Alternative title: In Which I Criticize Criticism.
Starting authors – and in particular I’m thinking of people who are still muscling through their first million words – cannot typically afford to pay high quality editors to take a look at their work and give professional feedback. Due to the higher volume of submissions, in modern day it’s rare for editors or agents to provide specific feedback, and even rarer for them to provide detailed feedback, to authors they’re rejecting. This is a problem, because without feedback it’s difficult for a developing author to figure out what they should be improving upon. Fortunately, the internet is full of people willing to give feedback for free. Unfortunately, some of these people are idiots. When you ask a bunch of internet randos for criticism, some of it is going to be awful, but some of it is going to be good. This means that an important skill for budding authors is figuring out which advice to ignore.
Fortunately, the vast majority of bad criticism follows a few common trends. While not all bad criticism follows these trends, enough of it does that if you ignore things that fit these patterns and focus on whatever’s left over, you should hopefully be mostly paying attention to the good stuff. Once you’ve sunk some effort into sincerely trying to patch up your writing based on whatever makes it through this filter, you’ll probably be able to suss out what the few bits of bad advice that did get through the filter were. Trusting your instincts is a bad idea when first receiving criticism, because instinct is often to lash out at everyone who doesn’t recognize your genius, but if you’ve actually edited your current story or written at least a few thousand words of a new one sincerely trying to build on criticism and find it still grates badly against you, it’s probably because that bit of criticism simply doesn’t fit with your style or genre.
That’s getting a bit off track, though. What criticism should you just flat-out ignore, without even trying to take it to heart?
That might sound tautological, so let me explain exactly what I mean by “vapid criticism.” Vapid criticism is criticism that is too vague to actually be useful. Do not waste time flailing about trying to, say, fix your intro because you got feedback that said it was boring with no elaboration as to why. Not only is this low-effort criticism less likely to be the product of someone who knows what they’re doing, even if they are pointing you towards a real problem, their direction is so over-generalized that it’s impossible to tell what you should actually be doing to fix it. Compare criticism like this:
This conversation goes on way too long. I got the point after the first three lines of dialogue, and after that it was just repeating the same thing over and over again, interspersed with a novelization of a visit to Subway.
The conversation between Sherry and her mother was boring.
The first one is specific. The conversation is too long and didn’t deliver enough information to justify its length. That gives you a specific goal when revising the passage: Cut this conversation down to just the important parts and then move on (critics aren’t psychic, so the problem here might be that there is important information in the rest of the conversation, and its importance has just been buried somehow so the critic can’t see it, but whatever’s going on you’ve at least got a good idea of what the problem is). The second criticism is vapid and useless. Okay, so that scene didn’t work, but why? Without anything to go on, an author has no way of determining whether or not this advice is onto something or just because of something random and non-repeatable like the critic being reminded of their own mother in a bad way. Even if they do, in the misguided tradition of the internet, take all criticism to heart under the assumption that everyone with a Reddit account provides valuable feedback and ignoring it would be an act of egotism bordering on megalomania, an author might well end up laboriously trying to make Sherry and her mother’s dialogue funnier, or find an excuse to add a third character who isn’t necessary but who is generally popular with beta readers to try and make the scene more intriguing, or something else that doesn’t actually address the reason the conversation was boring in the first place.
The snarkiest criticism is often vapid. I know this sounds weird coming from someone who wrote like ten thousand snarky words about why Awaken Online is bad, but bear in mind that I was writing those words for an audience of genre literature enthusiasts who aren’t necessarily even interested in LitRPG specifically, just in reading about a bad book. I was not writing under the delusion that Travis Bagwell was going to read my blog post, take down his top 5,000 book to extensively revise it to address my criticism, and then republish it. Someone who writes more snark than criticism is someone who is writing to entertain, and if someone is writing to entertain while providing feedback to a creator, they have fundamentally misunderstood what their job is.
If someone gives you a piece of vapid criticism, just pointing at a specific scene or character or other element and saying “this is bad” without explaining why, ignore it. There’s no way to tell if their criticism is worth paying attention to, and even if there is, you can’t do anything except make random changes and hope you stumble upon a solution to a problem that hasn’t actually been explained to you. Your time would be better spent either editing in response to better criticism, or writing more.
Myopic criticism is criticism that makes no effort whatsoever to understand what the goal of a work is. Almost all the time, this manifests as someone who assumes that they are the only target audience and provide feedback solely based on their personal experience, with no thought given to why that feedback might be counterproductive to the author’s intended goal of appealing to a different target audience.
While vapid criticism is easy to identify by its lack of real content, myopic criticism can be harder to differentiate from good criticism, especially since most writers are biased in favor of believing that their target audience will understand their genius. One easy way to tell is if the person giving the criticism is actually in your target audience. If they read, and especially if they purchase, books in your genre regularly, then they probably have a pretty good idea of what’s popular in that genre.
A relatively easy way to tell if someone is giving myopic criticism is if they criticize your writing for its premise. If someone is criticizing your paranormal romance for having a vampire as the love interest, that’s not helpful because that’s the premise. Your target audience is people who want to read about vampires in love. If someone is criticizing your story about a scrappy underdog sports team because it doesn’t have enough stakes because it doesn’t really matter that much who wins the regional sportsball championship, then they aren’t in your target audience. There are people who are totally happy to read or watch stories whose only premise is “bad sports team overcomes their hangups to become better at sports,” and those people are your target audience. If someone (and this one actually happened to me) criticizes your story that takes place entirely in an MMORPG because it uses the acronym “WoW” without explanation, then they aren’t your target audience. People who pick up a book about MMORPGs know the shorthand name of the world’s most popular MMORPG, and those people are your (my) target audience.
Now this one is very different from the first two, because this kind of criticism isn’t wrong, it’s just probably not worth your time. If your prose isn’t so terrible as to impair readability or clarity, then only a vanishingly small amount of readers care about line-by-line craft. Better line-by-line craft will still improve your writing, but by so little and in exchange for such a large investment of time that it’s usually not worth worrying too much about. There is a massive plateau between “so poorly structured or unclear that regular readers notice it’s bad” and “so lyrically beautiful that regular readers notice it’s good” and it’s usually not worth it to trek across that expanse. Getting to the “lyrical beauty” end can elevate your books above the competition, but not on its own.
If you’ve ever heard the idea that being in the top 1% at one thing is nearly impossible, but being in the top 25% at three things makes you just as irreplaceable and is much easier, good prose can be one of your three things but doesn’t even have to be so long as you have three other things to work with. For example: Good character dialogue, believable and imaginative worldbuilding, and surprising, unpredictable plots are a perfectly potent combination of skills for any author who’s achieved basic competence in line-by-line craft. If you’re good at line-by-line craft and want prose that flirts with poetry to be one of your three things, go for it, but line-by-line craft doesn’t deserve the monomaniacal obsession that some critics give it, as though nothing else can proceed forward until you have it perfected. Otherwise, feel free to ignore anyone who tells you that your diction is too straightforward.
George RR Martin has great line-by-line writing (one of the things that sometimes aggravates me about his audience is that many of them have never encountered literary fiction before and assume GRRM invented it, and is therefore a super-genius, but it is nevertheless true that GRRM can write literary foreshadowing very well), and continues to have it into books four and five, and yet many fans consider there to have been a significant decline in quality after book three. George RR Martin has far better line-by-line craft than pretty much any author who’s reading blog posts for advice, and yet it still wasn’t enough to save him when his pacing fell apart. There’s nothing special about diction and sentence flow that makes it more important than other things like dialogue and pacing, and you don’t have to be awesome at everything to stand out from the standard dreck that forms the background radiation of slush piles and sub-100k Amazon self-publishing. Find your three things, and don’t worry if line-by-line craft isn’t one of them.
The internet has put critics in a weird, exactly wrong sort of dynamic with creators, where any critic who can string sentences together moderately coherently is considered superior to any amateur creator, but nobody is considered worthy to criticize successful, big-name creators. Amateurs are treated like thin-skinned egomaniacs if they ignore even the most inane of advice from critics whose only virtue is a functioning grasp of punctuation and paragraph breaks. It’s common knowledge that many creators are thin-skinned egomaniacs who get into fruitless slap-fights with critics, often digging their hole deeper as they heap praise upon their own mediocrity. That doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as stupid criticism, however, and indeed, dumb amateur critics are as common as dumb amateur creators.
Anyone who is remotely competent should expect to receive some uselessly bad criticism when soliciting advice from anyone who reads your post, so do not fall into the trap of thinking that the only reason to ever ignore any criticism is egomania. Moderating the natural protectiveness a creator feels for their work is a more nuanced art than assuming that everyone who dislikes it must be speaking from a place of well-informed and relevant expertise, and that approach is ultimately not any better than assuming they are all philistines who can’t recognize your genius.