Friday, June 12, 2015
You've seen them everywhere on the web: Amazon, Netflix, the Internet Movie Database - and too many more to name. They are usually called different things depending on the site, but each and every one boils down the same thing: the chance for some ignorant yahoo to express his or her American Right of Free Speech. "Reader Reviews," "Featured Member Reviews," or "Customer Reviews," call them what you will but I always think - or even say - the same thing when I see them: Shut Up!
I've said it before and I'll say it again, creating anything is damned hard work. Movies, books, plays, music, painting - anything. It takes determination, lots of failures, facing a lot of personal demons, and a hellava lot of other icky stuff just to make something out of nothing, let alone send it out there into the world. What needlessly makes it harder is when that work is splattered by some unenlightened pinhead who feels that because they CAN say something nasty, they SHOULD.
Sour grapes? You betcha. But believe it or not, this isn't about anything I've written. Instead, this rant is about the reviews I've seen for what I thought where thoroughly excellent movies, books or what have you - demeaned if not ruined by droolers who can't wait to show off their 'smarts' by trashing something that took an author, painter, musician or movie crew years to create. Oh, yes, I've heard it all before: the sacredness of Free Speech, the Web as "the great equalizer," the chance for the "little guy" to be heard. I'm all for intelligent discussions and thoughtful criticism but if you can't be intelligent, can't manage thoughtful then keep your gob shut.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, aside from perhaps putting a dollop of empathy in those of you out there who like to post bad reader reviews, this is also about how to give good criticism.
Too often writers work in the dark, meaning they have absolutely no idea if their work is any good. They show it to mothers, fathers, boyfriends, girlfriends and so forth who obviously are not going to say anything but "fantastic, honey!" The only other option is to find a writer's group, a bunch of folks who share the same goal: to write as well as they can. The problem is, writer's groups way too often catch the same pitiful disease that infects Reader's Review posters. Straight up insults or what are thought to be 'witty' jokes fly, personal tastes get in the way, jealousy clouds respect, "old hands" turn into "old crows," and people get hurt for no good reason.
Rule of Thumb for Giving Good Criticism #1: Don't give criticism that you wouldn't like to get. Think before telling or writing anything about another writer. Put yourself in their shoes - especially if it's someone just starting out. Would you like to hear that your story "sucked?" Of course not, so don't say it.
Rule of Thumb for Giving Good Criticism #2: Don't be "funny." Make jokes on your own time, not at the expense of someone else. Criticism is not your stage; it's talking about someone else's. If you want applause, get up there on the stage yourself. Otherwise see the title of this column.
Rule of Thumb for Giving Good Criticism #3: Give as well as take. Never give a completely bad review of someone else's work. A lot of things go into a story: plot, characterizations, dialogue, descriptions, pacing, - it all can't be bad. I've very often hated a film (for example) but loved the soundtrack, one special actor, the dialogue in one scene, whatever. Leave the author something that they did well, even if it was just that the paper was clean.
Rule of Thumb for Giving Good Criticism #4: This story wasn't written for you. The fact that the story didn't turn you on is your problem, not the author's. I can't say this enough. If you hate westerns but you have to critique someone's western story don't say you hate westerns - or do I really have to be that obvious?
Rule of Thumb for Giving Good Criticism #5: Leave your baggage at home. If you don't like the 'politics' in a story, then shut up. If you don't enjoy a certain kind of food mentioned in a story, then shut up. If you don't like a kind of sex in a story, then shut up. If you don't like - you get the point.
Rule of Thumb for Giving Good Criticism #6: Be specific. No, not down to word and sentence, but rather avoid saying things like the plot was "bad," or "dumb," or "predictable." Rather, give useful information: "There was too much foreshadowing, especially on page two. I could see the ending coming from then on."
I could go on but I hope I've made my point. If I could sum all this up into a rather long fortune cookie it would be to try and remember that it's easier to criticize than create, but more important to create than criticize - or at least help create, rather than harm.