In the spirit of delving into backstory after my 3 post streak with the Crafting a Character Series, I would like to share with you a personal story of my own.
When I was 10 years old, I felt so badass for staying up until 3AM to catch a cartoon that looked like it was made with construction paper by a group of kindergarteners. But the looks were completely deceiving as it would feature some of the most potty mouthed and outrageous content I have ever seen in my life. That show was South Park, and I loved it for its simplistic art style.
I also used to love drawing as a kid, but could never draw anything spectacular or anything close to replicating my favourite cartoon characters. But man, one day I drew a bunch of my own original South Park characters and felt so proud that I could finally replicate something I liked!
I wanted to show this drawing to someone who I used to love and whose opinion I used to value. They will remain as nameless as they are heartless, but basically, this person took a quick glance at my drawings–not a single glance at me–and then said nothing at all before they started using the paper to catch their toenail clippings.
To this day, I’m filled with rage when I recall this instance in my life. The time, energy, and effort I put into this character palette page was wasted to catch the waste of this disgusting individual.
What this communicated to me was that my time, energy, and effort was a waste because no one will give a shit about what I produce. This person was my world and their negligence stained my perception of the actual world at large. It was a bomb set in my brain, ready to detonate in later years, giving me a hard time to commit to creative endeavours.
I’ve always known that I was a skilled writer, and that could I continue to improve daily, but for a long time, I used to require the external validation of others to assure me that my work was worth my time at all. As for drawing, I gave it up in favour of writing and I often wonder if I stopped drawing completely because of this incident–or even without it, I would have naturally made the trade off.
Nonetheless, I’ve been hurt by this careless person and no longer love them, nor do I care about their opinion anymore. At all. Having explored this issue in my history has afforded me the comfort in knowing that the joy I have when I create–a song, a novel, a blog post–belongs to me and only me.
Sure it matters if people like what I produce, but it doesn’t matter as much as how much I appreciate my own time, energy, and creativity.
If anyone ends up liking it, I’m glad that it resonates with them. If they don’t, that’s fine. I’m always open for criticism and improvement, but after processing this aspect of my psyche, I can now tell the difference between whose criticism matters, and whose criticism is just a replication of what was done unto me as a child. At which point, I simply dismiss it as waste. Waste that belongs nowhere near my work.
Keep your waste to yourself because my work will shine as a repellent to your cruelty.
Isn’t that such a snobby name for a burger joint? You just picture all the customers criticizing every single bite of their burgers and saying, “meh. I’ve had better.” But it’s alright, that’s what the restaurant invites you to do in order to improve customer satisfaction!
Likewise with writing, receiving criticism can help improve one’s craft. Since writers usually expose the depths of their inner most desires and concerns within the world through the abstractions of fiction, receiving criticism may sometimes feel like it’s their entire personhood that is being criticized. Their work is an extention of themselves and so it may be hard for them to have emotional and objective distance from the glaring flaws that may be present in their work.
In order to keep a writer’s self-esteem in tact, and let them know you really are trying to help, use the Critique Burger style of delivery.
Imagine this burger represents your thoughts on a certain piece of work. The top and bottom buns are positive things you could say about a written piece, while everything in between represents the negative aspects that can be improved on. That is where the meat of criticism resides!
Since the top bun of the burger is bigger, this is where you should start off with huge compliments to help cushion the impending critique. It’s important to show that you understood what the piece was trying to convey in terms of emotional and philosophical themes.
For writers who like to write deep and meaningful stuff (such as myself), it is an absolute honour for readers to relay back to them what moral lessons they’re trying to instill their work with, or at least any subtle nuances that takes a clever mind to notice. So once you’ve begun your critique pointing out what the writer did right, you move on to the meat of the matter.
Pointing out the flaws in somebody’s work is the most juiciest and rewarding aspects of delivering criticism. When a writer opens themselves up for criticism, they must do it with the utmost humility and vulnerability–and the ones delivering the criticism must empathize with this–or the whole operation will stink. Sometimes the bearer of bad news lacks the tact to criticize effectively, the writer takes everything too personally, or a combination of both may occur, and that could lead to some sour interactions.
To increase your chances of keeping a critique session productive, keep in mind that constructive criticism comes in two forms: Conclusive Criticism and Inquisitive Criticism.
Conclusive Criticism comes in the form of bluntly telling the writer what may not be working out in their writing. This could be in the form of essays, poems, even memos, but since fiction is my forte, let’s focus on critiquing novels.
Every other form of writing will require criteria unique to each individual medium, but common criticisms for writing novels include:
Inconsistent plot points
Events or characters that don’t move the narrative forward
Verbal vomit that doesn’t serve the overall narrative
Scarce narrative that could use more detail
Lack of conflict
Lack of depth or direction
Lack of relatability/accessibility
…and much more. If you have some to add to this list–or a list for any other form of writing–feel free to leave a comment below!
At the meat of the matter, you’re basically given free reign to tell the writer where their story falls flat on its face so you can help them either trim the fat or fill in the gaps. Since most writing is rewriting, your criticisms (whether they’re rejected or accepted) are valuable in determining if there needs to be more or less–or a complete removal–of certain aspects in the piece.
Only by eliminating the fluff can you help a writer focus on where their story stands firmly on its feet, and gravitate towards strengthening the positive aspects you have pointed out in the top bun process.
There have been times where I’ve opted for asking clarifying questions, instead of making any conclusive statements, in order to help fellow writers understand their own stories better. Inquisitive Criticism comes in the form of open ended questions that are designed to help a writer figure out the solutions to their work on their own terms.
This is my favourite method of giving and receiving criticism because who doesn’t love feeling like they’ve figured things out on their own? What gives me even greater joy is helping someone out without ever telling them what they need to do, because often times they already know somewhere deep inside, or just through Inquisitive Criticism do they figure it all out themselves.
The kinds of questions I’ve asked were in the lines of:
What kind of character is X supposed to be?
So then why did they do this instead of–?
Who is the character that contrasts their personality?
Why not put them in more scenes together?
What’s the importance of this scene?
What is your charater trying to achieve?
When was this particular scene foreshadowed?
Finally, at the end of your critique, you could restate the positive aspects you’ve already touched upon, or you can quickly mention a few more surface level positives. These could include word choice, notable dialogue, notable narrative points, or simply saying that you liked it as a whole. Coming full circle, this is where you can also state that if you did X, it could help embellish aspect Y of your story, and therefore Z can happen more logically.
Build Your Own Burger
Just like a real burger, people customize what they like to put in between the buns in conjunction with the meat. Likewise, you can choose between Conclusive and Inquisitive Criticism or combine them to your liking, and it will always ultimately be up to the writer whether to implement or discard your criticisms to the best of their judgement.
Understanding the the burger method of delivering criticism increases the guarantee of having your criticisms considered. Even if the writer doesn’t end up taking your advice, they will at least be given a lot to think about in the realm of possibilities.
“Constructive criticisms are merely suggestions, not commandments.”
How to apply this to your life:
Delivering a Critique Burger can immensely help you in having your opinions valued, either in a writing workshop or any other aspect in your life. This could range from personal to business relationships, and providing feedback this way will help others know that you recognize their merits, while also noting that there can be some improvements they can make so they become the best versions of themselves. Likewise, receiving criticism in this fashion will also give you an interesting and objective perspective on yourself where a variety of aspects can be considered and worked on.
Why this exercise is important:
Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect and nobody gets everything right the first time. With a little constructive criticism, we can help each other improve in many aspects in life. There is so much I could say as to why this exercise is important, but I think the ending quote of this post will be sufficient.
“We all have blind spots, but thankfully we don’t have the same ones.” – Stefan Molyneux
What are other methodologies of delivering criticism that you have found useful?
What did you think of the burger method? Do you believe that it could be helpful? If not, why not?
Whatever your thoughts are, I’m interested!
Feel free to criticize this very article if you’d like!