A Study of Criticism: Understanding Intent

This is the first entry in a series of articles I'm planning to write on giving and receiving criticism. I feel I'm pretty good at it, and I figured I'd share my thoughts on the subject. This isn't meant as a clear "do and don't" guide, but rather the start of a discussion on the subject. Everyone is unique, and the approach I favor might not work for everyone. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

For starters, I thought I'd talk about understanding intent. This, to me, is the first thing one should do when criticizing any sort of creative work. I first learned this the hard way years ago, back when I was active in the fanfiction scene. I read a story that was very much centered on long, over-the-top fight scenes. I found it frustrating to read, and told the author as much, that he should cut some of the fights and instead focus on character development.

The reply I got was eye-opening. The author argued that the battles were the entire point. He was a fan of shows like Dragon Ball and wanted to re-create that genre in his story. He explained that this is what his fans wanted and that I completely missed the point.

That got me thinking. I hadn't really been criticizing the story, but rather its genre. Looking back at the comments I left, I never really thought about what the author tried to accomplish, but rather projected my own preferences on the story. That made my feedback useless. Upon realizing this, I apologized to the author, and that was that.

I learned the same lesson again, but from an author's perspective with my current project, Opt Out. In short, the book deals with the dangers of invasive proprietary technology. It's heavily influenced by classic anticipation science-fiction like 1984 or Brave New World as well as more modern takes on issues of technology and surveillance such as Black Mirror or Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

I decided to try something different for Opt Out when it was the time to get feedback. Instead of picking one or two trusted proofreaders, I sent it to as many people as possible. While I received some good, constructive feedback, I also got some pretty disheartening feedback. Not wanting to disregard anything, I actually tried re-writing the first chapter in a way that would satisfy my most severe critic.

The end result was disastrous. I didn't recognize my characters, everything felt flat. It no longer felt like my story. The problem was that in rewriting so heavily, I'd lost track of my initial intent for the story and characters. The feedback that rewrite had been based on wasn't as much directed at what I wrote, but rather my intention behind it. In fact, the person who gave me that criticism disagreed with many of the principles behind Opt Out. She even admitted as much before starting the book.

Again, the issue was similar. The criticism I'd gotten missed my intent. I should say that this is completely natural. We all tend to project our own vision onto whatever form of expression we come in contact with. Many artistic projects take advantage of this by being vague and allowing people to project themselves. Video games are especially good at this. This is the primary reason why so many iconic video game characters never speak.

Regardless of how much room there is for projection, every creative endeavor has an intent behind it. Before giving criticism, I always take the time to try and understand that intent. Is the author trying to make me laugh? Are they trying to make me reconsider something I take for granted, or just to give me some form of escapism? How do they want me to feel about their characters or their setting? If I have no idea, I point it out.

It's always a good idea to have a discussion about such things. Remember that when someone asks for criticism, they end goal is to improve their work. It's perfectly fine to ask what the point of the work is, who it's aimed for, or what message they're trying to convey. It's also perfectly fine to let them know that their intention isn't something you understand. It's okay to decline if you feel like you can't offer feedback that's in line with the intent.

I should point out that sharing your own vision of the story is fine. Giving criticism is first and foremost about giving your own impression, after all. Sometimes, a scene just doesn't work, or a character brings nothing to the story. Sometimes, the story feels very disconnected from its intent or conveys something completely different by mistake. Just remember that when someone asks you for criticism, they're not asking you to rewrite the story in your image. Understanding intent is one of the keys to a good working relationship. It applies to the story as a whole, as well as characters, scenes, even individual lines of dialogue.

Hope you all enjoyed this. As I pointed out earlier, I'm hoping to make this the first of a series of articles on the subject.