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It's a Trap! How to Make it Through Concrit Alive
cap, captain miss america
Concrit is hard!

It's also been a source of drama in almost every writing-or-art-oriented group or community I've been part of.

A few years ago, living in Boston with very few friends, I signed up for a writing course as a way to meet people. One of the requirements was to read four thirty-page selections a week (by members of the class), and make notes, then engage in a crit session.

I dropped the course after two classes.

Why? Because no one was actually interested in hearing criticism.

Some people are better editors than writers. I consider myself one of those "Some people." I don't know that many people do, but I think I am a great editor. When I was studying film, I gravitated to editing, when I graduated, I worked my first job as a photo editor. I am good at taking other people's work and really making it shine, no matter what the other people's work is. So I worked really, really hard in that class, to write serious, considerate concrit that wasn't just about telling people what they did wrote, but giving concrete examples of how they could improve it.

And I was told that "well, not everyone is GOING to like a book like this. This is really for a NICHE audience," with the very clear intimation that I wasn't intelligent enough to qualify as part of that select niche audience. That my critique wasn't welcome unless I "understood" what they were trying to do.

I am pretty sure I understood what they were trying to do. I am also pretty sure that they were failing at it, or that it wasn't worth doing in the first place. Especially since out of the four selections I read, I was given this response every. single. time. One novel out of four intended to appeal to a special, niche audience? Sure thing! I can buy that! But four out of four, and I tend to chalk it up to a weird, insular, can-do-no-wrong atmosphere that was evolving in the class. So I left.

On the internet, especially in a blogging community, there's a weird line when you start talking about constructive criticism. We know, instinctively, that concrit has no place in someone's personal blog posts about their every day lives. If someone write five hundred words about how their grandma is dying, you know that the appropriate response might be some words of sympathy or encouragement, not a remark to explain that you felt the second paragraph was too wordy. However, plenty of bloggers and journalers are trying to cultivate a voice, either as practice for a potential career, or to bring in an audience to their blog. And on top of that, plenty of people post "actual writing:" stories, essays, and other tidbits that are clearly more formalized than a simple blog entry. Entries where people are actually giving thought to the way they are structuring their writing, their word choice, the things people think about when trying to craft a piece of writing, as opposed to just getting the thoughts on paper (or virtual paper, as the case may be). And then we're dealing with another story. Because:

As soon as you start putting for-serious-writing up in any public venue, you have to be ready to accept concrit.

Accept doesn't mean agree. Accept means accept. You don't need to like it, but you do need to appreciate and value that someone else went to the trouble of reading your work with a criticism lens on, which is much harder than reading something just for enjoyment. Ninety percent of the time, when someone leaves concrit, they're doing it because they genuinely think you can improve. And if you ever, ever imagine maybe writing professionally-- and I don't just mean as a published author, I mean as someone who writes a presentation or a report for your employer-- you need to be able to take criticism, synthesize criticism (that is, consider each piece and figure out how to work it into your finished product, or whether you should discard it), and move on. You'll also need to learn how to accept criticism that is given once the final product is complete, and just deal with the fact that someone didn't like something about your work, and think about whether it's something you want to consider for your next piece of work.

It isn't fair to your readers to post writing and assume that they will only say 100% positive things. It isn't fair to tell people that they're only allowed to speak if they have something positive to say. You know that whole "If you can't say anything nice..." adage? "Nice" and "positive" aren't the same thing. Sometimes the nicest thing someone can do for you is tell you what isn't working for them.

That doesn't mean that all crit is nice, or that all crit is constructive. I've also seen people rip someone to pieces, formulate random personal attacks, or just plain not know what the heck they're talking about, all in the name of concrit.

Rule of thumb, if you're the one giving concrit? For it to be "concrit" and not just "crit," something about it has to be "con." Telling someone what's wrong with their work is one thing, but tell them how you think they might improve it: that's what makes it constructive. Always include a suggestion for how they might make it better. It doesn't have to be a very specific one-- in fact, I tend to loathe suggestions that are too specific, because it can verge on rewriting instead of suggesting, but make a suggestion. Show that you're not just thinking negatively, not just pointing out flaws.

Another good thing to consider is the difference between "I don't like this" and "this is bad." It can be a very hard thing to learn to criticize a piece of writing or artwork that is not, and would never be, to your taste, even if it were absolutely perfect. You may hate science fiction based in the eighteenth century due to a tragic accident involving time-traveling Voltaire, but that doesn't make all science fiction based in the eighteenth century bad. It just means that you don't like it. Unless you're getting paid to do otherwise, it is totally okay not to leave comments on things that you know you won't like, if you think your personal preference is going to make it difficult for you to give a worthwhile critique.

As an LJ Idol-related aside, you not liking something also doesn't mean that it "doesn't belong" in the competition or that it "doesn't count" as "journal writing." There is only one person who gets to decide whether something "counts," and it is likely not you. You get to decide if you want to vote for it. If you don't like something, you can choose not to vote for it, even if you recognize that it is good. But if someone wants to write poetry or make videos or photo montages of snowmen to tell their story, it counts, because those are the rules of the competition. There is nothing wrong with saying "that's not to my personal taste," but saying "that's not writing," or "that doesn't belong here," is making a leap from your personal taste to an objective value judgment that really, nobody should be making.

So, basically, if you're leaving criticism, make sure you're not being a jerk. If you receive criticism, unless you're pretty sure the person who left it was being a jerk (and you can always ask a friend for a second opinion), it shouldn't be something to fuss about. Maybe you're just trying to relate feelings and aren't too concerned about the quality of your writing or the way you told your story, and that can be frustrating, but the person who left the criticism probably thought your writing was good enough that they thought you were trying for for-serious writing. If you really, really aren't ready for criticism on a piece of writing, tell people so! It should be your responsibility to tell people "no concrit, please," if you don't want any. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on that point, but I personally would like to strive for a larger community where solid concrit is open and welcome, not one where people have to seek it out, or where all concrit, even the best concrit, is looked upon with scorn. Listening to what other people have to say about your writing is one of the best ways to become a better writer, and being a better writer isn't just about being a professional writer. Writing is a major part of almost everyone's life. Improving it shouldn't be unwelcome.

You know, unless the person talking is being a jerk.

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Let me add in a "hell yes" to this.

I give this blog post two thumbs way up!

One of the hardest things to get used to in my graduate level poetry courses was dealing with criticism in workshops. I'd always gotten all A's in English, so I'd seldom received criticism even from my teachers and professors. As you pointed out, receiving criticism is a valuable skill and necessary to the improvement of any writer.

I do think, though, that many people aren't expecting to receive criticism, even if they're putting up something publicly. My rule for myself has always been that if a friend shares a poem or story for me, I just read it and say something positive unless they've told me they WANT criticism. Blogs sort of fall into that category, I believe. People aren't expecting a workshop environment.

In the same respect, I think that people post entries in LJ Idol that they intend as finished pieces. If the deadline has already passed, the writer is not allowed to change it anyway, so they might see criticism, even constructive criticism, as being superfluous.

I like the fact that Gary has added a "work room" this season, so that those people who are seeking advice and are open to criticism can receive that. I've weighed in on a few queries in that room, and the people seemed grateful.

So... that was a windy way of saying I agree with you, but that there may be other factors going on here. :)

I think for me, I realize those expectations are there, but it's more that I feel we need to change the expectations that you're talking about. If someone posts a piece of writing, people should feel free to weigh in on it more than to just give thumbs up or encouragement, but that's been discouraged for so long that I think a lot of people who would appreciate more concrit have gotten to the point where they're taken aback by it when it exists out of the very limited "acceptable" settings. The dialogue about writing would be so much more fascinating for everyone involved if that weren't the case-- and people would get a better feel for what is actually concrit, and what's just being a jerk. I think right now, a lot of the time, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater because people have come to the often wrong-headed belief that anything in the tub is bad if you haven't asked for a tub. I would much rather live in a world where people who don't want concrit exclude themselves from the discussion than one where it has to be openly invited.

For something like LJ Idol, I think that while some people consider their pieces finished, there is always a new piece next week. You might not be incorporating feedback into the piece that you've already written to polish it (although the idea that things are "done" the minute the last work is written is another interesting topic for a piece, considering the number of people who've refined Idol pieces for publication), but you can think about that feedback for the next week when deciding what to write and how to write it. spydielives gave me some awesome feedback last year during one of the gatekeeper rounds that I worked with during the season, when she asked me to try my hand at more serious comics.

I appreciate critiques but they can be time-consuming so I feel guilty asking other people to give me one.

I "fall in love" with my own words too easy. The times friends HAVE helped me edit, it helped SOOOO much and the piece turned out better. I am an okay idea person but not good at polishing my own stuff:(

It is REALLY hard to self-edit. As much as I say that I'm a great editor, I think I'm a terrible self-editor. Learning to self-edit in high school drove me to tears over and over and over again.

I agree!

I got some really interesting criticism last season, especially during the gatekeeper rounds) and I think it really helped my writing. The hardest thing in the world is being able to take a step back and look ruthlessly on what you have written, so sometimes you might need other people for that.

I did give a few other contestants lengthy criticism in PMs after they had talked about not knowing what was wrong with their entries, and I think that over all it was received well.

That being said, I would never agree to criticize somebody I didn't like at all. I am well aware of that I'm not the world's greatest editor, I can only speak of my own gut. And that would rather have something fail spectacularly than be boring.

I think the important thing to think about is whether the person who critiques you might actually have a point. Because even if they are saying something you don't agree with, and didn't think you meant, they must have got the impression somehow. Maybe you are not coming across as clearly as you thought.

As for the niche audience... *facepalm* Yes, I might like to write for nice audiences, but I sure as hell wants to rope in the normal people too! Why put off people needlessly? Not everybody is going to like everything, but at least I would rather go for something that 30% would like than 3%...

In one case, the niche audience was apparently "people who want to read things that sound like blog entries by 13 year old girls but who haven't discovered LiveJournal yet."

I don't crit work I see no hope for. That's my whole "one positive for every negative." I might do "four positives for five negatives" but if there are so many negatives they outweigh the positives, I don't think the piece is probably worth the crit. I mean, there is bad writing out there. We all know this.

And sometimes, the person critiquing you has no point at all and is terrible at giving crit. Which also happens. But you need to be able to step back and tell the difference between something you don't like, and bad crit. Again.

I agree with much of this. Taking criticism gracefully, and using the opportunity to get some objective eyes on your work to help you improve it, are crucial skills for any successful writer.

I realize that most people do not have an equal adeptness at writing and editing; most are better at one, or the other. At the same time, most of my favorite editors are also great writers, and that makes it easier for me to accept and respect their feedback. I'm sure it's an illogical psychological block, but if I much prefer my own writing to that person's, then I'm not likely to ask their feedback on my work unless I'm already familiar with their editing skills.

That's the other issue I have with unsolicited concrit. For me, the writer-editor relationship is really intimate. It takes a lot of vulnerability to offer up your work to someone, and to trust them to approach you and your piece with skill, objectivity, tact, and a bedside manner that works for you as a writer. It's so easy to shut down emotionally or creatively if you feel attacked or dismissed or misunderstood.

Yes, writers should work on that reaction. Sometimes we get feedback in a tone or format we don't like, and it turns out to be exactly what we need. My old boss was an expert on tough love, and it made me a better employee.

Even so, I know that for me, in my non-professional writing life, I like to choose my editors and have a relationship with them. Otherwise, the unsolicited concrit can feel a little bit like a family reunion, where your Uncle Gerald has had one too many mint juleps and gives a thirty minute monologue on how you can improve your life. He does care, and he may be offering constructive points, but if I don't necessarily think too highly of *his* life, and I didn't ask for his advice, I could be bothered by it.

I also think getting concrit on a finished, posted piece can be tough for writers because it's too late to edit that piece. They can definitely get pointers for their next entry, and improve their skills as a whole, but it can lead to regret and a whole bunch of virtual hand-wringing when you're staring at your finished piece, which you can't take back, and now all you can seem to see is its flaws.

I just think that the burden should be on writers to request concrit if they want it, rather than to speak up if they *don't* want it.

I think the thing is that if someone is concritting properly, it shouldn't feel like an attack or a dismissal or misconstruction. Does that make sense?

I totally agree with you about not taking criticism seriously if it's coming from someone whose writing I don't respect. I think, for me, I don't have to like their writing, but I do have to appreciate it. If I don't see them taking their own advice into consideration in their own writing, then I'm probably going to laugh off their concrit. This post was actually inspired by one of my close friends receiving "concrit" that wasn't constructive, not by someone overreacting to good concrit.

The reason I think that the burden should be on people who don't want it (and I see this as being very different from 95% of situations, where people should not have to say they don't want something) is because writing, in public, is for an audience. The audience's reaction and interaction with the text, their engagement with the text is just as important as the text itself (to take a thought from last week's topic), and to me, telling people that there's an unwritten rule that criticism is not acceptable is shutting off that engagement. It also makes people more hesitant to engage even when their engagement is invited, because we become programmed to think that anything but 100% positive engagement is bad.

I guess the issue, though, is that there is still a lot of shitty crit that isn't really concrit, that shouldn't be given, and I think the blanket "don't crit unless it's invited" does give people respite from that. On the other hand, the people who do that tend to be tactless enough that an unspoken rule won't stop them.

Edited at 2010-11-17 10:27 pm (UTC)

So much word. Learning to take criticism with grace was probably one of the more valuable lessons I learned in art college. It also helped me get better at distinguishing between what was constructive and what wasn't - a professor who pointed out that my proportions or light sources, etc. were off and how I could have done better were being constructive. The professor who told me "it looks like you didn't even try" on a project I'd worked on for upward of nine hours was being a jerk.

Concrit gets tricky in roleplay. I think the How's My Driving things and feedback memes are a good idea, although there's flaws with them (much like many other instances of constructive criticism). Some people fear that they can't give effective concrit unless anonymous posting is enabled, but so many people can be utter jerkfaces when anonymous posting is enabled. I tend to think that since a person is not roleplaying as a career, that they shouldn't have to accept anonymous criticism if they don't want to.

This is part of why I waaaaay prefer roleplaying in tiny games now, where everyone knows each other well enough to be able to specify likes and dislikes. There's way less drama of the How's My Driving type.

I do think anonymous criticism is sort of underhanded. If someone else is putting their name out there on their writing, you need to put your name out their on your criticism of it.

And yeah, I think a lot of people dismiss criticism outright because they think that the person being a jerk counts as a critic, too. They're not one, except in the broadest sense of the word. They're a jerk.

Okay, after this post and our other discussions, I am totally going to ask for concrit on my entry.

It may be Voltaire and Admiral Ackbar's Excellent Adventure. It may not.

I will be happy to give you concrit if I have time.

A good post. In general, I don't feel that I am very good at giving criticism (unless it's obvious about spelling or "hang on, that ship sank two chapters ago") as sometimes I cannot tell the difference between my not liking something and it being truly bad.

On the other hand, I have become much more critical of myself as I get older, and I find it much more difficult to sit down and write something without saying "that's shite".

I am pretty positive about my writing until...oh, a few months have gone by. Then I get unreasonably embarrassed!

I have to be able to judge the difference between "I don't like this," and "this is bad" at work and I think that's helped me a lot.

As someone who has edited in both an amateur and professional capacity, I can say that one of the most difficult -- and absolutely the most essential -- things that an editor has to learn (at least, that I had to really learn) is how to say things in a way that a writer will listen to. In that respect, to be a great editor, you also have to be a great writer. You have to be able to construct a persuasive and well-reasoned argument that takes into account that particular writer's strengths and aims. Playing off both is the only way that you can write an effective critique, in my mind.

I have a ton of opinions about editing, as you might guess, and that's just being a journeyman editor myself...

I've been meaning to respond to this post for ages, but I'm struggling to find the right words to articulate the thoughts I've been having. Mostly because there's a lot of things surrounding the issues you raise here that make me rather angry, and I don't want to come off sounding like a douche.

There is nothing wrong with saying "that's not to my personal taste," but saying "that's not writing," or "that doesn't belong here," is making a leap from your personal taste to an objective value judgment that really, nobody should be making.

I was wondering how you would respond to this - because I've basically received a fair number of comments on my idol entries that lean towards this, and I really have no idea how to respond. I'm also becoming more and more worried that I'm being over-sensitive to the issue, which means that I sound like a bit of a dick when I'm replying, even though I really don't mean to.

My degree is in Drama and Creative Writing; my Masters is in Playwriting - I am completely used to giving and receiving "concrit" so it's not that I "can't take it" - I can, and I always appreciate thoughtful feedback, but... No one I work with would sit there and say "Well, that's not writing" - nor, actually, would they say "this is not to my personal taste" because it is accepted that taste differs - no one really needs the kick in the teeth of being told that this is the case.
What we tend to do do is pick out sections that we feel work well, and why this might be, as well as sections that do not work as well, and why this might be. This way, we improve both our own craft and the craft of the person whose work we are looking at. We treat all our work in the same way as we would when dissecting a published play, or a piece of theatre that we have seen.

On my most recent idol piece, "The Curious Case of the Elephant in the Garden" I received one comment that perplexed me quite a lot. My reaction was pretty much "..." because I felt as though I was being judged for the fact that I tell stories using multimedia. The use of multimedia (certainly in my work) means that every element of the presentation is as essential to the whole as the other elements. In fact, I have received very little criticism that addresses this balance. I'm getting more and more frustrated by the fact that people are saying "but the WRITING doesn't carry the whole story" because the writing isn't supposed to. The whole thing, combined with the imagination of the reader, is supposed to carry the story. This isn't a fiction competition - I wouldn't have entered a fiction competition. Every time someone says to me, "but what about the writing?" I kind of want to hit them, because I feel as though they've missed the point.

I'm sorry to rant in your journal - I just ... I'm so very confused. I've had some wonderfully interesting and enlightening discussions as part of LJidol, but all I can think of is the few people who have basically said "that's not a valid way to play the competition." Truth be told, it's bothering me. Who are they to tell me that it's not writing? It's frustrating, because I LIKE responding to criticism, and debating about my work, but I've seen very few people leaving open-ended criticism, and I'm perplexed as to why this is - I'd be more than happy to answer questions along the lines of "why did you chose to do (whatever)?" but no one is asking those questions. I feel as though I'm getting either "I like it" (obviously good thing, not complaining here) or "this isn't writing" and there's a whole middle ground of criticism that I'm craving, that people aren't willing to give. I put so much effort into constructing every entry, I want to receive constructive criticism that reflects the entry as a whole.

Or maybe I'm just a jerk :/

Actually, some of the comments I saw you receiving when you asked about this in the work room are part of what inspired this post. I, personally, think it's unacceptable for anyone to tell someone that their entries don't belong in the competition. It is okay for them to say they don't like them, or that they don't enjoy watching videos, or anything like that, because everyone enjoys different things, but saying that it's not writing simply because you present your writing in a multimedia format is objectionable to me.

I have always been a big proponent of criticism meaning that one has to criticize from the perspective of understanding what the creator wants to achieve. There is no point in telling someone who is writing their personal account of a close friend's death that it "wasn't funny" or telling someone that a prose piece "doesn't rhyme well."

I received a few similar comments last year when I was creating comics. There were also a few fiction writers last year who were told that fiction didn't belong in the competition. I think that after several fiction-writers did very well last year, that perception has largely been shattered. So consider that if a year ago, people thought fiction, which is a very standard type of prose writing, didn't belong in the competition, accepting video only a year later is still a huge leap.

I don't think it should be, but that's what you're contending with, and it's impossible to police how people vote. Even if they accept that a piece of poetry presented in a video format "counts," it isn't necessarily going to convince people to like it, and people do get to vote for what they like.

This is part of why I tried to offer you a lot of practical advice on things you could do when this came up in the work room. I received some of the same kinds of reactions last year and through experimentation and adaptation ended up finding something that seemed to work well.

There is one remark here in your comment that I do disagree with and want to address:

I'm getting more and more frustrated by the fact that people are saying "but the WRITING doesn't carry the whole story" because the writing isn't supposed to. The whole thing, combined with the imagination of the reader, is supposed to carry the story. This isn't a fiction competition - I wouldn't have entered a fiction competition. Every time someone says to me, "but what about the writing?" I kind of want to hit them, because I feel as though they've missed the point.

This is a writing competition. It's not a fiction competition, but it is a writing competition. (And I wouldn't be too hard on the fiction writers, because they're the ones who were getting beat on last year). So I don't agree with your response, because if you are saying that the writing does not carry the work, if you agree with that assessment, then they are right: the writing needs to carry the work. The question, though, for me, is more about what people are perceiving as writing: are they understanding that a video is as valid a text as an essay? Are they understanding that a video needs to be written, in a way, before it is produced? That, like a comic is a written text that has been illustrated, a video is a written text that has been fed into a visual, linear format?

One thing you might want to consider that might help you is creating process notes and including them in the entry. Talking about the process of creating the video might help them understand your process as a writing process.

If you want to talk more about these things, discuss media's place in LJI and so on, I'd be happy to talk to you more about it. Also, if you feel like any of the comments you're receiving are verging on actually being harassing, you might want to shoot Gary an email; he's a very considerate guy.

Yes, ma'am! I agree with ALL of this!

I also agree with all the points you raise.

Making the criticism constructive is one hell of a job. The 'and how would you re-write this' is sometimes overwhelming and not lets you point out an obvious flaw :-).

I think there is one other point which is, as usual, two-sided.

When you regularly read someone this way, looking to improve their writing, you come to notice their favourite mistakes. Like the it's that always slips into the place of its or a special turn of the phrase they like that makes little sense.

But some of those you read listen to you, and remember, and improve. And some do not... And those who do not... you may become less keen on helping, right? :-)

Sorry for another kind of disjointed rant.

Oh it's ok!

I think with people who don't take my criticism, they fall into two groups: people who listen and decide not to take it, are still grateful for the effort and enjoy discussing their writing with me, and people who are jerks about it or ignore it and don't show any interest in improving overall.

If someone doesn't show interest, then I get tired of giving them concrit. If someone continues to discuss and values my opinion even when I tell them something difficult, then I enjoy it even if they don't always accept it.

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To me it is not clear

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