definitely understand empathy, Catherine. Writers who share their work with you are lucky to have your insights.

  • Jennifer Archer

    Great article, Marcy. I have been on the receiving end of hurtful criticism about my work in the past and know it can really shut a writer down. Once, I entered a Synopsis and the first chapter of an unfinished story in a contest. One judge gave me positive feedback, encouragement, and constructive criticism. The other judge only had harsh criticism that felt very belittling. Guess which judge I heard the loudest and whose words I took to heart? I was a newly published writer at the time and judge 2 completely shut me down from working on that project. I lost all confidence in my ability to write it. Only now, over a decade later, have I found the courage to begin to work on it again.

    What that experience taught me, however, is to do the things you mention here when critiquing the work of others.

    • Wow, Jennifer, thanks for sharing that story. I have a few of my own painful versions. I think many of us do.
      I’m glad you didn’t let the judge stop you and you’re back to writing. Good luck!

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  • Ralph

    You have written a nice article here, which nicely captures one point of view, one approach to writing a critique. I am intrigued by your premise, but I wonder if you have considered all the possible logic gaps in the message you’re trying to convey?

    Let’s brainstorm for a moment.

    Will everyone be using your approach when they participate in a critique group? If not, doesn’t your own article suggest that what you are calling an “honest” review will have greater impact on the writer being critiqued? Since it is unlikely a group of people will all both adopt this single approach, and do it with the requisite level of skill, what can you realistically expect as an outcome?

    Are you making the best and most accurate use of terminology? For instance, the word “candor” by definition requires openness and frankness. Are your “instead” examples really being either? If for example, a writer is honestly told a plot doesn’t work and has been done a thousand times before, they are probably capable of recognizing that basic truth. Then someone says they “are intrigued” by a plot the writer has just admitted to themselves is nonfunctional and overused.

    Doesn’t this instantly devalue the writer’s perception of the “candor” critique being offered?

    Doesn’t it suggest insincerity or lack of expertise by the person critiquing?

    Would I, as the writer, likely feel patronized under such circumstances?

    Is it possible you mean to convey a system for working one-on-one with a writer, rather than in a group? If so, might “nurturing” better capture your essential meaning, versus the questionable use of “candor?”

    Nurturing is one of many tools is a writer’s/critic’s kit. Are you suggesting that one tool works for all people in all situations?

    What if you, as a critic, have tried “nurturing” and it doesn’t work in terms of helping/encouraging the writer to grow?

    I have also been beaten for my writing. I am currently in the “recovery” process from what is in a reality a relatively mild “reproach,” yet it has been enough to derail my project for about a month.

    Did it “hurt?” Yes. But it also made me search for what the actual flaws in my writing, and my answers, the lesson learned, together with the soul-searching introspection, has much greater impact on me and my learning process than a “nurturing” approach *seems* likely to have had. And when I “recover,” I will be a stronger writer for it. Perhaps the question is not whether I was “hurt,” but what I walked away with from the experience?

    I think there is a time and place for all review critique approaches, provided they are not done with malice. Different people will respond in different ways at different times. I doubt there is a “best” way, or that you can claim one method “actually helps” as opposed to the alternatives. JMHO.

  • Bryan

    The article certainly makes me think about how I critique, what with its quotes from prominent artists, efficient organization and illustrative examples all being so powerful. As for the content, perhaps I needed a nudge to remember the person doing the writing, perhaps I fall in the “tough love” camp. On windy days, I’ll even believe that writers are merely conduits for the ideas that come out on paper, and so convince myself that anything I say won’t be taken personally. But then in order to be fair to the piece, the good must be stated as well as the bad.

    The examples given in the article are black and white in tone, this is true. But all of the statements are like general templates. It just won’t do, at least for me, to say you like or don’t like a character or any other element of the story, because I want to know why. I think this is important for the one critiquing, because when you recognize what works, and where it takes the story, then you can look at what parts of the story aren’t helping it get there and why and maybe even what to do about it.

    But perhaps I’m digging unnecessarily, and that the examples were left as general statements so that the reader could focus on how things were being said. An interesting question, then, is how to consider what we say as being helpful or not. On second thought, that question seems so enormous that it frightens me to laziness. Anyways, the article is written so gently that it took me a while before I realized that it’s a constructive critique in itself.

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