Bad Postive Critiques and Good Negative Ones


Occasionally I’ll create notes to myself on the blog.  Topics for future posts on days where I come up with multiple ideas, help for days when I come up with none.  So today I was looking through those, and found this note that I left myself about a week ago:

Create a post based around this and this.

This was all surrounding a little back and forth between some bloggers as to whether writers should ever leave bad reviews for each other.  On one hand was an argument about burning bridges and bringing up the friendly association of all authors.  On the other hand was the notion that a writer, and blogger, puts their reputation on the line with a review, that a glowing review of an undeserving book can do far more to damage an author than providing an honest assessment in the long run.  It’s a difficult line to walk, as Leah Petersen pointed out in her response to the initial argument.  There’s a tendency to agree with the point of not leaving bad reviews, however

…I don’t want other authors and readers thinking I can’t tell good writing from bad. I may have enjoyed your book in spite of the cringe-worthy flood of adverbs and telling, because the plot, or character development, or whatever was just that good. Another person may not have the tolerance to handle that and may throw the book away in disgust and then resent me for leading them to believe that it had no major faults.

I suppose one answer to this is the old “if you can’t say anything nice…” but I think that’s getting overly simplistic.  Perhaps I’m speaking from the wrong point in my writing career, a point where I’m getting critiques not reviews, and a point where I’m not actually reading for review myself.  Let me briefly define the distinction I’m making here, in case people don’t agree with it.  I’m defining a critique as a sought out opinion of a work in progress, and a review as either a sought or volunteered opinion of a published work.

That said, what I keep being drawn back to is the notion, again from Leah,

Do I ignore the weaknesses, pretend I didn’t see them, and write only about the good stuff?  …I usually don’t trust reviews like that anyway, especially if they’re an unknown author self-publishing and all they have are glowing reviews. I’m pretty much going to assume that all the reviews are written by friends and family and I can’t trust them to give the whole truth.

And this gets into a cardinal truth that I’ve discovered from getting critiques.  There are critiques that have a generally positive or negative opinion about the piece in general.  And there are critiques that are qualitatively good or bad.  These are two separate things.  There are bad positive critiques in the world, and there are good negative ones.  The most simplistic form of the former is the “OMG THIS IS GREAT DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.”  This is what I mean by working out a qualitative grading for the critique itself.  A bad critique, whether generally pro or con (“this sucks, never write again”), gives no room for growth, no examples, nothing that can be pulled out of it.

Good critiques, whether generally positive or negative about the piece in general, tend to be far more nuanced.  In my experience the best of critiques tend to fall somewhere between two and four stars on a five star scale.  Even the most positive of opinions about a piece can find room for improvements, even the most negative can find points of strength.  It’s the rare piece I’ve encountered that is so perfect that there’s nothing I would change about it, or is so bad that there’s nothing salvageable about it.

Now, as I mentioned, I’m talking about critiques.  Because critiques are my realm of experience here.  That said, I will fully agree that it is unseemly for an author to give a bad critique or a bad review.  However, I will certainly take a good negative critique (and, in the future, a good negative review) any day of the week over a bad positive one.  I’ve grown a thick skin from years of critiques, so as long as you’re well-reasoned and willing to give avenues of improvement, tuck in.

Oh god, what have I just gotten myself into?

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  1. avatar

    #1 by Leah Petersen on October 27, 2011 - 12:25 pm

    I LOVE posts that continue and extend an interesting debate.

    You make a fabulous point summed up so well in the title: Bad Postive Critiques and Good Negative Ones

    I totally agree with the conclusion that good critique always has point of improvement to offer.

    And I’m where you are, months from the release of my debut, my only experience has been with crit, not reviews. Are they different things? Well, yeah. If nothing else, because of their source and intended audience.

    Interesting to ponder. I’ll get back you you in a few months and let you know it my opinion has changed once the book is released. ;)

    • avatar

      #2 by DLThurston on October 27, 2011 - 12:42 pm

      I kept writing this up as a reply to your original blog, then kept having to stop and say “they’re talking about reviews, not critiques.” Yeah, they are different beasts. Critiques are meant to influence the author, reviews are more typically meant to influence the potential consumer. But it’s similar things that make each qualitatively good or bad.

      And yeah, even though I’ll be doing middle-of-the-anthology short stories, not a full novel (yet), I’ll be interested if my own opinion changes in a few months.

  2. avatar

    #3 by Dr. T. Hansen on October 27, 2011 - 2:08 pm

    I believe that you can leave a bad review of positive criticism. But I think a lot of people that leave bad reviews just want to say something negative to make themselves sound like they know everything. I think all writers should have a thick skin and remind themselves to acknowledge when criticism is opinion based or is actually constructive. Reviews on the other hand should be a mixture of productive criticism and opinion based comments. Writer or no writer, negative review or positive, there is a way to handle it in a manner in which does not discourage the author.

  3. avatar

    #4 by Day Al-Mohamed on October 28, 2011 - 10:38 am

    Okay, this got me thinking about review versus critique and thinking about that fine line and as someone who’s always poking about structure was wondering if purposely muddling the two – creating a structure or template that perhaps sounded like a critique but operated as a review.

    As Leah pointed out in her blog, these are future (or current) co-workers, you really don’t want to set up an uncomfortable relationship; AND you too have a reputation, and you don’t want to compromise that either.

    So would a hybrid suffice? (Okay, I may have to take this over to Unleaded as a post.)

    -day

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