That dreaded “C” word – Criticism!
I want to talk about the dreaded “C” word – Criticism. There are three types of criticism in my book: constructive criticism, false criticism and then the downright nasty criticism. Now, most people who pick up a book to read are not professional book critics or Beta reader. I’d say even fewer are editors, freelance or otherwise, or English teachers. Most people will pick up a book to read simply for the sheer enjoyment that a well-crafted story brings. Book reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads are popping up more and more often, and I even see examples of all these types of criticism splashed across pages of groups in social media sites like Facebook. Some days I have to simply shake my head in wonder at it all.
As an editor, I look at stories I’m working on in a totally different light. I don’t read them for the pleasure of the story, but rather dissect them while looking for errors in syntax, grammar, spelling and continuity or flow. I look at characters with a microscope to see if they are well-developed and well-rounded, three dimensional instead of flat. And I offer suggestions in wording, use of descriptive adjectives and adverbs, as well as thoughts on dialogue. I have to make sure that characters described with brown eyes at the beginning of a story don’t end up with blue eyes in another chapter, and if the author is describing the Mississippi River running through New Orleans that they aren’t using words like “sparkling” and “clear.” This is what I consider constructive criticism. I am not trying to change the author’s voice or story, I am truly trying to help the writer craft the very best story possible.
When I pick up a story to read, not to edit, I find I am not nearly as picky. I will admit that errors with hyphens and spelling pretty much always catch my eye, (yes I might cringe a time or two) but I am willing to overlook them and enjoy the read. Given the ever-growing field of Indie authors (i.e. independently published authors) there are a lot more errors in stories that you might pick up. BUT that does not detract from the story itself, especially when you understand that Indie authors do not usually have the multiple editors that large publishers utilize before publication. Trust me, I am a lot less forgiving when I see an error in grammar in something published by, say, Doubleday. Book reviews for these Indie authors is a huge part of their success, and they need readers to give an honest review. I often see reviews that start with “I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review.” (ARC stands for Advance Reader’s Copy.) Now is where we often fall into the realm of what I call false criticism. Most of the reviews I’ve read are honest and thoughtful. Some of them offer an automatic 5 stars, stating something such as “I loved it!” Don’t get me wrong – I am sure the person loved it, and the positive reviews do help the author. It would be better if the reviewer would take the extra couple of minutes and say why they liked it, or even if there were parts or characters that they didn’t like it and why.
I’ve done a lot of Beta reading for authors as well, and I can guarantee that the authors don’t want to hear just an “Oh I love it.” They want to hear an honest opinion from the reader – what worked for them, what maybe seemed far fetched, or what character struck you as really whiney and a total pain in the butt. This goes back to offering constructive criticism. Something like “You know, I really love the character Jack, but I couldn’t take another minute of Jill in that story!” Another example is if the author is writing about a really strong female protagonist, who all of a sudden is stuttering on the phone. It is okay to point these things out, and authors more often than not truly appreciate the feedback. Again, this not about slamming someone’s story, but about helping an author work out the kinks.
Last, and probably the most irritating of the bunch, is the downright nasty criticism. I think a lot of this type of criticism also falls under the false category. I’ve even heard of a negative review on a book that was posted a few days before the book had actually come out, and the reviewer was not a Beta reader. I’m guessing they “reviewed” the blurb promoting the book? Quite honestly, I do not understand, and likely never will, the reason some people feel the need to put others down. It’s pretty darn simple – if you don’t like the book, well, then don’t read it. It doesn’t help anyone to put something like “It was the worst thing I’ve ever read.” I’ve also read reviews that wind up being horribly personal onslaughts and say the person should never write another word again. Sheesh! Even if you end up really disliking a story, and feel you have to voice your opinion, there is still a constructive way to do it. Explain yourself, don’t just bash the book and/or author. Leave a thoughtful response as to why you didn’t like it. Most authors I’ve worked with are putting themselves out there, especially in some of the book groups on Facebook that I’ve seen. What is never appropriate is to discourage someone from trying to write. They may not be the next Ernest Hemingway or Dan Brown, but by gosh, they are trying. And writing is like any other art – some people come by it more naturally, while other people require more and harder practice. But everyone deserves constructive feedback and criticism. It is not our place to tell someone they will never make it as a writer. Most writers I know write because they simply cannot do otherwise. In my opinion, it is important that they keep writing, keep trying, keep getting their words onto paper. The old adage stands true to this day – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. And if you’re not willing to leave a thoughtful review or comment, maybe it’d be for the best is some people took their own advice and not write another word.