Criticism: Why You Need It, How To Take It… and How To Fail At Taking It.

A good critical reader is a writer’s best buddy. Note that you cannot turn that sentence around and get sense out of it: your best buddy is not, and never will be, a good critical reader. (Caveat: I am on good and friendly terms with some highly professional people whose criticism I value tremendously. But they know, and I know, that the critic/writer relationship has no goddam bearing on our friendship. It must not. It cannot.)

You need critical readers. Probably you need them a bit less as you get more skilled, but you still need them. You don’t stop making mistakes. You just make them smaller, and harder to spot. A good critical reader is pure gold.

I used to offer a bit of critical feedback as a slush-reader. The editors of the mag I slush for were supportive. And why not? Writers put their hearts on the line with their stories. A little useful feedback in the case of a rejection is the least you can do, I figured.

I was careful, though. I only supplied feedback to stories which were clearly written by a human being with some kind of skill in communication. I figured people like that would be likely to welcome a carefully constructed critical POV.

I learned better. I don’t do feedback to slush any more. Not even as an anonymous reader. It’s not worth it.

Here’s the thing: I know your story is your baby. I know it’s a work of undying genius. I know it’s destined for the next Hugo, the next Nebula, the next World Fantasy Award. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got a tendency to run your sentences together, and you need to cut some of those excess speech tags out of your dialogue.

Or at least, that’s my opinion. And if you’ve put your story in front of me for critical response, then yes, you asked for my opinion. As a critical reader, I’ve given you my time, effort and respect. I’ve put together a clear response indicating what I believe you can do to improve the work. You don’t have to take my advice, no — but you need to deal with it in a civil manner, even if (and this is the really important bit) even if you think what I’ve written is invalid. 

Because if you respond like this: (random blog post from someone who wants to be a writer) I can guarantee you will never hear from me again. Oh, and allow me to point out that I am neither of the two folk involved in this exchange. I just happened across it on the Interwebs, as one does.  It makes a great case to examine, though. Blogwriter joins critical group. Submits piece for criticism. Gets critical input he doesn’t like… and things go badly.

So in summary:

1) You want critical input. Really. Critical readers see the things in your prose that you cannot. You need them. Desperately.

2) Critical reading isn’t easy. It’s a skill acquired through time and much effort. Someone offering you that skill deserves respect, even if you disagree with them — and you most certainly are allowed to disagree.

3) If you choose to arc up and attack your critic, you gain nothing. You do, however, lose that critic and any other potential critic who sees your rant… because who in their right mind wants to subject themselves to the possibility of an attack like that?

Criticism isn’t personal. If you make it personal, that’s your problem. I’ll just pack up my quill pen and my ink and go somewhere else.


  1. Good sensible helpful advice for anyone who wants to write professionally or just be a better writer.

    Charlie Jane Adners over at I09 has some good advice on this as well in a recent piece she posted. She even references the infamous Eye of Argon.

    She agrees with you that a writer needs to remember “Again, the first and most important thing to remember is that people aren’t commenting on that nebulous, beautiful blob of potential that you shaped into a story—they’re just commenting on what you put on the page. They can’t possibly know what ideas you started out with, or what your intentions were, and you shouldn’t try to explain any of that stuff”.

    1. Yep. It’s not a conversation. If you don’t quite follow the critic’s reasoning, it’s more than fair to ask open, directed questions to get to heart of the problem… but taking up cudgels is an utter waste of time and effort.

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