From the seasoned one…

How do you politely tell someone their story sucks?

The wonderful world of constructive criticism or concrit, some writers’ worst nightmare!  Writers, especially beginning writers, are notoriously thin skinned when it comes to someone criticizing their work.  The sad truth is, they probably need the help the most but want it the least.  So, how do you tell someone their writing sucks?

The answer is, very damn carefully!  Here’s the trick.  You want to get your point across without making the writer feel like they’re so horrible they should just stop writing.  It’s a known fact, the longer you work at something, the better you get at it.  Even Mozart had to learn how to play the piano before he could write beautiful music for it!  So on top of the list of things NOT TO SAY:

  1. Good concept, execution not so much. You should have stopped at “Once upon a time…”
  2. Our public school system at work. Your writing shows that you never managed to learn the difference between a comma, a semi-colon, an ellipse, and a period and when the hell to use them.
  3. Well, that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back. Don’t quit your day job.
  4. I couldn’t decide which I hated more, your villain or your hero.
  5. So, after reading ten chapters of meandering blathering, I still don’t know what the hell your story is about.

This is why the term constructive criticism was created.  You want to help the writer, not make them feel like they should just give up and quit!  As fair warning, some peopsucksle will never take criticism of any kind well, no matter how tactful you are.  If you know they are that type, perhaps you’d be best leaving them alone.  They won’t listen to your advice anyway, so save your breath and don’t waste your time or theirs.

And if you are one of these people, at least for fanfiction writers, perhaps put a line at the top of your stories stating you prefer not to receive concrit.  It’ll save you the trouble of responding to people later or getting angry when they do leave you a review with advice you don’t want.

However, a vast majority of people will welcome the advice if given correctly.  Who doesn’t want to improve as a writer?  Well, beyond the ones I mentioned who don’t take criticism well.

For starters, be polite when you write your criticism.  No one has the right to treat someone else poorly just because you don’t like something they wrote.  It is their idea, philosophy or story, whether real or imaginary, good or bad, respect that and you should expect that respect in return.

Next, let’s start with a definition of constructive criticism as stated via Wikipedia (which I know isn’t to be taken as gospel, but it’s a start):

Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one.

The main part of that definition I want to point out is “both positive and negative comments.”  Think about the last time someone said something negative to you.  Did you react well to that?  Most people don’t.  At least in my situation, if someone is spouting a list of things they don’t like about me or something I’ve done, I stop listening after the third one and walk away.  No one likes to be put down, no one!

At the same time, you don’t just want to say all nice things when you feel there are problems.  That defeats the purpose of constructive criticism and doesn’t help the writer to improve.  The point is to be constructive.  My advice here would be to mix the positive and the negative.  Tell the writer what you don’t like, but also what you did like.

A short example:

I liked the concept of your story, but you need to work on the pacing.  It was off in many places and I felt you rushed the ending.  Expand on how they got out of the cave.  You could easily make the story so much better by leaving the reader hanging a bit longer before they escape.  Readers love angst and wondering what’s going to happen next.  However, I definitely loved your protagonist, Lee Roy, he made me laugh on multiple occasions.

Can you see how a writer might be more willing to listen to the advice in the situation above?  Yes, I expressed my displeasure with the story, but I also gave them a compliment.  The sweet and the sour, the good and the bad.  Saying nothing but bad things is simply complaining, which leads to my next point.

Dictionary.com also has a definition that I feel bears repeating:

Constructive criticism – noun – criticism or advice that is useful and intended to help or improve something, often with an offer of possible solutions.

The part that I want to point out in this definition is the end, “with an offer of possible solutions.”  One of my biggest pet peeves, and this is with anything, not just writing, is when someone complains loudly about something, but offers no way to fix it.

Going back to my example above.  Did you notice how I gave an idea of something to help fix the pacing of the story?  I didn’t just complain, I offered at least a partial solution.  Will you always know how to fix something?  Probably not.  Sometimes something feels off, but you’re not sure what the fix is.  However, if you critique someone’s story and do nothing but complain about it, what have you accomplished?  Not much beyond making the author angry.  At some point, the author will stop listening entirely, even if you have good points.  After all, you’re nothing but a complainer, right?

To reiterate, here is my two cents on constructive criticism:

  1. Be sure to point out things you like just as much as you point out things you don’t like.
  2. Don’t just be a Negative Nelly. If you’re going to complain, offer a solution at least some of the time.
  3. I’m going to put this in upper case and bold it just to make my point. Yes, you could say I’m yelling this point a little, but it needs to be done.  BE POLITE!  I don’t care who you are or how good your ideas are.  If you are a jerk and use abusive terms in your critique, I’m not going to listen to a word you say.

Finally, I know what you’re thinking.  What about those stories that are so bad that you wouldn’t even use the paper they’re written on for toilet paper?  This goes back to number three, be polite.  If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that.  If you seriously don’t like it and can’t find one disgustedredeemable quality, walk away.  Hopefully, given time and experience, that writer will learn more about the craft and get better.  If you blast them for what you think is a literary insult, they may give up and never write again.  Just imagine if someone had done that to Jane Austin, Hemingway or Mark Twain?  Imagine all the great novels that could have been lost.  Help your fellow writers, don’t put them down.

Until next time…