Author: RoryPrice

A study of Criticism: Taking or Ignoring Criticism

In my previous article, I talked about understanding intent before giving criticism. While this is essential, it can also be misconstrued as an excuse to disregard valid negative feedback. Therefore, this is what we'll talk about today. When is it okay to ignore criticism?

I have two general rules that I apply to criticism. The first is that every point raised is ultimately subjective, and the opinion of the person giving it. The second is that ignoring any piece of criticism should be justified.

I'll start with the first point. Any form of art is ultimately subjective. Music, books, video games, they're all very different. I've seen poorly written fanfiction develop its own dedicated fanbase, and some works that are today considered masterpieces were initially ignored or plain rejected. Appreciation for anything creative depends on one's personal taste. It can be influenced by one's past, political position, religious upbringing, age, gender, a number of different factors. As much as we all want to say we're open-minded, everyone has prejudices.

When I give feedback to another writer, I try to be as aware as I can of my own subjective preferences, but it's still my view of the story. It's always nice when the person providing feedback points out when something is just their own subjective opinion, but it can't always be the case. A lot of times, we're not even aware of it. Be mindful that an opinion being subjective isn't by itself a reason to ignore it. If something annoyed one reader, it could very well annoy more of them.

And that takes us to the second point. Ignoring criticism should always be justified. That sounds simple in theory. In practice, it'll lead to a lot of uncertainty. There's really no way around that. Sometimes, someone will leave feedback that we never thought about, and it'll tear us up, wondering how we should approach it, or if we should change anything at all. The only thing I can do here is talk about my own process.

The first thing I do is ask how the points raised fit within my vision. I return to my original intent. Would following the recommendation help or hinder that intent? Sometimes, it's as simple as a piece of feedback that doesn't fit with my vision and would take the story in a direction I don't like. These comments, I disregard it as not working out for me. Still, it's important to keep an open mind here. If following a recommendation won't interfere with the intent and only add more realism. It's worth considering.

Another thing I like to try is to find the root cause of the issue. Very often, I find that the issue isn't as much what was pointed out, but rather a failure on my part to communicate the intent of the scene. Maybe a proofreader pointing out that a character is unnecessarily rude really means that said rudeness wasn't properly established in earlier chapters. This is something I do a lot. I'll leave a line someone disliked as-is, but change something else so that line makes more sense.

Finally, there's the big one: pride. Taking criticism is hard. There are days when I just can't do it, and I believe that's true of everyone. We all have our own threshold to how much of it we can take. Try to take some distance before you react. If a comment makes you emotional, skip it and move ahead. Go back to it the next day, and see how you feel about it with a fresher eye. This brings us back to my original point. It's okay to disregard feedback, but only with a good reason. If you can look at it from a non-emotional perspective and name an actual reason why your work should remain as-is, then you're probably fine.

If you feel like someone is being unfair to you in how they give criticism, it's perfectly okay to thank them and move on to someone else. I know that some people will consider my take to be controversial here, but no one should harm themselves to the point where they lose all motivation. I personally have a zero tolerance policy with my proofreaders when it comes to cynicism. If I feel like someone can't help themselves but attack my story or characters, then I just don't work with them. Just be aware that you can ask your proofreaders to be nice in how they voice their dislikes, but critics are a different story. Once you release content, some people will leave feedback that can be downright harmful, sometimes cruel. Criticism from friends can help prepare you for that.

I recommend trying out suggestions when uncertain. I mentioned such an instance in my previous article where I tried to follow feedback I felt uncertain about. I hated the result, but I learned from it. It helped me get a better grasp of my story, and what I liked about it. Time spent experimenting is always good, and criticism is one of the best ways to experiment in ways you might not have thought of.

Hopefully this helps. There isn't any sort of global rule on what to do and what criticism to follow. I should also point out that if you're currently in school, follow your teacher's advice and don't ignore it as subjective opinions. It's useful in the long run to learn from an experienced individual and fully understand their way of doing things before deciding what to use and what to disregard.

Filed under: Federated

A Study of Criticism: Understanding Intent

This is the first entry in a series of articles I'm planning to write on giving and receiving criticism. I feel I'm pretty good at it, and I figured I'd share my thoughts on the subject. This isn't meant as a clear "do and don't" guide, but rather the start of a discussion on the subject. Everyone is unique, and the approach I favor might not work for everyone. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

For starters, I thought I'd talk about understanding intent. This, to me, is the first thing one should do when criticizing any sort of creative work. I first learned this the hard way years ago, back when I was active in the fanfiction scene. I read a story that was very much centered on long, over-the-top fight scenes. I found it frustrating to read, and told the author as much, that he should cut some of the fights and instead focus on character development.

The reply I got was eye-opening. The author argued that the battles were the entire point. He was a fan of shows like Dragon Ball and wanted to re-create that genre in his story. He explained that this is what his fans wanted and that I completely missed the point.

That got me thinking. I hadn't really been criticizing the story, but rather its genre. Looking back at the comments I left, I never really thought about what the author tried to accomplish, but rather projected my own preferences on the story. That made my feedback useless. Upon realizing this, I apologized to the author, and that was that.

I learned the same lesson again, but from an author's perspective with my current project, Opt Out. In short, the book deals with the dangers of invasive proprietary technology. It's heavily influenced by classic anticipation science-fiction like 1984 or Brave New World as well as more modern takes on issues of technology and surveillance such as Black Mirror or Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

I decided to try something different for Opt Out when it was the time to get feedback. Instead of picking one or two trusted proofreaders, I sent it to as many people as possible. While I received some good, constructive feedback, I also got some pretty disheartening feedback. Not wanting to disregard anything, I actually tried re-writing the first chapter in a way that would satisfy my most severe critic.

The end result was disastrous. I didn't recognize my characters, everything felt flat. It no longer felt like my story. The problem was that in rewriting so heavily, I'd lost track of my initial intent for the story and characters. The feedback that rewrite had been based on wasn't as much directed at what I wrote, but rather my intention behind it. In fact, the person who gave me that criticism disagreed with many of the principles behind Opt Out. She even admitted as much before starting the book.

Again, the issue was similar. The criticism I'd gotten missed my intent. I should say that this is completely natural. We all tend to project our own vision onto whatever form of expression we come in contact with. Many artistic projects take advantage of this by being vague and allowing people to project themselves. Video games are especially good at this. This is the primary reason why so many iconic video game characters never speak.

Regardless of how much room there is for projection, every creative endeavor has an intent behind it. Before giving criticism, I always take the time to try and understand that intent. Is the author trying to make me laugh? Are they trying to make me reconsider something I take for granted, or just to give me some form of escapism? How do they want me to feel about their characters or their setting? If I have no idea, I point it out.

It's always a good idea to have a discussion about such things. Remember that when someone asks for criticism, they end goal is to improve their work. It's perfectly fine to ask what the point of the work is, who it's aimed for, or what message they're trying to convey. It's also perfectly fine to let them know that their intention isn't something you understand. It's okay to decline if you feel like you can't offer feedback that's in line with the intent.

I should point out that sharing your own vision of the story is fine. Giving criticism is first and foremost about giving your own impression, after all. Sometimes, a scene just doesn't work, or a character brings nothing to the story. Sometimes, the story feels very disconnected from its intent or conveys something completely different by mistake. Just remember that when someone asks you for criticism, they're not asking you to rewrite the story in your image. Understanding intent is one of the keys to a good working relationship. It applies to the story as a whole, as well as characters, scenes, even individual lines of dialogue.

Hope you all enjoyed this. As I pointed out earlier, I'm hoping to make this the first of a series of articles on the subject.

Filed under: Federated

Introducing myself

Since this is the start of my blog, I figure I should introduce myself. My name is Rory Price, I'm Canadian, and I write science-fiction. I might also talk about other things from time to time, mostly centered around various forms of creativity. I'm also interested in copyleft culture and free software.

My current project, Opt Out, is currently in the editing stage. I'm hoping to have it out as soon as possible. It tells the story of Aaron Flynn, a FOSS consultant who lives in the near future. A technology known as smart implants is becoming so widespread that the Canadian government announces that everyone can get implants for free, which would allow them to connect to the Internet and access a wide array of applications from anywhere.

Sounds like great news? To most people it is, but Aaron is worried that only two large corporations make implants, and the public knows very little on how they actually work and what the software involved really does. Aaron had hoped that his days of activism were behind him, but this is too big for him to ignore.

As someone who's very privacy-conscious and often worried about the way people readily accept everything companies like Google or Facebook throw at them, I wanted to write about where we could be headed if we're not careful. Obviously, this is sci-fi, and the fun of it often involves taking an idea to its extreme.

I'm also hoping to write stories set further in the future at some point. I have a few ideas, and I'm hoping a few of you will enjoy them.

Filed under: Federated