What is constructive criticism?
Put simply, constructive criticism is when somebody offers both positive and negative comments about a person's work (story, poem, play or otherwise), though the ratio of each of these can often differ depending on the people involved. Ideally, the idea behind constructive criticism is to provide both encouragement for the writer, as well as offering commentary on some areas where the reviewer feels that the work can be improved upon. To understand the process better I have sub-divided constructive criticism into two distinct parts: Giving and Receiving.
If there's one thing that I've learnt over the last 20 years of my writing life it's that it is all-too easy for people to criticise, to debunk, and to give scorn when they come across a piece of literature that they see no value in. Now, I'm not going to slam these people (I have been one of them myself sometimes) or say that their opinions are incorrect, because ultimately they all have their opinions and they are quite rightly entitled to them. However, it is my opinion that ALL writers serve a higher power, a greater being entirely, and it's not God, or the church, or your favourite football team or political party - it's LITERATURE; and whenever someone writes a book, or a poem for example this neo-21st century deity expands and grows brighter, not unlike a light bulb, expanding its lifespan just a little bit more, ensuring that more children and adults learn to read and enjoy books, thus combating dogma and illiteracy, and at the same time promoting imagination, creativity, and humanism.
However, if someone's work is rejected out of hand then the light bulb dims slightly, especially if the writer concerned loses all confidence and hope, so it is imperative that the reviewer (be they a friend or even a professional critic) finds and focuses on the few gold nuggets of quality within the piece, before passing these onto the writer, thus giving them the encouragement to continue with both their current and future projects. You would never slam a poem or a story written by a child so why change when they are adults? Sure, they are probably not a Dickens or a Shakespeare (who is today?), but with the right dose of constructive criticism they might yet get somewhere close to it if they are given some creative air to breathe.
Receiving criticism is one of the hardest things to take for a writer, because quite obviously we all want to be perfect, and write great stories that everybody will read, love, and adore. But here's the thing: we're not; nobody is: not Stephen King, J.K Rowling, or Salman Rushdie. They've all made mistakes in their writing and will continue to do so. Why? Because they're human, and like Alexander Pope said "To be human is too err." What the modern writer has to be willing to do - big whales and little sticklebacks alike - is take constructive advice, because as READERS all their points are valid, and they are giving voice to what other readers may perhaps be thinking. If you dig your heels in and stick rigidly to your own guns then all you'll end up doing is creating and maintaining your own literary island, cut-off from the rest of the world (and by implication your readers), destined to repeat the self-same mistakes over and over again, never progressing, the dream of publishing forever lodged just beyond the horizon. Besides, if someone has taken the time to suggest ways for you to improve, instead of merely trashing your book or worse not offering comment altogether, then you should listen to them because they are interested enough in your work to a) read it and b) think of some ways to make it more readable and/or publishable.
When I wrote the first few chapters of my debut novel, Jack Strong and the Red Giant, the few people who I showed it to could have panned it, but they didn't, they focused on what was good and noteworthy and praised it, whilst simultaneously pointing out what they thought could be improved upon. It was was hard to take at first, but ultimately I focused on the positive things they said, took confidence from them, and then paid greater heed to my project's shortcomings. If it wasn't for their constructive criticism I doubt that my novel would've been as successful as it has.
Of course every now and again someone (especially with so many anonymous online reviewers about) will trash your book and say that it is the literary equivalent of toilet paper and that you have no talent whatsoever, and that by implication you should just give up and leave it to your betters. Ignore these people and what they say completely. I stridently believe that there are positive things to be found in everything that's written, whether they are in the story, the characters, or the language etc. If the person lambasting your work doesn't or won't see that then you should take everything they say and chuck it in the bin. Similarly if it is YOU that's dishing out the literary lashings take a minute to reflect on what you are saying and how the person at the end of it all might feel because it might just be that some part of what you say is valid, but surrounded by all that hostility and negativity it will very likely end up in the bin with the rest of your ill-judged comments. Ultimately, as writers we have to improve whether we are international best sellers or struggling indy authors on Amazon, and constructive criticism allows us to grow and develop, and to see our work somewhat objectively through the eyes of the reader.
My debut novel, Jack Strong and the Red Giant, about a bullied, 12 year-old boy's adventures in space is available now on Amazon. You can buy it/read an excerpt here: