The Three Types of Criticism

As I shuffle through pages of beta feedback, and as I read or re-read writing manuals in preparation for a brutal Draft Five edit, I’ve come to a  realization – writing is subjective.

“Duh, Michelle,” you snort. “Of course art is subjective. We all know that!”

That’s not what I speak of. We all know that our response to art is subjective. Rather, I’m talking about the methodology of our craft, and how it is seriously analyzed by ourselves and others.

Which leads me to the title – the three types of criticism that a work can receive. Keep these in mind when you’re reviewing the comments of beta readers, or analyzing your self-critique.

1. Critique due to taste. I do not like epic fantasy. No huge reason – I just don’t. So I dislike the Lord of The Rings, but that doesn’t mean I think LOTR is bad or invalid. I can still respect that Tolkien achieved something monumental,  and that his work is good. When betas or consumers read your story, hopefully they can self-identify which elements they dislike due to taste, and they won’t dock stars from their review or expect you to change it. If your betas are unable to do this, make sure YOU realize which comments are due to their taste. (This is a big struggle with Dad. He thinks all his comments fall into 2 or 3, when some of them are certainly 1).

2. Critique due to rules. These are the critiques to heed, because they’re the foundations of the craft. Show,  don’t tell. Spell words correctly in narrative and keep spelling consistent.  Follow a three act structure. Cut out the boring parts. Keep your word count competitive to the market.  Make your opposition stronger than the lead. These rules may be tossed if you’re doing experimental or metafiction, or if you’re world famous,  but most of us aren’t. A good deal of criticism will fall into this category,  and it’s honestly the easiest critique to hear. It’s the least personal. Lit rules are usually broken by mistake or ignorance.

3. Critique due to personal philosophy. Here is where you decide what kind of writer you want to be. These are the philosophies that YOU think every writer should follow,  and they’re how you deem other works “bad” or “good.” However, I promise that most are subjective,  and some may even be dated.

I’ve said before that James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure  is a great tool. It’s also becoming dated. JSB recommends opening your book with something like a phone call in the middle of the night,  or an action prologue. This may have been good advice once, but most agents today would cringe at a prologue, or a hook with dreams, waking up, looking in the mirror, or phone calls. That method became oversaturated and passe.

John Gardner and Ayn Rand,  I’ve realized, have personal philosophies that are almost too literary for me. Both believe that the best novelists are people whose language and style sing. Pat Kubris and JSB think that simply telling a good story is the mark of a great novelist.  Who is right? No one. This isn’t a matter of simple taste like #1, where you can brush it off and say “that’s not for me.” These are valid opinions on the “correct” way to write, supported by more than gut feeling.

They don’t have to be from pros either.  My betas certainly have opinions about what makes a book good,  and I have plenty of agreements and counterarguments. But even though I might disagree, I still take note of their philosophies and respect the evidence.   Maybe they’ll change my mind someday.  Maybe they’re on to something. Or maybe I’m good where I am.

As authors, we get to pick any of these sides in order to shape our writer’s identity. As daunting as that sounds,  it’s somewhat exhilarating.  It means that no two writers are likely identical in how they approach the craft. Cool, huh?

Writing,  like all other fields, is rarely black and white. And it’s in the gray where we figure out who we are,  and how to tell our stories.

8 thoughts on “The Three Types of Criticism

  1. Unless a comma is really out of place or very much needed in a grammar sense, I don’t touch anyone’s commas. While it is technically a #2, the comma falls under #1 for so many people. If you want to get someone worked up, try telling them that their introductory adverbial clause needs a comma. Gasp!

    • You know, it’s funny how many grammar rules are actually #1s or #3s! Some people think you shouldn’t start sentences with “and”, etc. Personally, I think that’s fine. I’m especially loose with fragments and run ons. And oh boy, commas…the comma is my enemy :P

  2. I think it all falls under the difference between editing and revision. Editing fixes grammar problems and spelling, nothing that changes the core story or events (this is why we pay people to edit stuff). But, revision means changing big things. Only the author can do that. So, I’d say you should revise your work and let others edit, but you are the artist.

    I agree with the “everyone has different opinions on what makes a good book” concept. So instead of trying to please everyone, write something you like. You are your worst critic anyway, which might make it harder to deal with anyway. That’s an artist’s curse.

    I’m glad to hear you are getting ready for the 5th draft. It’s that much closer till the day I can check it out :)

    • You have a point. I use the words ‘revision’ and ‘editing’ interchangeably – I’m lazy! – but they aren’t the same. Editing is the simple stuff that pros can fix. Revision is ultimately a personal experience, even with input from others.

      I am indeed using my current betas as an asset to revision. I bang the gavel in the end, but I like bouncing ideas off others. *shrug* I guess that’s the science training in me! Lol. Science is never done in a vaccum, etc.

      Thanks for your support!

  3. “Who is right? No one.”

    Excellent post, Michelle. I’m reminded of an incident during my freshman year of university: I struggled tremendously with a short story assignment, and was rushing through edits an hour before it was to be submitted. Two weeks later, I was nail-bitingly nervous as the professor handed back our short stories. She gave me an unbelievably (good) mark. Mind you, she was tough as nails and told us at the beginning of term that getting an 80 in her class was a rarity.

    A month later, I submitted the same story to a school writing contest. It was a hopeless cause. I was informed that my story was winnowed out in the first round, despite it being a very small group of competitors that year. So my professor’s accolades were hers and hers alone, and subjectivity is still the arbiter at the end of the day.

    I think writers should rely first and foremost on gut feeling. Betas are great for moral support or picking up on details that need polishing, but the executive decision still rests on your shoulders. It’s our responsibility to select the critique that will help us the most, and filter out the rest.

    • Bummer about the short story contest, but you’re totally right. Your story must have resonated with your teacher in a way that others just didn’t appreciate. Can’t please everyone!

      I do think I’m more enthusiastic about betas than most people. A lot of writers seem leery of them, or want to use them for proofreading only, but I welcome the fresh eyes. I used to be very possessive over my writing, not willing to take suggestions aside from grammar edits. In my current job, I’ve become very used to bouncing ideas off people though. Even though writers are introverted by nature and we create art in silent solitude, I find it hard to work in a vacuum now..

      I totally get why it doesn’t work for other writers, though, and this is still a huge learning process for me too.

  4. Interesting thoughts! I’ve never heard of JSB and it sounds like a good tool. I’ve been craving another book to aid with writing inspiration, other than Stephen King’s (which I still haven’t gotten to reading).

    You’re so right in the three types of criticism as well. I can’t really comment any further than to agree.

    On a side note, thank you for the recent follow. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any topic whenever you are so inclined.

    • Oh, I could recommend so many. Anything by Joseph Campbell is great, especially because I copy the mythic structure in most of my work. As a Theologian, I think you’d appreciate his books. “The Complete Guide To Writing Fantasy” and “The Fantasy Writer’s Companion” are pretty nifty as well. I still haven’t read Stephen King’s book, but I know it’s one of the more famous books on writing.

      Thanks for your comment! I love to hear from you too.

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