Critiquing Amateur Fantasy Authors

"If a person cannot take positive criticism then they cannot take any kind of criticism, not even self-criticism. Thus they will keep making the same kinds of mistakes and never improve because even coincidental improvements will only be temporary until their next series of mistakes."

A few years back a friend of mine who is also a writer but lacks any formal training asked me to read one of her fantasy stories and send her some feedback for how she could improve it.

I did so. And because I never half ass such a request, I gave her a long list of positive criticism in point form so it was easier to understand and digest.

Nor was I the only person she asked for feedback. Most people however either politely said nothing or said "I like it." without explaining what aspects they liked.

I said what I liked, what I didn't like, and I explained why I liked or didn't like the various things. I went into the necessary detail she would need to make improvements.

However she didn't like the criticism, even though any experienced writer would have found such criticism to be extremely helpful. A non experienced writer however... one who is unused to any kind of criticism, sees such criticism as an attack on their skills and gets offended / defensive easily.

In some cases extremely easily.

After that incident years went by and the big pieces of advice I gave her during that period was...

Learn how to write in a formal setting (creative writing class).
Go to Creative Writing Workshops to practice skills.
Use Spellcheck and Grammar Check.
Write every day. Preferably 1000+ words per day if you can find the time.
Familiarize yourself with various writing genres and tropes.
Write short stories to hone your skills.
Learn how to take positive feedback and improve based on feedback.
Read books that are very well written.

Which is all good advice. None of which she apparently took.

Years went by. She stopped hanging out with our circle of friends. Then one day she posted a new short story (the beginning of something possibly bigger) on Facebook and asked her friends for feedback.

I was the only person who gave proper feedback and positive criticism. FYI, clicking "Like" is not feedback. Clicking Like could simply mean the person glanced at it and never read it. I actually read it and provided appropriate feedback.

This time however she didn't even respond. I didn't hear anything from her and she certainly was not socializing with the group of friends. It took me months to realize she had unfriended me on Facebook.

That was how little her ability to take positive criticism was. She wanted feedback evidently, but any kind of criticism - even positive criticism - could not be handled by her sensitive psyche and lack of experience at receiving criticism.

Speaking for myself I have been on the receiving end of both. I once pissed off a group of Robert E. Howard fans who went out of their way to mock a short story I wrote about Conan (the Barbarian). They were essentially upset that someone had written a Conan short story and was selling it on Amazon Kindle (and selling like hot cakes). Since Robert E. Howard died over 75 years ago nobody owned the copyright any more and literally anyone can now write and sell Conan books and short stories. However the fans didn't like it. They didn't even bother to read what I had written (which was a homage to Howard in Howard's writing style) and instead posted all manner of horribly negative reviews on a story they never even read.

So yeah. That is some pretty negative criticism. Fortunately I knew just how to respond. I ignored all the negative criticism and focused on the positive criticism which was written by people who actually read the story.

Having written and published numerous novels, short stories and anthologies I had encountered many other examples of positive criticism. I certainly knew how to tell the two apart.

I should also note that I have also taken part in poetry readings (with feedback from other poets) and studied painting/sculpture/photography at the university level. Here is what I have learned:

Poets are really eloquent and good at giving positive criticism.
Painters mostly talk about their feelings but are similarly good at giving positive criticism.
Sculptors are surprisingly shy and quiet.
Photographers are perfectionist assholes and super catty.

Ergo. For the best positive criticism, find a friend who is a poet and ask them to critique your work. If that cannot be found, find a painter.

Ideally you should be looking for a fellow writer. Preferably one who writes in the same genre as you are writing. Eg. Fantasy or Sci Fi. Maybe even offer to exchange drafts of things you have written and thus exchange criticism.

Tips for Writing Positive Criticism

Focus on what things you like and don't like.
Explain why you like or don't like certain things.
Pointform and headings are handy for separating the above two.
Be detailed but concise.
Be nice about it. Don't write negative things.
Don't worry about spelling or grammar. Just kindly remind them to use Spellcheck and possibly a grammar style guide.
Provide suggestions for how they might improve the writing or plot.

And lastly... if you know the person is the sensitive type who cannot take the criticism then perhaps you should learn from my mistake and don't give them any advice at all.

Yes, this means they will never improve their skills because of their stubborn unwillingness to take advice or accept criticism (cough cough, like Donald Trump). But hey at least you won't lose a friend over it because some people just cannot handle any kind of criticism.

Something similar to this happened recently during a Dungeons and Dragons game. The DM running it was horribly bad at DMing. So horribly bad... I wanted to tell him off for being such a horrid DM. However he was one of those super sensitive types who freak out about any kind of criticism. Having learned from the previous incident above I opted to simply not tell him anything and then vowed to never play in any game with him ever again.

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