Don’t Ask for Harsh Criticism

Let’s expedite this pain, shall we? Let’s get it all out in the open as fast as possible—yank off the Band-Aid and get it over with. We don’t need to dilly-dally around my feelings.

That’s the very valid reasoning behind the request “Just give it to me, blunt, doctor.” Many people, especially beginning writers, will start their first day by telling everyone they need to be “harsh,” “blunt,” and “merciless.” Often this is proceeded by them admitting, “I know my writing is not very good.”

But there’s a lot of reasons not to do this, including the results that come from a person who has permission to be harsh is going to often be exactly the opposite of what you wanted.

1. Despite what people will tell you, giving criticism can be a selfish experience.

When you walk into a room about to be criticized, expect for people to be good, helpful, and to have fun. I’ve found that just by acting positive, assuming the best, and behaving as though the group is the way you want them to be, you improve behaviors and attitudes all around. Take charge of the room with a thoughtful, confident, and respectful air and you will tend to find others will follow suit.

However, it is important to not delude yourself with this optimism and pretend like everyone is your friend. In fact, even those who genuinely desire to help you improve probably have some sort of selfish motivation for at least being there if not the actual speaking part.

Most times, whether it be a writers group or a classroom setting, the other people are there to receive feedback. You will often catch someone who has nothing to say forcing themselves to come up with some sort of criticism because, legitimately, they know how useless it is for you to hear, “It was good.” At first I would find myself confused by people who would seem really fixated on something that didn’t matter, fully aware they weren’t being malicious or competitive, until someone pointed out, “They’re just looking for anything to say.”

Sometimes (often) you’ll encounter people who really aren’t into the feedback session or are sort of apathetic about helping you get better. Against what everyone says, they aren’t there to help you improve, but help themselves improve. Their criticism might still be very good, but you have to be aware of that possibility, especially when confused by strange attitudes.

More importantly, not only are some people uninterested in your career, there are those who your skills and talent directly infer with their own validation. Many come to get feedback not to be criticized but praised. We’ve all met one. We’ve all been one at some point. Some even attend because they enjoy giving criticism. They enjoy the empowerment of being listened to, the catharsis of saying what they think and people being required to hear them out. It may be even the more neutral joy of an intellectual dissection of a work. Sometimes they’re just sadists who actually get a kick out of hurting people. You will be dealing with people who directly benefit from your book sucking.

Which is not to suggest that they’ll be sabotaging you by deliberately giving bad advice. I’m sure it happens, though I’ve never seen it personally. It’s important because motivation strongly affects the kinds of advice you’re going to get, and when you give someone permission to be harsh, you are giving them permission to stop censoring their strongest desires and just let loose every thought they’ve had.

You might think that that’s a good thing.

2. Harsh criticism is less objective and more superficial.

Your friend has a weight problem. Your friend is severely unhappy. She asks you what she can do to change that.

She tells you to be honest. So you spit out, “Go on a diet!”

There. Done. She has heard it, now she knows. Now she can start working on it and be happy, right?

Do you think that every “fat” person who lost weight is always suddenly happy?

Now let’s say, instead, you were determined to be diplomatic. You knew she was sensitive about her size and you considered how could you say it gently. You start asking questions. “How’s your love life? How’s your family life? How’s your home? How’s your job? How do you like yourself?”

By this approach, instead of just announcing your opinion, you can hear her side of things. For starters, if her weight is truly her biggest issue, she’s more likely to admit that conclusion to herself, making it easier for her to swallow. But more importantly, her weight is your biggest problem with her, it’s the flaw in her life that you easily see. It may just be that from her perspective it genuinely doesn’t matter, or even she wants it that way. But even more likely, there are deeper, more important issues than just her size. It may be that her weight issues come from something more, that though they exacerbate a problem they’re not the cause,  or there is a separate bigger deal at hand. In any case, the core issue needs to be found.

Even if she too didn’t like being overweight and would like to change that, she is coming to someone else for advice and probably doesn’t need to be told she’s fat. If anything, she needs convincing it really is important, or as to how to fix it. In many cases though, writing off the most obvious issues as being the biggest problems aren’t the same as going in depth and realizing that she lacks control over her life or feels everyone hates her.

Now I know what you’re thinking. What’s the big deal if she does manage to get thin? It’s healthier at least. And that’s often the case in writing. Typos matter, so what if someone chooses to focus all of his attention on that. Once you get rid of it, then you can turn to other issues, right?

Except that even if the critic’s perspective is the same as the writer’s and they both agree it is a problem, (or at least the audience will pretty much agree with them), people asked for harsh criticism to make the process go by faster and to get advice they can’t have on their own. Anyone can notice someone’s weight or a typo or the use of adverbs and prologues, so when someone spends all of their time complaining about the most obvious issues, they are actually wasting both parties’ time. And if the writer feels like that’s not their biggest concern, that there’s something more to it, they’ll often write the harsh critic’s opinion off as being superficial and stupid. If he’d given her more credit and considered other alternatives, she might eventually listen when he still concluded something superficial was important.

When you get harsh criticism, you get a lot of pet peeves and personal preferences. You will have a twenty-minute conversation about whether or not you should use slightly or lightly and ignore the fact that a gun disappeared mid-scene. The critic doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t consider your view point, and doesn’t choose their words carefully. They notice your weight, but refuse to ask themselves if that’s a just symptom of a larger issue.

3. It’s not always what they really think.

Part of the reason people want harsh criticism is they think the critic will just be saying what others were too nice to admit. The idea is, of course, that they don’t want someone from refraining saying something, and that all of those nitpicky, shallow ideas and pet peeves are important.

Which they can very well be. Even if something is shallow it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be a problem for other readers. Generally, harsh critics are being upfront about what they honestly care about even if it should be stupid or disrespectful or inane. As we all know, people’s shallowness and pet peeves aren’t going to go away any time soon and need to be considered.

The critic’s opinion is important, even if just a piece of the puzzle. The hardest thing to admit is when something that shouldn’t be relevant is highly influential. Many of us have been stubborn about something superficial or restrictive until we finally admitted we just didn’t want it to be true. It’s likely that their limited scope is true for someone else as well, and you might find that you’re the one not being honest with your feelings.

So, it’s a good thought if it was the whole story. Yet because there are selfish motivations behind criticism, their “honest opinion” can sometimes really just whatever they already wanted to believe. It’s a confirmation bias. Someone might very well decide your book sucks before reading it and then look for anything to prove that, rather than objectively seeing it for what it is. A competitive feedbacker may just scan a page for anything noticeable and then find any argument why it doesn’t work. While he’s not abjectly lying, he is blowing something out of proportion, misleading the author, or simply using bullshit to prove a point.

It can be confusing when someone comes off as angry or disgusted about something seemingly small. As the writer, you feel like you’re missing something; what makes them care so much? Many times you’ll find yourself saying, “Why does that matter?” or asking, “Are you just telling me not to do it because it’s a ‘rule’?”

What does that have to do with harsh criticism? The idea that a blunt critic is saying “what everyone’s thinking” isn’t necessarily the case. Any criticism, blunt or not, may not be the speaker’s true feeling. If they’re looking to find something that’s wrong, they’ll find it. This can mean they’ll try to strip you of anything colorful, homogenizing your work until it’s nothing more than a nice suburban household with a white picket fence.

And what’s worse, if once you asked for harsh feedback, there’s not much you can say.

4. You have removed your privilege of discussion.

People tell you not to defend yourself, that the proper way to respond to criticism is to smile and say thank you. I will tell you don’t be an asshole, that the proper way to respond to criticism is to try and figure out where they’re coming from through a myriad of tactics available to you. That often means having a discussion.

And usually, if the writer is polite, diplomatic, and respectful, if she listens to the answers, this works well. For a criticism to be effective, the critic needs to feel encouraged to speak his mind and stand by his opinions, while at the same time the writer can voice her concerns and retain her vision unless convinced otherwise. Neither party should get offended when the other doesn’t immediately agree with them, but rather think carefully about what is being said and try to find the best conclusion.

When you ask for harsh criticism, for one thing, it means the speaker doesn’t have to explain himself, and he probably won’t. We learn that explaining ourselves leaves us open to argument, and it’s much easier to just tell someone what to do then to explain why.

In a normal situation it’s difficult to ask questions. English speakers tend to see honest questions as an act of weakness and so we avoid them. Most times when posed with some sort of query, it is rhetorical. If you tell me I need to set up the scene more and I say, “Why?” it’s likely that I mean, “No I don’t.” If I genuinely mean, “I don’t immediately understand what purpose that serves, but I think you have your reasons, could you go into detail?” I have to very carefully choose my words to not sound like I’m just arguing with them.

Then you get into situations when you do disagree with them, but you’re not positive if you’re being egotistical or not so you want to talk it out to be sure, or you disagree with their solution but you still want to brainstorm and come up with another.

Debating is the best way to digest information. It’s a faster way to prove yourself wrong, it’s a more effective way to understand your writing and your readers. Most times you’re not going to want to make the change someone suggests (or not only that change), but it doesn’t mean the criticism is useless all together.

Yet it is difficult any time you get new feedbackers to work with. When you haven’t said, “I want harsh criticism,” you have more range in how to respond to the criticism. Even a harsh, “You’re being rude,” will gain more traction than after you’ve told them you could take it.

Once you say, “I want harsh criticism,” it becomes harder for you to admit that you don’t understand what they mean or see what they’re talking about.

Because when dealing with new critics, any response is going to be considered sensitive, but now, after insisting you wanted it blunt, you’ve revoked that right to take it poorly, which means there’s really nothing you can say at all.

Once you give someone permission to be harsh, you’re giving them permission to state whatever pops into their head without having to prove or consider it. Let’s be fair; it might be great advice. And it might be just what you needed to hear. Sometimes diplomacy takes too long and is too convoluted when an honest, flat out admission gets the message across. Yet you would have to be able to recognize its truth and completely understand what they really meant for it to be useful without any follow up. Even opinions that are dead on can be misunderstood or overly simplified. I’ve gotten a lot of good advice that, when told to me quickly and succinctly, I couldn’t comprehend (or even thought was stupid.) Then when you add in that it might be off-base or selfishly motivated, it becomes even more important to say, “Can you explain more?”

Plus, let’s face it, it’s really hard to judge the credibility of an asshole.

5.  It’s really hard to judge the credibility of an asshole.

The easiest criticism to take is from someone whom you have mutual respect for each other. There are those who I love getting feedback from, those I leave with a flurry of red notes and yet am pumped, inspired, and excited. It’s fun to talk to them, mostly because it is more of a discussion of ideas and solutions and reactions than it is a series of demands.

The second easiest criticism to take is from an asshole who is right.

It is relatively simple to push your ego aside if you realize you’re wrong, yet have fun trying to get your ego out of the way to figure it out. I would rather get some genius who behaves as an absolute jerk than a kind person who ends up wrong half the time because, for me, figuring out the truth is the hardest part of the job.

Imagine someone who likes you, who loves your writing, and who proves correct so much of the time you would just about take their advice blind. If uncertain, you’d err on trusting them. When they tell you, “I just hated that Frank character. I mean hated him and not in a good way. The book would be so much better if you just found a way to cut him all together,” you don’t get offended and so it is easy to really think about what they’re saying without getting demoralized.

You’re less likely to villainize someone who has always been considerate of your feelings, and even if you try to find reasons why they’re just being malicious, you’re more likely to know you’re reaching.

Then imagine someone who said, “You think Frank is so cute. It’s so obvious you have a boner for him. He’s not funny. I can’t even imagine how you would find him funny. He’s just a dumbass. Writing like that makes me wish I’d never learned to read.”

If you trusted this guy, for whatever reason, this would still make you want to punch him in the face, but then it becomes a matter of licking your wounds. You can, at least, get to work because it’s probably true.

Now imagine it was someone who you kind of thought was an idiot. Even one that you are pretty sure he’s an idiot. If you recognize your bias against him, when he sits there and reprimands you with insults, your initial reaction will be, “You’re wrong!” but how can you be sure that you just don’t want to believe he’s wrong because he’s being a dillhole?

I’ve been in that situation more times than I’ve checked Facebook today. When you’re dealing with someone who you don’t trust completely and you don’t like, it’s incredibly hard to tell if it’s your ego telling you something’s wrong or your instinct. My worse feedback session was from a woman who gave me some fantastic advice along with some of the most idiotic responses I’d ever received. She was savvy and smart, but rude and snobby, having a disdain for me and my genre. She too played dumb and would act like she didn’t understand something when what she probably really meant was, “This is a cliché,” or “You’re over writing.” She’d been accused by many for having a pretentious attitude and a reputation for being fake. The rest of her notes were more ambiguous or vague. “SIMPLIFY EVERYTHING!”

When someone is treating you like crap, when they are deliberately ignoring your goals and vision, or even outright claiming you are stupid for having them, when every choice you make is being scrutinized, possibly for no other reason than he wants you to be terrible, you become very biased against them.

Even if you try to compensate for that bias, you can do a 180. Now instead of coming up with any reason he’s wrong, you come up with any reason he’ll be right, and you can’t always tell what arguments are bullshit and which ones are something you genuinely believe.

Because of this, the same criticism can be greatly affected by how it is given. If someone is trying to be respectful, giving you credit, and genuinely looking for good answers to your problem, even if they are competitive, even if they are confusing, even if they’re saying something you don’t want to hear, at least you’re not conflicted by your desire to show them up.

You’re going to receive harsh feedback at some time in your life. It’s important to take it with dignity and professionalism, sure. It very well could be helpful. It might even be necessary. Yet harsh doesn’t mean good, blunt doesn’t mean honest, and letting yourself be insulted doesn’t make you good at taking criticism. Before requesting harsh feedback, ask yourself what do you really want? Thorough? Honest? Or maybe to get the pain over with fast? Be direct about what you’re truly looking for and you’re more likely to find it. When you tell someone, “I want harsh criticism,” you’re not encouraging them to give you their best, you’re encouraging them to vomit all their emotions on you, even the ones that have nothing to do with your work.

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