4 Mistakes We Make When Dealing with Constructive Criticism

People have made up some weird rules about constructive criticism, and have convinced a large number of people to just accept them as obvious truths, even though they are stupid.

These are those stupid rules.

#4. It's Only Constructive if You Include Something Positive

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Probably the biggest misconception about "constructive criticism" is that you have to say something positive, either by giving a compliment or by telling the person what to do next, because you can't just tell them what not to do! This is a recipe for a treacly, insincere circle jerk.

Sometimes a person only knows what's wrong. They don't know how to fix it, but they see something wrong that you didn't see, something you can't see until they tell you. Why would you make them sit on it until they can come up with a solution, and let you waste your time going down that wrong path for God knows how long until they can think of one?

tetmc/iStock/Getty Images
"People have been complaining about your body odor for months, but I didn't want to bring it
up until I'd found the most effective soaps to suggest."

If I see a car streaming smoke, I think it's more urgent to tell them that it's streaming smoke than it is to do some research to figure out what could cause it and how to fix it before telling them. If my friend shoots a short film with the punchline being a guy in blackface, I probably want to tell him, "Please don't use blackface," before he takes it to the film festival, even if I can't come up with a replacement joke in time. He's the goddamn filmmaker, he can come up with his own replacement joke.

As far as adding compliments to your critiques? Sure, there's benefits. We're not robots. A person is more likely to want to make a change and move forward instead of curling into a ball and feeling bad if you give them some hope that their work is worth continuing and improving on. But I don't think we should be forced to match every negative criticism with a positive statement. After a while, it becomes obviously forced ("Well, I like your handwriting here"), which is even more demoralizing than anything negative.

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"So your fly is open ... but I like your, uh, hat?"

Maybe a good rule of thumb is to make sure at least one genuine positive comment goes along with every "package" of feedback you deliver (like one meeting, one email, one post-coital conversation). And deliver your negative feedback with a tone of, if not reluctance, at least not glee. But you don't need to pay a compliment with every damn typo you spot.

#3. Only People Who Can Do the Same Thing As You Can Criticize You

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Sometimes an angry filmmaker will snap at the people heckling his terrible film, and demand to know how many movies they have made. "None, huh?" he will say, "I THOUGHT so. Maybe keep your opinions to yourself, then!"

The idea that you can only criticize a movie if you've made a movie is dumb, but like all the best stupid lies, it is based on a bit of truth. There are elements of all creative professions that you only understand from practice and experience -- technical stuff, practical stuff, logistics, juicy insider gossip, that kind of thing. When an outsider lectures an expert on these things, they usually just look dumb.

Sure, from our perspective, we're street-smart movie characters, watching experts bicker and stress over some complex problem before we burst in and say, "Have you tried X?" and then, after first dismissing us with country club snorts, they give our idea a try and find out we saw something they all missed because they're boring nerds. From their perspective, they are NASA scientists preparing a rocket launch and we are bursting in and saying, "How come you don't make the space shuttle out of adamantium?"

lisafx/iStock/Getty Images
"Took awhile to put of that fire, buddy. Next time use more water."
"I'll try that if you try shooting fewer innocent people."

But there's one thing we all are experts on, and that's how we saw the movie (or book, or whatever). If it bored you, you are the undisputed world expert on how bored you were. If you hated the main character, nobody can say you didn't. If you got an erection during the credits, then that is a thing that happened.

As long as you frame it as how you saw it as an individual, you're right. And when audiences agree on these things en masse, these opinions become even more meaningful. If most of America became aroused at your closing credits, there's some more objective statement that can be made, either about what's wrong with your movie or what's wrong with America.

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Really, what isn't wrong with America?

Sometimes, we'll have ideas on things beyond our expertise, like CG in movies, which is fair. You've just got to stay within your depth, and stick to being most assertive about what you saw and the effect it had on you, and tread lightly on why they screwed it up, as if you're only guessing, because you are. Was that Transformer "the fakest piece of shit I ever saw that totally took me out of the movie and made me feel like I was watching Ed Wood Presents Stop Motion?" Then so it was! You saw what you saw, can't argue with that. Ready to blame the "animator"? Slow your roll and educate yourself on who does what first.

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Christina H

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