Constructive Criticism, ‘Constructive’ Criticism, and Varying Mileage.

Okay, so I ranted a bit yesterday about a particularly noxious piece of feedback. I don’t want to give the impression that I think I shouldn’t be criticized – I should, and I am, and usually I can take it with little more than a wince and a grumble even though I hate it with the fiery passion of any sensitive egotist.

But I hate being condescended to. Oh, do I hate being condescended to. Nothing sends me into a fit of incandescent rage faster than being talked down to. And feedback along the lines of ‘oh, well, it was a super try and all, but you really didn’t do this thing to my standards and I think it would have been much better if you’d done it this other way, I know you’ll be grateful for my sage advice’ makes me personally want to reach through my monitor and rip the condescender’s face off with my fingernails.

This has caused some friction between me and my husband, now and then. He was raised in a family where criticism should be phrased ‘nicely’, whereas I grew up in two households that placed the highest value on reasoned plain speaking. So the few times he’s ventured gentle criticism, he’s wound up clutching at his verbal evisceration and wondering what the hell just happened.

In this, of course, as in everything, your mileage not only may vary, but will vary enormously. Some people are sufficiently emotionally mature and stable to shrug this stuff off, and I envy them. Some people, who think direct criticism is horrifyingly rude, would no doubt think that the email I received – and I’m not going to repost that specific one, because among other things I’m not actually mentioning here what name I write fic under – was phrased the way it was in an attempt to be nice. It’s just barely possible that it was, even, though I have trouble believing that anyone can be that smugly condescending without doing it on purpose.

But there are also a lot of people out there who use the phrase ‘constructive criticism’ as a means of justifying being unpleasant. Most writers of fan-fiction have probably gotten one of those missives at one point or another, the sweetly critical ‘now, dear, I know you don’t know any better, but you made some big mistakes and I’m just pointing them out to help you because you clearly NEED my help, so here’s my suggestion for how you can be better’ stuff that’s laced with a few feeble compliments and carefully phrased so that any negative response can be brushed off with a claim that the author is being oversensitive or, horrors, cannot take ‘constructive’ criticism.

It’s the exact same tactic used by a particular kind of bully – the ones who will, at work or school or in a writer’s group or wherever you find them, very gently run you down while asserting their own greater knowledge and correctness, over and over again, leaving you feeling powerless to protest because those carefully chosen words are never quite offensive enough to make a complaint sound legitimate to an outsider. It’s insidious, and it’s horrible. And it is hard to explain to anyone else that nebulous line between being ‘nice’ and being Dolores Umbridge, because when you describe it to someone else it never sounds that bad.

Sometimes you aren’t even sure yourself when it happens, because maybe you are being oversensitive and maybe they are just trying to be nice and getting it a little bit wrong and maybe they are right and you should just do what they say. And then you feel small and stupid and powerless and awful and start questioning yourself about everything.

Again, mileage on this subject varies enormously. But personally, this would be my definition of constructive versus ‘constructive’ criticism.

Constructive: Reasoned criticism of the story.

‘Constructive’: Emotive or condescending criticism of the story and the author.

I am sometimes upset but never offended by someone who says ‘This character’s behaviour in this instance seemed dubious to me because of this other thing from canon and the likelihood of X’ or even ‘this event seemed to come kind of out of left field, what was up with that’, and the upset often comes from realizing that either they are right, or that I didn’t make what I was doing clear enough and caused a misunderstanding. I am both upset and offended by someone who says ‘oh, sweetie, it’s a shame you got this so badly wrong, let me give you my own personal opinion with no reasoning or sources provided because I’m clearly right and you’re clearly wrong’. The first assumes that I am a rational human being who can examine her own work and criticism thereof with some sort of objectivity, the second assumes that I should be told what to do by someone ‘wiser’ than I am and that I should be grateful for it.

From what I’ve read, pros get even more of this stuff than fan-fic authors do. There’s always someone who seems to genuinely think that their opinion is so damn important and brilliant that someone who’s spent months or years hammering out tens of thousands of words is going to drop everything and rewrite the lot just because His Or Her Gracious Majesty has deigned to point out where they have gone terribly wrong. I do not know that Ms Duane or Mr Scalzi actually wish to punch the Gracious Majesty in the face when this happens, but then I don’t claim to be on par with either of them.

I’m not sure where to really go with this. It’s a thing that happens, it really bothers me, but it’s incredibly hard to explain and the people who would benefit from being told all this are the very people who would never, ever listen because His Or Her Gracious Majesty is right and I am wrong, wrong, wrong. And oversensitive.

I guess what I want to say is that if this has happened to you, you’re not alone, you weren’t exaggerating, and it’s okay to be upset. If it hasn’t, it might, so be ready and try not to take it to heart too much. And if you’re trying to be nice about criticism, ask yourself ‘Is this how Dolores Umbridge would say this?’ and if it is, a rewrite is in order.


6 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism, ‘Constructive’ Criticism, and Varying Mileage.

  1. Hmm, you’ve got me worried about my feedback talk. I always try to be kind and understanding when I critique anything, although I don’t *think* I ever put my opinion forward as infallible and sage advice. Still, I’ll use the Umbridge test in the future.

    I recently left feedback for a blog I follow where the author continually violates a certain grammatical rule in his blog entries. It makes me crazy, and completely ruins the experience of reading his blog. Was telling him this (in not quite those words) the right thing to do, or should I have just stopped following his blog and minded my own business? And was the content of my comment sincere, respectful, and non-confrontational, as I intended it to be, or did it come across as the high-minded condescension of telling him how to write his blog?

    There’s a lot of mileage, as you said. The sneaky, bullying criticism you describe sounds pretty awful, though, and I hope you have to deal with as little of it as possible in the future!

    • Honestly, intent usually does come across. If you’re trying to make your point tactfully, it won’t usually slide over into sounding condescending, I think. I can usually tell the difference between someone trying to be tactful and talking down to me. (Ask any little kid – they can usually tell the difference really easily between someone talking down to them because they’re little and someone genuinely trying to communicate) Criticism is always tough to phrase, and I’m sorry if I made it harder! But really, if you’re wondering about it, you’re probably fine – as I said, the people who really should hear this wouldn’t.

      Pointing out a grammatical goof is usually not prone to this, too, as it’s not something that’s based entirely on your judgement. There’s a big difference between telling someone that they’re misusing quote marks for ’emphasis’, and telling them their characterization is bad – one is to some extent a matter of personal taste, one decidedly is not!

  2. This worries me because I often get accused of being patronising just because my speech (and writing) patterns are those of an educated Brit. So I try to sound less formal and get accused of taking the piss instead. If you think somebody’s being deliberately patronising, just explain to them politely why they’re talking out of their arse..

    • Oh, God. Dialectic differences are a whole other barrel of troublesome monkeys, and I’ve fallen foul of those too. But you’re very good about providing the reasoning behind criticism, which to me makes a big difference. What sets me off are critiques based solely on the critic’s personal taste, where I am ‘wrong’ or ‘mistaken’ because I didn’t write it the way they think I should have, without any reasoning presented beyond ‘it would be better if’. They often include criticism of the writer as a person, too, which is definitely not something you do. This particular piece of feedback featured the phrase ‘your biggest mistake was’ followed by a lordly pronouncement on the value of my point and my ‘poor’ characterization that had no basis whatsoever in the canon. I wanted to bite his fingers off. (I’m pretty sure it was a guy, from the phrasing)

      And don’t even get me started on the threats. I don’t know where people get the idea that ‘playfully’ threatening a writer with death or physical assault if they don’t write faster or change something is cute, but it really bugs me (and when they threaten to ‘hunt me down’ actually worries me).

  3. Pingback: Getting Serious About: Your Response to Criticism | Season for Getting Serious

  4. Pingback: Cryptoquote Spoiler – 04/04/13 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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