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June 10, 2017

Constructive Criticism and Feedback: Getting an Unbiased Opinion

by Chris



As I’m writing this, I’m waiting in a Starbucks to meet with someone to discuss my book. Not an agent or publisher, sadly, but rather a friend—one to whom I’ve given a draft copy of my book.

This will be the first time I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the plot, pacing, writing and overall flow with someone who isn’t intimately familiar with my writing—namely, someone who isn’t me. Because it’s incredibly difficult to see one’s own writing from an objective point of view: you can love it or hate it, but there’s very little middle ground when you’re reading your own work. Even taking a break after completing a manuscript (which I highly recommend, by the way) doesn’t distance you enough from the story and concept for you to get a genuinely unbiased opinion. It takes someone else.

But who? Who can provide you with the feedback you need to hear, and not just the positivity you want to hear? The first temptation when writing is to have your immediate friends and family read it, and get their opinion. But often they’re too invested in making you feel good and supporting you to tell you how they truly feel. My mother, for example, is a great proofreader, but I can’t really trust her opinion of my work because, well, it’s mine. She’s going to love it either way.

Perhaps you can turn to slightly more distant friends, and acquaintances; people who don’t have the same vested interest in preserving a positive relationship with you. Because of course, criticism can hurt, no matter the intent behind it; and hearing it from someone you’re close to can damage that relationship. Hearing it from someone a little more removed from your everyday life is more palatable.

Yet even here, is their criticism truly unbiased? How constructive is it really? Because everyone has their own opinions, tastes, likes and dislikes, and while a close friend will almost certainly say positive things about your work, a distant relation might say negative things not because they’re inherently true, but because they just don’t like the kind of work you’ve done. I couldn’t give my fantasy writing to just anyone because if they hate fantasy, they’re never going to like it. And yet, if you deliberately seek out someone who enjoys the sort of work you’re written, you’re biasing their opinion anyway, and ultimately you’ll get comparisons to other, similar novels.

Perhaps the answer lies in finding someone deeply familiar with the genre of your story, someone who’s widely-read and can speak with authority to what works and what doesn’t. And so we fall into the realm of professional critics—people whose job it is to say whether a story is good or bad. Can you trust a critic’s voice? They ought to know the most about the type of story you’ve written, and should be able to say conclusively whether your work is, in essence, good or bad. But finding a professional critic to review unpublished material is difficult, if not impossible. And besides—how often do critics and the public widely disagree about the merits of a work of fiction, film or art? Some of the highest-earning blockbuster films are universally panned by critics, but it doesn’t stop them from being popular. The same applies to books.

In a way, we end up circling back to the beginning and finding a way to judge your own work. To paraphrase Stephen King, if you’re too busy to read, you’re too busy to write. And in fairness, if you’re trying to judge your own work, you can—to a degree—compare it to other, similar stories to see if what you’ve written holds up. You can often find your own plot holes and inconsistencies, and an editor will do a great job of tidying up your typos and spelling mistakes.

And in the end, it starts to beg the question—how valuable is criticism at all? It can certainly strengthen a story if done right, but getting the right sort of criticism is sometimes incredibly difficult. I don’t need to hear how great my book is, but nor do I want to hear how terrible it is. I suppose I’m looking for some middle ground, someone to gently let me know that a part of the book—while overall excellent—isn’t quite working for them. And if I’m only looking for certain criticism, and opting to overlook anything else, then what value is there in that feedback in the first place?

Ultimately, I don’t think there is any such thing as a truly unbiased opinion. People form their own opinions based on what they already believe they like and dislike, and thus form their own biases before ever reading what you’ve written. And while feedback is important, and indeed necessary, it still should be taken with a grain of salt—both for better and for worse. After all, some of the worst books written are still widely popular, and some very well-written stories languish in obscurity. If you only believe what you choose to believe about your own work, it could lead you to delusions of grandeur—or actually, make your novel a roaring success. Confidence in one’s own work speaks volumes.

What do you think? How far can you trust someone’s opinion, and how personally should you take it?

Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris's creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of ErĂ¢th. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the nigh and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com

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