The joy of negative criticism

A while back, I joined a writer’s group and have been reading and writing critiques of other people’s work. Recently, I was able to submit a short story and receive some criticism of my own, and at this point, the results are in.

As many people didn’t like it as did.

About half the criticism related to actual technique; people came away from the story with unanswered questions that actually had been addressed in the story but clearly hadn’t “popped” for the reader. But the balance seemed to have to do with whether or not the reader actually liked what I was saying with the story.

This pleased me greatly, because it was completely intentional. The protagonists are largely emotionless, amoral children who would be completely unsympathetic outside of their devotion to one another.

I love the story and since I wrote it to be the kind of thing I want to read myself, my ego wasn’t connected to the idea of anyone liking the result or not liking it. The experience bore out a contention that I’d believed was likely but had never actually demonstrated for myself:

Negative criticism is by far more useful than positive criticism.

Assuming, of course, that you can figure out why the reader didn’t like something. Just having someone tell you “this sucks” is equally useless.

But it’s okay not to like things.

Having someone criticize what you’ve written in such a way that the result is largely motivated out of the desire to spare the writer’s feelings is an awful experience. I, personally, would take such criticism as an invitation to avoid seeking further criticism until I felt I was a more accomplished writer. The absolute worst experiences I’ve had is when something I’d done was greeted with no greater response than “it was interesting” — and I’ve heard that a lot, though gratefully not with this story, nor even recently.

If you’re going to write to be read, you have to accept that the result may well be disliked more often than not. In the same breath, if you start writing to get people to like what you’ve written, well, consider what people actually like these days. I want no part that — I’d find something else to do if that were the only option.

But provided that the reason why something is disliked can be determined, as a writer or a reader it is important to be open to negative criticism and be willing to provide it. It’s well and fine to be liked and as a writer, this is the result one of course hopes for. But in terms of utility, it’s far more important to know what doesn’t work for the reader than what did.

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  • Comments (2)
    • jane
    • June 30th, 2010

    of course constructive real criticism is very useful. takes time to do of course, and shows real respect for you as a writer. a writers group is good if it can produce such things …. no, not good, invaluable.

      • Max Bell
      • June 30th, 2010

      Absolutely. And knowing that there were people who didn’t like it and why they didn’t matches up with what I would have expected for the most part. No real surprises, there.

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