Giving and receiving criticism in writing

Internet pal Rob O’Hara wrote last week about why he hasn’t published a book in five years. The resulting discussion has the potential to get ugly–not that I think it will, but the potential is there. Writing about writing, and criticizing writing, is difficult.

I don’t have the solution–I can just tell you it’s difficult.

As part of my job, I do a lot of writing and editing about security. I’m supposed to be a security analyst first and a writer second or even third, but things didn’t quite work out that way. I hesitate to say any of this, but one of the reasons was one of the other writers. He or she would write sentences without nouns, or write them without verbs, or if by some miracle a sentence did end up with both a noun and a verb in a sentence, the syntax was so unorthodox as to make the sentence sound like Yoda from Star Wars. Only somehow less endearing.

One day, I decided to try to be helpful and I suggested that words that end in “-ed” are an indicator of passive voice. I even demonstrated how to use Word’s search function to locate words ending in “-ed.” The next document I got had the same problems as any other, plus every single word that ended with “-ed” was replaced with a synonym that did not. This of course accomplished nothing; sentences that weren’t passive at all got changed for no reason, and anything that was passive before was still passive, just harder to find.

One afternoon, after I’d had more than a full day of editing this stuff, I confided in a coworker who has also worked as a technical writer and who attended the same college I did. “I don’t play guitar,” I said. “I have no talent. But I think after a week of lessons, I could be a better guitar player than this person is a writer, but it’s not worth it, because I’d still be a lousy guitar player. But how do I tell this person that?”

This coworker, who actually is a good guitarist in addition to being a gifted writer, smiled a wry smile and said, “Next time, just say, ‘You suck.'”

I didn’t. A few days later, the point became moot when layoffs reduced my team from a trio to a solo act.

It’s hard to criticize writing even when it’s really bad, let alone when the biggest problem is that you tried to read it and just couldn’t get into it.

I know, because I know how it feels to receive the criticism. I had a former co-author deliver basically the same two-word insult to me, when the biggest “problem” with my writing was that my two biggest influences were someone other than Jerry Pournelle and A. A. Milne, and I didn’t (and still don’t) make my major influences so blatantly obvious.

After a couple of “screw you” messages back and forth, we never spoke again. I’ve never written about it, because I didn’t want word to get back to him. I suppose at this point I shouldn’t care even if it did.

It’s harder when it happens between friends who want to remain friends, when speaking your mind might mean saying something you’ll regret later.

I’m still no good at giving criticism, so I have no advice to give there. In my experience, it doesn’t matter how carefully you tread; you’re likely to hurt feelings. I read somewhere once that it takes seven compliments to counter just a single negative reaction, so heaven help the writer if someone else out of the eight also fails to deliver a compliment.

If my last review is true, I’m better at receiving it now than I used to be. Then again, my approach at work is generally to accept a change unless it makes the work measurably worse, or if the improvement doesn’t measure up to the effort the change would require.

I’m not sure that’s the best approach all the time, but it generally keeps my boss happy.

When it comes to my writing outside of work, a quote from one of my influences seems appropriate. Years ago, in a radio interview, the British singer/songwriter Elvis Costello said, “Not everyone’s going to like everything you do. And that isn’t the goal.”

Frequently when I try something I haven’t tried before, I get that reaction. Some people like it, but invariably someone doesn’t. That’s when I need to remember that quote. After all, the way we grow isn’t by continuing to do what we’re already good at. It’s when we experiment and try something different that we grow.

Hopefully the guy who didn’t like the last experiment will give you another chance, and you’ll do better the next time.

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