Constructive Criticism & Other Oxymorons

Me coming for people who leave one star reviews
Me coming for people who leave one star reviews #kiddingnotkidding (pic by Tom Power)

“Pamela’s performance did not help matters much.” Newspaper review of one of my performances at drama school.

“The dubious talents of the two female comediennes…” From the review of a play I wrote for the Grahamstown Festival 23 years ago.

“This book contributes nothing to the South African crime genre.” From the Reader’s Report of my second novel Things Unseen.

Being able to deliver constructive criticism is a talent.

Compassion and empathy, along with a huge dose of humility are important, because guess what, just because you think something sucks, doesn’t mean everyone else will. Go and read the Goodreads reviews for any critically acclaimed, bestselling novel and you will see what I mean. It will also make you feel considerably better about your own shitty reviews.

I never review books on this blog – a deliberate decision on my part mainly because I feel positively squeamish at the thought of saying something unpleasant about the work of a fellow author. God knows there are enough people giving authors one star reviews without me twisting the knife. I can’t remember who said it to me, could’ve been writer and director, Craig Freimond or perhaps author, Boykey Sidley, maybe both.

But whomever it was said that all you should say to someone (if you are not a professional reviewer) after you have watched their play/film/TV show or read their book/poem/memoir is “Well done!” because at that point there is sod all they can do about it, so it’s pointless giving them your four pages of notes which will just make them feel horrible. Or as one friend said at the end of a play I wrote and directed, “Shoo, that was…long.”

Ms Conception Positive Review2
Ms Conception Review

I think one can forgive a savage review if it’s entertaining and well-written (check out @MrSkota’s mini book reviews on Twitter), but so many reviews come across as sour grapes where the reviewer seems to be enjoying trashing the novel/play/film a BIT TOO BLOODY MUCH. On social media I only promote books that I enjoy.

My policy is that if I don’t like something, I just don’t say anything.

As my mother always said: ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything.’ (possibly accompanied by a clip around the ear, which helped cement the saying in my head.) I am old enough to remember the days when you would eagerly wait for your reviews in the newspaper. Now, of course, if you’re feeling masochistic you can just go and read them on Amazon or Goodreads or Google your name. There was an actual account on Twitter called “Do Not Go To Goodreads” aimed at authors, and very sensible advice it was too.

It sounds like I don’t believe in criticism, which is not the case at all.

As a screenwriter and script editor my work is criticised daily and often very bluntly (“I don’t know what to say…this script is boring. Really, really boring. It’s just…bad”). I’ve noticed that the criticism in the literary world is so much more diplomatic than the TV world, which amused me no end when I was finally published. I’ve heard that there are authors who point blank refuse to be edited, and authors that editors are too scared to criticise.

Amazon Review of Things Unseen
Amazon Review of Things Unseen

Obviously, one needs to have an editor one trusts but ultimately, they are there to make your work better, so it seems crazy to refuse to take their advice. What surprised me when I first landed my literary agent in the UK (we have since consciously uncoupled), was how collaborative the process was. A literary agent spends a lot of time throwing ideas around with a client and then working on the manuscript before it ever lands up anywhere near a publisher. And there’s a good reason for that, because once all the publishers have read your piece of brilliance and passed on it, that’s it, your manuscript is consigned to the Drawer of Shame.

Something I’ve learnt during this pandemic about my own writing, is that I need to stop rushing the process.

Perhaps, it’s something we’ve all learnt during this time. Timelines that are appropriate for TV, are not appropriate for film or for fiction. Even with my TV writing, I will write a script quickly and then take a few days to revise it, letting the work breathe between edits. This is the approach I use for most of my writing, I need to get that shitty first draft down and then the work needs to ferment.

Of course, during this lockdown I’ve also had the feeling of ‘who cares about my stupid film/book/TV show?’  – in light of people dying and losing their jobs, writing feels rather pointless. Not being able to spend time with friends and extended family has also focused the mind on what is truly important, which I think brings me rather neatly back to where I started.


Kindness is important (books, red wine and coffee are also important but kindness is importanter.) And trashing someone’s work is not kind. If you are a professional reviewer, there is no need to utterly crush someone, criticism should always be constructive, and if you read for pleasure, writers do value your feedback, so please do leave reviews on Amazon or Goodreads or social media. Just preferably not a one star review – as you may land up being named after the corpse in the author’s next book OR being stalked by the irate author who then turns the whole experience into a book. And no, I did not just make that up, it really happened:

You have been warned…

Recommended read for this week: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It’s been around for a while but it’s just won Crime and Thriller Book of the Year at the Nibbies (the Brit Book Awards) so give it a go if you like your murder dished up with a dash of humour.

My Sister The Serial Killer
My Sister, The Serial Killer

Recommended film on box office: Griekwastad – I found the book by Jacques Steenkamp (The Griekwastad Murders) stomach-churningly intriguing and I think the film is a fine piece of work.

Die Griekwastad Moorde
Die Griekwastad Moorde
The Griekwastad Murders Book
The Griekwastad Murders Book

Happy reading! xxx