Writing Advice—Critical Hardness


There’s a part of writing that’s generously difficult—giving and taking criticism.

It can be very difficult to give criticism. You have to employ tact. Unless you’re slightly sociopathic, you want to employ tact. You have to employ specifics, and that without going over the top with your criticism. You don’t want to break the writer. When you’re giving writing advice, you want to enhance the writer’s will to achieve, not enhance their introversion. A writer, given the wrong kind of criticism, will curl up inside themselves and stop interacting with the outside world. This might be a stereotype, but all the writers I know agree. They all say they’ve felt the desire to be a hermit at one time or another.

A scathing piece of criticism rarely puts someone in the mood to follow any advice given with it. Usually this method works in the opposite direction. If a writer hears some rotten insult, they don’t agree with it, they defend themselves. They fight back. If they’re too intimidated by the criticism, or the critic, they might become withdrawn.

So “HOW?” is the great question. How do we give writing advice without being a Darth Vader about it? Instead of threatening people with telekinetic strangle-holds, we can learn some things to say that prevent the bad feelings and promote the correction. Of course the best way to correct someone is by looking directly at their writing. Then you can see a specific instance, such as a typo or a grammar flaw, not all of them, just one instance, and point it out.

There are times when that’s not possible. At times the criticism has to be general because you can’t immediately see the work. In those cases, it’s best to let the writer hunt down the specifics for themselves. Encourage them to find typos by reading the work out loud to themselves (or, if they’re brave enough, to someone else). Encourage the writer to look at specific parts of grammar (noun, verb, adverb, adjective, conjunction, preposition) and make sure those words are doing their job properly. If not, then the writer needs to place the words in the right spot so all the words work together. Encourage the writer to make sure there’s variety in their writing. Too much of anything can make the writing piece dull. You can’t have action all the time or people get desensitized by it—and desensitized to it. Dialog has to be interrupted at times. Adjectives can’t come in all-consuming waves. Variety has been compared with a spice. That’s a cooking metaphor. Chances are, you wouldn’t cook something to eat with only one ingredient. A meal, a dish, an entree, is certain to be better with some variety.

On the flip side, a writer needs to be able to receive criticism. Is that tougher than giving? Not if you’re me. I give myself criticism. I think it’s a valuable tool though. If I didn’t criticize my own work, I wouldn’t get better. Anyone who’s done it long enough can go read some of their earlier work. Only the oblivious wouldn’t see where the writing is weak, and where it has improved, and where the new stuff could improve. A benefit from that too, is the ability to receive criticism from others. You start to see where a piece of writing can be improved, but you also see how any scrutiny is worth hearing, worth having, and worth investigating.

I once got some criticism from an editor. He pointed out how many times I used certain words, how often I used the main character’s name, how often I used dialog interrupts. One time he pointed out where I managed to construct a passive sentence. I replied, “The passive sentence was written by me.” He verbally patted me on the head and pronounced me fit for public places.

“Good boy. Go play outside.”

Don’t get me wrong. Accolades are nice. Kudos feel better than chides, corrections, and slashes on our work. Adulations, however, don’t promote progress. The problems have to be recognized before they can be fixed, and you can’t fix a problem unless you can recognize it. If you’re too married to your own work, it can be difficult to see the mistakes. When that happens, an objective point of view is absolutely necessary. But that leads us into another topic with another question: How should a writer pick a proof-reader or a beta reader? I’ll detail some thoughts on that some other time. For now, remember criticism is difficult. It’s also totally, one hundred percent necessary.

Published by Kurt Gailey

This is where I'm supposed to brag about how I've written seven novels, twelve screenplays, thousands of short stories, four self-help books, and one children's early-reader, but I'd rather stay humble. You can find out about things I've written or follow my barchive (web archive, aka 'blog) at xenosthesia.com or follow me on twitter @kurt_gailey. I love sports and music and books, so if you're an athlete or in a band or you're a writer, give me a follow and I'll most likely follow you back. I've even been known to promote other people's projects.

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