Five Social Courtesies that Don’t Work in Constructive Criticism

The normal rules of being polite don’t apply to writing as much as we would like. For a lot of beginning authors, their first book is all about breaking those ingrained guidelines and being able to be a sadistic, narcissistic verbal windbag. Good books are all about frustrating the audience, hurting the characters, and expressing those opinions that people don’t want to hear at dinner parties instead of being polite.

But, unlike in novels, in which the conversation is deliberately one-sided, constructive criticism is a two-way street in which the best sessions are about responding and communicating. And yet, people find that the most common courtesies are actually the most offensive in the highly emotional setting.

1. Saying please.

There are three reasons a person would say please:

One, it’s a social tradition. “Please pass the butter.”

Two, they feel like they might have sounded harsh or hostile. “Go get me a pen. Please.”

Three, they really, really want something. “Please let me go to the party, Mom! Please!

None of these apply to giving feedback.

While the word “please” is more commonly used during blanket advice sessions such as writing articles or blogs, I’ve heard it actually spoken as well. The critiquer is talking, and probably has been so for a while, and ends it in, “Please, please don’t do this,” to which the author sits there silently and pretends he’s listening.

“Please don’t use adverbs,” is hard to interpret. Outside of writing, it's not typical to put please in a piece of advice. If Susie is sitting there watching Betty do Betty’s dishes, it would be odd for her to say, “Please rinse them off before you put them in the dishwasher.”

Betty can only interpret that in two ways; Susie said please because she was afraid she was sounding like a bitch, or because it was really important to her that Betty do the dishes right.

In the context of writing—where we are already on the edge of being offended anyway—the author is going to be hurt in either interpretation. When the critic acts like the author should be offended, he’ll just wonder, “Why would I be offended?” If he wasn’t before, he’ll feel like he's missing something, and so will believe the speaker is being more mean than he realizes.

For her to be saying, “Please don’t use so many adverbs,” could just mean that it’s important to her, but that begs the question of why. It implies that it directly benefits her, maybe because she’s really saying, “Please, please don’t make me read anymore adverbs.” It might be the truth, but it’s a pretty hurtful one.

Strangely enough, “Stop using so many damn adverbs,” is less insulting then, “I don’t know if you knew this… but you kind of use a lot of adverbs. Please try cutting down on them.”

2. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes.

The comment I hear a lot is, “Well, I got it, but I don’t know if other people will.”

Generally I try to give my writing out to people who I do think are smart, so I can usually avoid replying, “Good thing you are better at reading than them.”

Critics often want to do their job well, and they legitimately realize that their opinion isn’t as important as what the majority of readers will think, so it is common for people giving feedback to not think about what they think, but what they think other people will think. This also has the added benefit of taking some responsibility off their shoulders. Now they don’t have to express their opinion, but what they imagine other people’s will be.

The problem with it? For one, the author can do that on his own. Yes, maybe the critic is better at it, but then again, maybe not. And in either case, it’s still guesswork, which is why the author wants actual feedback from other people and not just speculation.

Hypothetical people aren’t usually good indicators of opinion. We tend to picture them as dumber, meaner, and less unique than a real individual. Which makes sense because that’s how the individual tends to become in the masses. But when an author is trying to narrow down the already subjective issues, the critic’s own personal opinions—although she is her own unique person with her own unique tastes—are more likely to mesh with fellow readers than her hypothetical view of them.

In a writer’s group, I had a woman tell me that I couldn’t be mysterious because I was writing a Young Adult book (an assumption, by the way), and that my readers were too influenced by the texting and email world to have the attention span.

I said, “YA stands for young adult not young adolescent. The intended age group is late teens to early twenties, meaning that I am a part of the demographic that you are so lovingly referring to. And considering that I managed to pay attention through the entirety of your and my own rant, I think that you might just be off your mark.”

And I am a texter and emailer, and I do have the patience of a two-year-old. And while I wasn’t working on a young adult novel, I do like them. But my biggest problem with them? That most have the writing style of someone who feels they can’t be clever, mysterious, or complicated because I don’t have the attention span. I like the concepts. It’s the simplistic writing will often ruin those concepts.

The problem was that her perception of her readers (she was a young adult writer) was way off, but her actual criticism might not have been. I have the propensity to be confusing and pompous and had she said, “I was so confused I lost interest,” I would have been able to take her seriously (although been pissed she said it that way.) When she told me, however, that she thought people might be confused enough to lose interest, I had no way of telling if she was speculating or projecting.

It’s hard for an author to decipher if a possible problem really is a problem. When the critics keep their own shoes on and say how they feel, it is pretty easy for him, comparatively, to walk around and find out if most people are feeling that way. When writers are taking risks and pushing boundaries, they need specifics. Knowing that they might have gone across the line doesn’t help them. They probably already thought that.

3. Not making everything about yourself.

We all know that guy. The one who, no matter what the subject is, manages to turn everything back onto himself. No one wants to be that guy. He’s annoying and a pain in the ass.

Except that he’s the critic that is the most useful.

Not only does he “stay in his own shoes,” making the criticism clearer and truer, but when the critic talks in about himself and his reactions he won’t be as offensive as if he talks about the author and his “mistakes.”

A lot of criticism comes in the form of, “You did this. Why did you do that?”

Actual criticism I read on a friend’s story: “Why do you keep using ‘the man’? Use his name.

Why are you asking a rhetorical question? Make it a statement.

By making “I feel” statements instead of “You do,” not only is the critic allowing for “This might just be me,” but she’s preventing an argument, which benefits both parties.

“I get confused about who is doing what. Consider using his name more.” The writer can’t argue that she’s confused. He might be able to say that she’s the only one, but that doesn’t make her statement any less true. And this helps him because unlike the first one, in which the problem could be anything—a pet peeve, a confusion issue, a distancing issue, this is just what is obvious, or something that the author can’t even guess—he knows exactly what happened that he might not want.

The problem wasn’t the writer’s action, but the reader’s reaction. It’s not that “you had too many characters,” but that “I was confused because you had too many characters.”

By making the criticism session all about the critic, her opinions become more concrete, more to the point, and clearer to the writer. It is far easier for him to decipher a self-oriented comment than a generalized attack. Having a lot of characters isn’t an issue, but not having a clear picture is.

4. Ignoring the superficial.

People shouldn’t judge books by the cover. Feedback sessions shouldn’t damper styles. The title of the book doesn’t change what the book is. Typos aren’t indicators of quality of concept.

Many critics aren’t trying to be horrible people. They want to be useful and good, and so they do things to try to help the author in the best way they can. But the unfortunate thing is that the critic who is trying to be open minded in a feedback session will ignore the things most important to the readers, or rather, what would be important to her if it had been a random book she’d picked up in the bookstore.

While I respect respecting my artistic integrity, there’s a certain point where that becomes my job, and I would like to at least know about the problems I would be defending, especially because I may not want it to be my style.

By pointing out the stupid things that we shouldn’t care about (but do), the author then has the right to say for himself if that is his style or something he wants to get rid of. Admitting that, though it is irrelevant, the name Freddy is unappealing to me as a sex symbol helps the author be aware what his audience might be thinking and maybe even help him make a decision on something he was already unsure about.

A feedback session needs to contain as much information as possible. And while it is acceptable for the critic to admit, “I know this is stupid,” it doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t say it at all, because many people use superficial and stupid things to judge a story.

5. Keeping your opinion to yourself.

In reading an article about constructive criticism and the Liz Lerman technique, the ending made me nearly fall out of my chair laughing. Written by Jane Friedman, she goes on to explain another woman’s philosophy throughout the entire piece until she comes to the last step:

“Step 4: Opinions

Gosh, I’ve already spilled so much ink on 1-3. Well, what’s to say about opinions?

Oops. Out of time. Got to run.”

Why is this funny to me? Because she’s writing an article about how to give people your feedback and proceeds to use someone else’s opinions throughout. She does manage her own examples, but when she is asked to come up with her own example of an opinion, what does she say?

It’s hard for people to put their mind out in the open, and many constructive sessions fall apart for that very reason. There is nothing I hate more than having someone tell me someone else’s thoughts. I have far more faith in the original words of an idiot than those of a genius through an idiot’s mouth, and I don’t want to hear, “Don’t  use adverbs,” because that’s what your high school teacher told you. I want to hear, “Don’t use adverbs because they’re overcompensating for simplistic verbs,” or whatever.

While many of us feel like no one wants to hear our opinions—if the rants about Facebook politics indicate anything—the reality is that’s why the author is coming to us. He’s looking for a perspective and understanding that he can’t have for himself.

By being able to talk about her own ideas, the critic is giving him what he wants. Sure, she’s opening herself up for rejection and argument, but if he’s a jerk about it, people are already automatically on the critic’s side anyway. And while the person giving feedback has the right to walk away at any point, there are too many people who do it long before the author was ready to stop listening, long before he even argued.

The point to a feedback session is to do what casual society can’t. It is there to help the author understand what he doesn’t like about his work and how to fix it. While in the real world the person who goes about helping people “improve” tends to be a busy-body patronizing prick, when people are looking for improvement, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, by trying too hard not to be that jerk just makes us look like one, and managing to express confidence that we’re not being rude or selfish is exactly what it takes to be helpful.

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