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Critical Commenting

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Who but a writer could do this thing – talk about an art and craft as if he or she had any knowledge whatsoever about that most mercurial of things, using the written word to express and emote. Critics are, in a Satanist sort of manner, writers in and of themselves.

It does leave me to wonder if there are a group of critics who give critical review to the criticism of other writers. I assume there must be, and I hope any critic who lambastes me in any form is allowed to toil away in the darkness of their heart and home, and feel the sting of those “It could have been better” words; but then, as I do, I digress.

Critics are part and parcel of the writer’s or any artist’s world. I am not talking about professional critics, some negative Newsweek review. Ah, but for the chance to read a review of my writing in such a well-read spot, even if the review isn’t fabulous. Just the thought of my writing being reviewed on a national level is, well, hard to beat for an aspiring writer.

I see an unflattering review at that level as being akin to losing the Super Bowl or World Series, or being nominated for a movie award only to have someone else win. Sure, it didn’t go as well as it might, but I made it to the big game. All that means, until someone huge reviews my work or the work of any other author, is that the criticism we need to worry about comes on a much closer-to-home and fundamental level – critical review of each other.

I have seen more than a few writing reviews go from well intentioned exposure of work and a few extra sets of eyes to character assassination of the writer. For some reason, writers or other artists seem all too ready to abandon the golden rule of life: Review unto others as you would have them review unto you.

When you comment on someone’s writing, feel free to express real opinions. Give constructive and occasionally destructive feedback when it will help the work. Be honest, but not brutal. I have a friend who often clarifies she is “letting it all hang out through brutal honesty”. She has lost friends, exposed secret lives, and brutalized other’s worlds, all in the context of brutal honesty.

In light of this, here are a few a few rules to criticize by:

• Always start with a positive. Give some honest statement that you liked a portion of the work – a well turned phrase, a wonderful piece of writing, some attribute of structure, the plot, the setting, something! If you can’t say at least one thing nice about the work, it is likely you have some issue that is impacting your review and you aren’t being fair.

• Once you have done the first positive, you can wander into the things you might change. All of your recommendations or critical statements, in my mind, come under the IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) rubric. This is directly akin to the words of William Goldman (a Hollywood god and all around interesting symbol of all that that is tinsel town) who said, “Ain’t nobody knows nothing.”

Cultural phenomena often come by surprise, which just means some critic didn’t know a damned thing. The first review of Fred Astaire’s career said, “Dances a little.” Ain’t nobody knows nothing. That includes critics and me. We have opinions, and a blog or forum is a place to express them, but don’t expect kinder than you give. Honesty matters; bloodletting doesn’t.

• The next rule is, after saying something nice and then following with the problems with the work, try to help the writer by ending with one other positive statement. It will help the eviscerated keep moving forward.

If you can’t think of two positive things to say about a work, I would suggest you find something else to review. I am not trying to coddle writers; I am explaining why many comments are never heeded. Savage critique might be fun to write, but it isn’t something I recommend.

If a writer prefers to face the savage lacerations of hostile review, they will let their readers know. Who knows, maybe that writer is a masochist. So, save your savaging for those who like it. For the rest, just be nice.

If the most eloquent response you can provide to writing is, “Dude this sucks,” perhaps you should be considering your abilities as a reviewer. Any writer appreciates thoughtful, reasoned review, when it is provided with helpful suggestions. Personally, I think if you are going to bitch about a work, you should have some method in mind to fix the problem and a willingness to suggest that method. It isn’t a criminal infraction to suggest that something is wrong and you have no solution, but I think it is good form to offer a solution if you can.

I am reasonably certain that some in the reading world will see my recommendations and simply wish to flame the hell out of me with such thoughtful responses as, “Dude you suck, don’t be a pussy” or “It is the nature of productive critical review that every work be subjected to the scrutiny of the experienced eye and that the work product and ongoing efforts of the craftsman will greatly improve through the glowing hot forging process of hostile and brutal review.”

The first quote seems a bit insufficient. The second quote at least merits consideration. As a writer, I might be inclined to consider the second and flame back at the first. I advise reviewers or commenting parties (that want to find their comment taken seriously by an author) that their comment should tend towards the second and less to the first.

Does this mean I work from the “catch more flies with sugar than vinegar” mind set, that I am some pantywaist, new age, goody-goody who is out to soften the world by enforcing a wimpy kindness quotient? No, it is more the realization that, well, yes it is true you kill more flies with a nuclear weapon than with a fly swatter, but the fallout doesn’t work out so well for the rest of the community. I simply think it is better to avoid letting reviews blow shit up without good cause.

Who knows what work of art will strike a chord with people? What bit of story will be the next hot thing? When a writer floats what seems to you to be a silly idea, remember, there’s no chance anyone would watch a cowboy movie set in space – except that Star Wars thing. Ain’t nobody knows nothing.

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  • Good points. I learned this skill from my husband. Criticism naturally takes on a negative connotation, but you can make it work positively by doing exactly as you outline. You can take this form of criticism everywhere, including in your work life and in your personal relationships. Always, always say something positive before bringing up the criticism.

  • I was raised by a father who often quoted the “You catch more flies with sugar…”. I have found it to be true in just about every area of my life.
    I have been so encouraged by the comments of many bloggers who could have easily done the opposite because of who they are and what they have accomplished.
    If you are truly secure in who you are, you don’t have to step on others to feel like you might be somebody.