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.
It's Only Constructive if You Include Something Positive
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?
"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.
"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.
Only People Who Can Do the Same Thing As You Can Criticize You
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?"
"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.
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.
Negative Feedback Is Only About Shutting Things Down
Sure, sometimes people straight out say "FIRE THIS PERSON," or "BOYCOTT THIS MOVIE," or "I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE AND I HAVE A GUN," which come across as fairly strong suggestions that their goal is to stop whatever terrible thing you made from ever being made again.
But if you're in the position of having made something you're real proud of and nervous about at the same time, something you think is swell but worry other people might think is a turd, then feedback like "I didn't like this," can look like "NEVER MAKE THINGS AGAIN YOU HACK."
Said: "Needs salt."
Heard: "I'd rather order out ever day than eat this excrement you dare call a meal."
This is because you're not hearing the feedback by itself, but in a duet with a voice in your head. This is a voice you start hearing if you've taken any kind of risk to put your work out there, whether it's a big one like quitting your job, or putting your real face in a video, or just saying something you really think and putting your name on it.
If you do any of that, you will hear a voice in your head, one whose volume varies from person to person, but always says something like, "You don't have any business doing this. People are going to find out you're a phony. You should go back to doing what you were doing." With that voice droning constantly, and a real person chiming in with, "I didn't like this," they merge together to make it sound like the real person said, "You screwed up, you should stop doing this."
I guess this could be fixed on both ends, if the critic could find a positive to end their "feedback package" with, as suggested above, or if the creator could remember to consciously unmerge the voices that subconsciously merged in their head. Remember that your inner fear of failure is saying one thing, and commenter ButtPirate69 is saying something else, which needs to be taken separately.
And I'm sure he makes some good points.
And it might help to remember that sometimes the exact opposite conclusion is true -- that many times, when people have a lot of negative things to say, it's because they really like the thing they're complaining about. Not talking about insult-filled rants here, but these crazy essays that fans often write, enumerating point by point where their favorite Joss Whedon show went wrong. Nobody who just wanted to get rid of the show would remember or bother to list every episode in the development of some side characters' relationship.
These people might be the poorest communicators in the world, but a little bit of logic should tell you that, flaws or no, they want you to keep doing your thing forever (even if they'd prefer you do it a little better).
Next time you see someone listing flaws in your favorite movie or comic book (like, I don't know, maybe a Cracked article or something?), at least consider the possibility that the reason they spent so much time thinking about it is because they like it as much as you do.
Criticizing Puts You Above Someone
A lot of people think that criticizing someone makes you superior or equal to them, because the critic saw something you missed, and this clearly makes you at least equals. This is stupid.
I'll take an extreme case. Suppose I'm a cynical studio head cashing in on the terrible taste of millions of mouth breathers by making Transformers movies. When I'm making marketing decisions for the next worthless sequel in my cash cow franchise, I will care very very much what those mouth breathers think.
The feedback from my idiot moviegoer focus groups could mean the difference between whether I can buy a G5 for just my wife, or if I can buy one for my mistress too, so you better believe I am listening intently to Joe Musclecar's suggestions that my film "needs more explosions," or that Megan Fox has too many clothes on, even as I feel complete disdain for him as a human being.
I bet you thought Joe Musclecar was going to be white. Racist.
Am I going to feel threatened that he's more knowledgeable than me about one thing (how dumb people think)? Why? I'm using him like a goddamned pawn.
But for some reason, everyone seems to believe that a person's ability to point out something wrong with another person's work automatically raises them to the other person's status. You get these weird fans who are proud when they find a typo, as if it means they're at least as good a writer as the guy who wrote the thing, because they got that one word more right than he did.
On the opposite side, you get these creators who don't take any corrections from anyone who isn't at the same "rank" as them or higher. If they admit a mere peasant (or reader, or viewer) found something they missed, they're afraid it will take away some of their power and mean they weren't as good as they thought. The Transformers example proves that wrong pretty clearly. A smart (and cynical) mogul loves to find out what their dumb audience thinks they did "wrong" and need to change, and doing so probably gives them even more power over those people, not less.
Admitting someone is right and you're wrong on some minor issue doesn't give them anything. Hell, it probably makes you look better. And on the flip side, getting another person to admit you were right and they were wrong on some minor issue doesn't elevate you or give you any points or fix any of the other problems in your life.
"If I can prove this blogger spelled a video game character's name wrong, my mom and dad will have to get back together!"
If someone finds I got some facts wrong about some news story, it doesn't mean they "beat" me, or that I'm no good. It probably means whatever news service they use has a different algorithm, so they got a better source on their feed. As long as I did my best to find the facts, it's just a matter of the different random paths life takes us all on. Someone's going to be in the right place at the right time. I could think of it as being "unlucky" enough to be shown up by some nobody, that all my readers are potential usurpers I need to be suspicious of, or I could think that I was "lucky" to have an scout on the scene, such that all my readers are eyes and ears out in the world, in position to pick up more stuff than I could ever hope to do alone.
Basically, I'm saying you slackers had better get busy and start feeding me all my material for my next column.
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For more from Christina, check out 6 Things No One Wants to Hear About Your Job and 7 Phrases That Are Great Signs It's Time to Stop Talking.
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