Friday, February 14, 2014

Giving Criticism on the Internet

Before you start wondering if this is going to be an egotistical hissy fit about me being wronged by some foolish moron who doesn’t deserve to walk the Earth let alone read, I’ll have you know that’s for other posts.

While going through Stumbleupon, I came across website with a full header and comment section, which read, “URL does not exist.” I thought it was weird—probably my browser—before I looked at the comment and realized what had happened.

The college writing student had posted an essay to be read by the populace, and here’s the singular response he got:

[sic]

Well, it's got the emotion certainly, but the language is purple as a bruise, and the imagery a little confusing and unclear. I think maybe your language is muddying the water and getting in the way of what's happening. You can be emotional without being distracting
"I saw ... whole tides of sadness run atop her quavering glare..." What's a "quavering glare"? You glare at someone and your eyes shake? A glare's a look. How does sadness run atop a look? It's kind of a jarring image.
"I lost all fervour [sp]. All rage dissolved, fell and burst away as autumn leaves." Okay. The image starts out as energy draining away from you. That's good. But then you blow that draining away feeling by telling us it "burst away as autumn leaves." I don't know what that means. Autumn leaves don't burst where I come from. It sounds like you suddenly threw a tantrum or had an outburst.
And then you've got this space you "built" between you. Is "built" the best verb? Because then you're left with "tearing [that space] all back down," and the image of tearing down a space is a little weird. Spaces get filled up, not torn down.
I'd consider starting a new paragraph with "I'd broken her...", which is kind of the meat of the whole passage and deserves to be , and I'd remove the comma between "her" and "with my truth." Lose the half-quotes around "ok" and change it to "okay". Everyone knows what making something okay means. Change "cheekbone" to "cheek". Cheekbone sounds funny and you don't really want to feel her hair against your bones. And you have a tense mismatch between "I had broken her..." (past perfect) and "And yet all I wanted was.." (past tense). It should be, "And yet all I'd wanted was..." The way it's written now makes it sound like you'd been wanting to reach out and make her okay before you broke her.
But hey, it's good, and I don't mean to discourage you. I just happen to be a sonofabitch as a critic, which is kind of a curse. I'm even harder on my own stuff. My advice: Story, story, story. Tell the story first and worry about language and style and imagery later.



For those of you who would a more clear criticism on this criticism, let’s break it down:


Well, it's got the emotion certainly, but the language is purple as a bruise, and the imagery a little confusing and unclear.
“Well.”

I don’t know about you, but I can hear the sigh of exhaustion as he readies himself to deal with this story. This word has it all. The negativity, the condescension, the nonchalant coolness that comes from being a badass. Having it gives no benefit. At best, I would ignore it. At worst, it says you're disappointed in the author.

The critic is trying for the “sandwich technique,” where you give good criticism, bad criticism, then good again. I don’t like this method personally because it’s often obvious that’s what’s happening, and, in situations like these, spending three seconds on the compliment and twenty minutes on the negative does nothing.

Especially because the phrasing of the compliment ruins any of the positivity. If we were to take it out of context, and that’s all we were to say—“Well, it’s got the emotion certainly.”—would you really think he was complimenting you? It sounds backhanded to me, like there’s too much emotion. Which, considering how the rest of the comment goes, I think is exactly what he’s saying.

As for “purple bruise,” the whole sentence does nothing the next won’t do better. There are a lot of reasons why using clichĂ© advice is less efficient, so I’ll just stick with these: It sounds like he’s trying to “win the competition” by being clever and well-read (in terms of literary criticism), and, from that point on, I’m not sure if he’s saying what he feels in that specific context, or was looking for what he was already told to think.

Lastly, the word “but” generally suggests, “Everything I just said was a lie.” Considering he’s using the sandwich method, and forcing himself to make a compliment, I’m sure that’s the case.

I think maybe your language is muddying the water and getting in the way of what's happening. You can be emotional without being distracting
“A little,” “maybe,” “think,” “kind of,” “sort of,” are all phrases people use to soften the blow. But, instead of making it not a big deal, these terms actually make the author feel like it is a bigger deal. When someone acts like he’s trying to soften the blow, the writer wonders why he thinks it’s supposed to hurt that bad, so, the writer thinks he’s missing something. Uncertainty hurts more than any bluntness could.

Again, for the third time, the critic says the same thing, still poetic about it. There is a certain irony in “your language is muddying the water,” that vindictive assholes might pounce on. But I’m too good for that. “Your imagery is a little confusing and unclear,” is the simplest and least insulting way to say it, and you’ll notice, also the least clever. If he had only said that, his criticism would have been blunt, but not condescending.

Rule of thumb when it comes to “quantifiers,” try to find the word that implies the exact magnitude. Especially when you don’t want to sound offensive, because saying, “a little confused,” sounds more like, “How do I not be an asshole about saying it’s confusing?” rather than, “It’s not that confusing.”

Here’s how to not sound like an asshole, by the way:

1. Be careful about using “your” or “you.” These sound like attacks. You did this. You did that. It’s pointing a finger of blame rather than trying to solve a problem. It's the difference between, "How did you wreck the car?" and "What happened?"

2. Say, “I feel,” instead of, “It is.” By stating the imagery is confusing, it implies it absolutely is, which is insulting (so the desire to say, “Only a little!”) First, you may be wrong, but, more importantly, acknowledging you may be wrong makes it less about the competition and more about the conversation. When someone gives the author an escape route, the author is more likely to stick around and actually listen.

"I saw ... whole tides of sadness run atop her quavering glare..." What's a "quavering glare"? You glare at someone and your eyes shake? A glare's a look. How does sadness run atop a look? It's kind of a jarring image.
Another pet-peeve of mine is when people say they don’t get it. Unless it is, “I truly have absolutely no idea what you’re saying here,” it’s helpful to be really specific about what you don’t understand.

In this case, (in the opinion of the critic), the desired image isn’t actually what the author said, and the critic is attempting to point out the sloppiness of it. Fine, that’s reasonable. Except that’s not an issue of understanding, that’s an issue of… grammar? I guess.

When I read a lot of criticisms on other people’s work, this comes up a lot. The critic says he doesn’t understand, but what he really means can be anywhere from, “It took me a moment to figure it out,” to “That’s not actually what you said,” to “I don’t agree with you.” I’ve seen it used in multiple ways, and the problem is each has their own solution.

And as to, “What’s a quavering glare?” the issue is not that the author used it wrong, but that he and the critic understood the definition of the word differently. This happens all the time, and it’s a very complicated issue because, often, neither side is technically incorrect. Sometimes one interpretation is more common than the other (and it could be either side's interpretation) and sometimes it doesn't really matter. The author was viewing a glare as a facial expression where the critic believed it was an expression limited to the eyes. A “quavering glare,” would mean the whole face is trembling to the writer.

As people say, you can’t explain it to an audience, but you can’t guarantee that the critic’s point of view is the one most cohesive with the majority. He might have the warped perception. Considering his next sentence is, “A glare’s a look,” he clearly believes he’s the norm.

Don’t tell me the obvious. Don’t tell me what I did. Obviously the problem is not him knowing what a glare is, so telling him what it is does nothing except make it sound like you think he’s an idiot.

Again, if he just said the third and fifth sentences, he would have expressed his point well and unarguably. “I picture a quavering glare as glaring at someone when your eyes shake, but I know that’s not right, so I was jarred out of the scene trying to picture it.”

"I lost all fervour [sp]. All rage dissolved, fell and burst away as autumn leaves." Okay. The image starts out as energy draining away from you. That's good. But then you blow that draining away feeling by telling us it "burst away as autumn leaves." I don't know what that means. Autumn leaves don't burst where I come from. It sounds like you suddenly threw a tantrum or had an outburst.
“Okay.” Another sigh of exasperation. I’m sorry I’m putting you through such a trial.

“That’s good.” Sure, the way he phrased it is condescending, but I will say it’s helpful to let people know when you are complimenting them or insulting them. It’s not always obvious.

“But then you blow that draining away…” You made a mistake. Bad dog. What were you thinking, idiot?

Of course that’s not what he’s saying, but there’s a good chance that’s how the author will hear it. It’s the tone I heard, even, and I’m an objective third-party. (Okay, by this point, I wasn’t so objective, but still.)

“I don’t know what that means.” I follow a critique blog where the blogger uses it over and over again, and by the end—though I was on her side in the beginning—I started to truly consider that she might be stupid. Right now, I don’t really know what the author meant by “burst away as autumn leaves,” either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t speculate. By saying, "I'm picturing you mean, 'like leaves in the autumn wind," you clarify that he's not an idiot who doesn't know how leaves work, but that you feel the context the author's thinking of needs to be expanded.

“Autumn leaves don’t burst where I come from.” Oh, well, see, that’s clearly the problem here. He comes from a land of exploding leaves. It’s a cultural issue.

“It sounds like you suddenly threw a tantrum or hand an outburst.” By the critic’s phrasing, he clearly doesn’t really think it sounds like that. More like, “My first guess was…” Be specific, be honest. Don’t be condescending. Don't add in extraneous and insincere opinions to prove your point. You'll introduce competition, and the author will feel obligated to oblige you.

And then you've got this space you "built" between you. Is "built" the best verb? Because then you're left with "tearing [that space] all back down," and the image of tearing down a space is a little weird. Spaces get filled up, not torn down.
Alright, back to my personal tastes. Words like “best,” “better,” “good,” “bad,” “worse,” etc. mean different things to different people, especially different situations. The “best” verb to one person might be about the tension, the other might be about the magnitude of the action, another might be all about accuracy of the action itself. “Best” implies that quality is linear, and it isn’t. Subjectivity is a real thing, and it’s a curse. So the more the critic acknowledges it, the more the author can commit to listening to him, otherwise he has to figure out the critic’s perception and how that varies from other readers. If the critic, who is more aware of himself, does it, there is less speculation involved.

“Spaces get filled up, not torn down.” You—and I’m talking to my actual readers here—need to watch out for people who make literal statements like this. I’m not necessarily disagreeing that “tearing down a space is a little weird,” (not necessarily agreeing with it either) but the argument as to what “really happens,” rarely applies to hyperbole and metaphor. Yes, legs don’t scream when they’re tired, blood doesn’t boil, and cats don’t look at you like you’re an idiot (they don't notice you exist). Trying to argue that a metaphor is bad because it isn’t true to reality makes it more about the critic not understanding metaphor rather than addressing the real problem. Again, I know he’s not stupid, but I can’t be certain he isn’t pretending he is. (This is common when people are trying to give “harsh” criticism.)

I'd consider starting a new paragraph with "I'd broken her...", which is kind of the meat of the whole passage and deserves to be , and I'd remove the comma between "her" and "with my truth." Lose the half-quotes around "ok" and change it to "okay". Everyone knows what making something okay means. Change "cheekbone" to "cheek". Cheekbone sounds funny and you don't really want to feel her hair against your bones. And you have a tense mismatch between "I had broken her..." (past perfect) and "And yet all I wanted was.." (past tense). It should be, "And yet all I'd wanted was..." The way it's written now makes it sound like you'd been wanting to reach out and make her okay before you broke her.
Most of this information is fine, as long as the author has the confidence and experience to take it with a grain of salt. The advice seems solid, but it’s still rude. It’s extremely hard to look at an insult objectively. These little nitpicky notes are irritating, mostly because the critic has taken to telling the author how to write, not why he wants him to write that way.

The critic acts as though he knows he’s going to be argued with, making a lot of the hostility. He keeps explaining things which end with him putting his foot in his mouth. “I’d consider starting a new paragraph… which is the meat of the passage,” is enough. I think “deserves to be,” is supposed to be compliment, but I don’t take it that way.

When he starts to get demanding, he stops acknowledging it might be his opinion (and he might be the weird one in the situation), and sounds hostile again. “Lose the half-quotes… change it to okay… change cheekbone.” I’m a big fan of “okay” over “OK,” but they’re both technically correct, and implying that he’s just wrong expresses ignorance or closed-mindedness in the same way that telling someone the Oxford comma has to or should never be there. Now you’re just trying to be superior.

As for the tense mismatch, the last sentence is the most convincing and relevant part, the rest about how it “should” be falling back into the not-necessarily experienced grammar-Nazism.

But hey, it's good, and I don't mean to discourage you. I just happen to be a sonofabitch as a critic, which is kind of a curse. I'm even harder on my own stuff. My advice: Story, story, story. Tell the story first and worry about language and style and imagery later.

“But hey, it’s good.” End sandwich compliment. I’m not convinced. As I’ve told my friends, “I liked it, now here’s what’s wrong with it,” doesn't say to me you liked it.

This conclusion is the worst part of the whole piece. Establishing that you know something is wrong does not negate it. This is true for everything. I once read a book in which the character kept asking stupid things. (She knows magic exists, and yet says, “You’re drawing a picture?” when someone pulls out a piece of chalk to escape from a room.) Later on in the story, the other characters call her out on asking so many questions. It does not change the fact that she asks questions that either mean she’s stupid or the author’s bad at dialogue, all it does is tell me the author knows about them and chose not to fix them.

“I just happen to be a sonofabitch as a critic, which is kind of a curse.” You sound real banged up about it.

You are a sonofabtich. You recognize you’re a sonofabitch, but instead of taking the effort to go through and say things palatably (which does not take that much effort), you commit to the catharsis that is tearing other people apart. Your criticism could have been beneficial, but instead of thinking the most useful way to say them, you pride yourself on your willingness to not throw punches. You’re not one of those “nice” critics other people complain about. No, you’re an asshole. An asshole who led someone to take their work down instead of fixing it. Does that say a successful critique to you?

Sure, it is the author’s fault on some level. But that’s not the whole story. I’ve been in enough criticism sessions to know sometimes all it takes is for the critic to try to be nice, and suddenly the worst baby is enjoying himself. Yes, he should get thicker skin, but that doesn’t mean that the good Doctor shouldn’t put a base amount of consideration in his words.

I know there are people who believe “If you can be demoralized you should be.” I don’t. And while I think getting constructive criticism is vital to the process, it doesn’t have to hurt. Yes, he posted it on the internet, yes he wanted the feedback, and yes, that’s what assholes do. But just because the author should have expected it doesn’t make it okay to deliver.

Nothing in the comment was useful enough to necessitate the full-blown bluntness delivered. The useful part was about as specific as saying, “Simplify everything.” Well, you first, buddy.

Hopefully the writer will keep writing, hopefully he’ll use the criticism to improve his craft. But I see it far more likely that he’s going to stop for a while, never look at that story again, and every time someone uses the term, “purple prose,” or tells him he’s confusing, he’s going to put up walls, be defensive, and be unwilling to consider it. When Dr. Sonofabitch makes an enemy out of you, you’re going to work your ass off to prove him wrong, which does nothing for any party involved.