Concrit is hard!
It's also been a source of drama in almost every writing-or-art-oriented group or community I've been part of.
A few years ago, living in Boston with very few friends, I signed up for a writing course as a way to meet people. One of the requirements was to read four thirty-page selections a week (by members of the class), and make notes, then engage in a crit session.
I dropped the course after two classes.
Why? Because no one was actually interested in hearing criticism.
Some people are better editors than writers. I consider myself one of those "Some people." I don't know that many people do, but I think I am a great editor. When I was studying film, I gravitated to editing, when I graduated, I worked my first job as a photo editor. I am good at taking other people's work and really making it shine, no matter what the other people's work is. So I worked really, really hard in that class, to write serious, considerate concrit that wasn't just about telling people what they did wrote, but giving concrete examples of how they could improve it.
And I was told that "well, not everyone is GOING to like a book like this. This is really for a NICHE audience," with the very clear intimation that I wasn't intelligent enough to qualify as part of that select niche audience. That my critique wasn't welcome unless I "understood" what they were trying to do.
I am pretty sure I understood what they were trying to do. I am also pretty sure that they were failing at it, or that it wasn't worth doing in the first place. Especially since out of the four selections I read, I was given this response every. single. time. One novel out of four intended to appeal to a special, niche audience? Sure thing! I can buy that! But four out of four, and I tend to chalk it up to a weird, insular, can-do-no-wrong atmosphere that was evolving in the class. So I left.
On the internet, especially in a blogging community, there's a weird line when you start talking about constructive criticism. We know, instinctively, that concrit has no place in someone's personal blog posts about their every day lives. If someone write five hundred words about how their grandma is dying, you know that the appropriate response might be some words of sympathy or encouragement, not a remark to explain that you felt the second paragraph was too wordy. However, plenty of bloggers and journalers are trying to cultivate a voice, either as practice for a potential career, or to bring in an audience to their blog. And on top of that, plenty of people post "actual writing:" stories, essays, and other tidbits that are clearly more formalized than a simple blog entry. Entries where people are actually giving thought to the way they are structuring their writing, their word choice, the things people think about when trying to craft a piece of writing, as opposed to just getting the thoughts on paper (or virtual paper, as the case may be). And then we're dealing with another story. Because:
As soon as you start putting for-serious-writing up in any public venue, you have to be ready to accept concrit.
Accept doesn't mean agree. Accept means accept. You don't need to like it, but you do need to appreciate and value that someone else went to the trouble of reading your work with a criticism lens on, which is much harder than reading something just for enjoyment. Ninety percent of the time, when someone leaves concrit, they're doing it because they genuinely think you can improve. And if you ever, ever imagine maybe writing professionally-- and I don't just mean as a published author, I mean as someone who writes a presentation or a report for your employer-- you need to be able to take criticism, synthesize criticism (that is, consider each piece and figure out how to work it into your finished product, or whether you should discard it), and move on. You'll also need to learn how to accept criticism that is given once the final product is complete, and just deal with the fact that someone didn't like something about your work, and think about whether it's something you want to consider for your next piece of work.
It isn't fair to your readers to post writing and assume that they will only say 100% positive things. It isn't fair to tell people that they're only allowed to speak if they have something positive to say. You know that whole "If you can't say anything nice..." adage? "Nice" and "positive" aren't the same thing. Sometimes the nicest thing someone can do for you is tell you what isn't working for them.
That doesn't mean that all crit is nice, or that all crit is constructive. I've also seen people rip someone to pieces, formulate random personal attacks, or just plain not know what the heck they're talking about, all in the name of concrit.
Rule of thumb, if you're the one giving concrit? For it to be "concrit" and not just "crit," something about it has to be "con." Telling someone what's wrong with their work is one thing, but tell them how you think they might improve it: that's what makes it constructive. Always include a suggestion for how they might make it better. It doesn't have to be a very specific one-- in fact, I tend to loathe suggestions that are too specific, because it can verge on rewriting instead of suggesting, but make a suggestion. Show that you're not just thinking negatively, not just pointing out flaws.
Another good thing to consider is the difference between "I don't like this" and "this is bad." It can be a very hard thing to learn to criticize a piece of writing or artwork that is not, and would never be, to your taste, even if it were absolutely perfect. You may hate science fiction based in the eighteenth century due to a tragic accident involving time-traveling Voltaire, but that doesn't make all science fiction based in the eighteenth century bad. It just means that you don't like it. Unless you're getting paid to do otherwise, it is totally okay not to leave comments on things that you know you won't like, if you think your personal preference is going to make it difficult for you to give a worthwhile critique.
As an LJ Idol-related aside, you not liking something also doesn't mean that it "doesn't belong" in the competition or that it "doesn't count" as "journal writing." There is only one person who gets to decide whether something "counts," and it is likely not you. You get to decide if you want to vote for it. If you don't like something, you can choose not to vote for it, even if you recognize that it is good. But if someone wants to write poetry or make videos or photo montages of snowmen to tell their story, it counts, because those are the rules of the competition. There is nothing wrong with saying "that's not to my personal taste," but saying "that's not writing," or "that doesn't belong here," is making a leap from your personal taste to an objective value judgment that really, nobody should be making.
So, basically, if you're leaving criticism, make sure you're not being a jerk. If you receive criticism, unless you're pretty sure the person who left it was being a jerk (and you can always ask a friend for a second opinion), it shouldn't be something to fuss about. Maybe you're just trying to relate feelings and aren't too concerned about the quality of your writing or the way you told your story, and that can be frustrating, but the person who left the criticism probably thought your writing was good enough that they thought you were trying for for-serious writing. If you really, really aren't ready for criticism on a piece of writing, tell people so! It should be your responsibility to tell people "no concrit, please," if you don't want any. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on that point, but I personally would like to strive for a larger community where solid concrit is open and welcome, not one where people have to seek it out, or where all concrit, even the best concrit, is looked upon with scorn. Listening to what other people have to say about your writing is one of the best ways to become a better writer, and being a better writer isn't just about being a professional writer. Writing is a major part of almost everyone's life. Improving it shouldn't be unwelcome.
You know, unless the person talking is being a jerk.