How Not To Be A D-ck When Giving Crit

Posted by in am writing, the process

(That rhyme was completely unintentional.)

This seemed like a natural follow-up to my last post so I don’t get accused of harboring a bias.

Anyone who wants to grow in their craft (keyword here is wants) needs to realize that everything they make isn’t going to be perfect right out of the box. That in itself can be a tough pill to swallow, but one that’s only made worse by people offering “help” that is anything but helpful. I’m not expert on the subject and I’m certainly not an advocate for a never ending praise machine, but here are a few bits of advice that myself and other content creators wish more people would know.

And it’s worth saying these are based on our experiences and, yes, opinions, so your opinions might vary and that’s completely fine.

The Difference Between Criticism and Critique

Most people intend to give the critique, but wind up criticizing because they don’t know the difference (giving the benefit of the doubt that most people aren’t just a-holes). Some of the dictionary definition of criticism (for the purpose of this article) is as follows:

  1. the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
  2. the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.

The usage most people think they’re carrying out is this one which fits in more with the general idea of critique: the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc. But most people aren’t qualified to do this which leads into the next point.

Your Opinion Isn’t As Important As You Think It Is

Creating something (worthwhile) and choosing to share it with people, whether it be in a small group, through fan fiction or publishing is an exhausting, soul bearing process for a lot of people. The last thing they need is to be kicked by someone they’ve chosen to share this with when they’re probably already feeling vulnerable.

If someone wants to know your thoughts on their work, they’ll invite you to give it. There are exceptions to this point as well as every point made in this post (or anything said anywhere ever) but generally, it seems like it would be better to refrain from putting in your two cents (that aren’t even worth that much) until you’re asked for it. UNLESS the work is posted some place that encourages such an exchange such as fan fiction sites or art sharing sites that have places to leave comments or reviews for this very purpose. Sites like Amazon and retailers review functions are more for helping other potential customers/readers than the creator.

That isn’t to say that you can’t have an opinion on a work. It’s just that the opinion is yours, just yours, and likely only really important to you. Contrary to popular belief, opinions can be wrong when based on incorrect information or influenced by bias. It’s you’re right to have your opinion for right or wrong. But no one has to validate it or you, least of all the content creator.

You Probably Aren’t An Expert, So…

Unless you’re well versed in the type of work being presented, an in depth analysis what’s being asked for you. When I hand over a prerelease copy of my work to someone (usually a nonwriter) for their perusal (and requested feedback) I’m looking for readability. Does the humor come through? Is it stale? Was it an enjoyable/informative read? Things anyone could tell just by reading. If I wanted it to be picked apart, I’d post it in a writer’s group with better qualified people and ask for just that.

You may mean well, but talking about/giving advice on a subject you likely don’t know much about does more harm than good. Misinformation is worse than saying nothing at all. If you really want to be a help, be honest. Nothing’s more helpful than the truth. If you do happen to be an expert, then this isn’t for you. You probably don’t even need to read any of this.

Stay Objective

Everything you read isn’t going to be tailor-made for you. There are going to be characters, themes, subjects, settings, that you just don’t find appealing. When faced with something like this from someone who trusted you enough to ask your opinion, focusing on your dislike of the offending part of it is the wrong way to go about it.

If it’s so disagreeable that you can’t get around it, simply don’t read it. Let the writer know, in a way that you’d want to be informed of such a problem, that you’re going to have to pass. Chances are, they’ll understand. If you do choose to read it, you can’t use the fact that you don’t like something as a valid critique. It’s not about your individual tastes. For example: a story focuses around dogs and you’re a cat person. You can’t/shouldn’t knock the story for not catering to your animal preference.

Don’t Make It Personal

Every interpersonal relationship goes through highs and lows. If you and Jill are at odds with each other, now might not be the best time to thumb through that manuscript she sent you weeks ago you’ve been putting off. Without meaning to, your feelings can bleed into your critique and make you come across as more critical and scathing than you meant to.

You Might Just Be A Dick

If none of the above concerns matter to you, you think people should have a thicker skin, etc., you might just be a dick. I hope no one ever asks for your advice in anything. This post likely can’t help you.

Is There No Way To Give Helpful Critique/Advice?

Of course there is. Here are a few things that are appreciated when receiving a critique, especially from someone you know personally.

  • For everything you dislike, you should be able to name something you did like.
  • Objectivity.
  • Acknowledge that at the end of the day, the decision to heed your advice or discard it is up to the creator. It’s their work–not yours. It not a commentary on you, your worth or your intelligence.
  •  Understanding and consideration for the time and effort that went into what you’re talking about. It means more to the creator than it does to you.

Failing all of the above, at the very least, ask yourself before you comment: Does this make me sound like a dick?

Advice given should be constructive, meant to help the recipient grow. Not to serve as a platform for you to voice your feelings. It’s hard to know the difference. If you can’t recommend an alternative to whatever you have an issue with our explain yourself, you might have to ask yourself if you’re guilty of one of the above things or if you’re just being nitpicky.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

If you disagree, agree, whatever with anything I’ve mentioned above, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Photo credit to Anthony Indraus 
Thanks to Henry and Jenn for sharing their input