I posted earlier on the subject of Honesty vs Tact in critiquing.

The problem with the Honesty vs Tact argument is that the two are not mutually exclusive. Tact is not dishonesty. Tact is the ability to communicate our ideas without giving offense.

Naturally, we can only do so much to avoid giving offense–especially if we want to honestly express ourselves. Some of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the recipient. Viewing things from a purely practical standpoint, however, there are ways to vastly improve your chances of getting your ideas across clearly.

Critique of any kind requires special handling. The very nature of it has us pointing out the flaws in someone else’s work, in an attempt to help them improve. The trick is to provide constructive feedback without shutting down those avenues of communication. It’s easy to go back to “That’s their responsibility.” Sure. But again, this fact isn’t going to get us any closer to our goal of communicating effectively.

If effective communication isn’t your primary goal, all of your words plus a buck fifty will get you… well, what can you get for a buck fifty these days? Not much. 

In a forum conversation on the subject, one person submitted a comparison between the college professor who responds to all of your work with: “Wow, that’s fantastic. Bravo!” Then there’s the college professor who tears your work to tiny bits and pieces. The point of the comparison was that praise gets us nowhere, brutal honesty is the only way to improve.

There are people who require a firm hand to improve their work; however, it’s faulty to assume that all people respond to this, so it shouldn’t be your default.  Again, whether they should respond this way is immaterial. Brutal honesty and pointless flattery aren’t our only two options.

To present your ideas in a way that is informative, thoughtful, sincere, and keeps the lines of communication open, consider a few things while critiquing:

1. It’s just as important to identify the things that are working as it is to identify the things that are not. “Play to your strengths” doesn’t only apply to writing resumes and clothes shopping.

After receiving several critiques on my current project, I noticed that most of the readers really seemed to enjoy the interaction between two specific characters. Any time the two of them were in a scene together, it was gold. So I took some time to figure out why these two characters were working so well together. What is it that made their dynamic so compelling? I learned a lot about characterization that way.

2. Express your opinions subjectively.

We all think we’re right. That’s the nature of an opinion; if you thought it was wrong, it wouldn’t be your opinion. When we represent our opinions as absolute, indisputable fact, we are begging to be challenged–even if we don’t intend to. However, when we represent our opinions as the way we, personally, feel about something, we’re offering up something that’s is a lot harder to argue with.

You’re more likely to hear this:

“This is the way it is.”
“No, it’s not.”

than to hear this:

“This is how I feel.”
“No, you don’t.”

Even if someone thinks you shouldn’t  feel that way, few people will challenge the fact that you do. That in itself gives the other person basis for consideration. It’s not necessary to phrase all of your comments in this way, but by representing a good portion of your opinions subjectively, you come across as offering information instead of setting a stage for conflict.

3. Provide alternatives.

“This isn’t very good” is terrible critique. Not just because it’s tactless, but because it offers no useful information. “Your characterization needs some work” is better, but it’s still not especially helpful.

“I wasn’t convinced by your characterization of Sara. Her responses and internal dialogue sound very thoughtful, reasonable, and well adjusted–a little too much so. Perhaps you could try making her initial reactions more impulsive–maybe she feels outraged by David’s phone call at first, but then realizes that he meant well by it. This will help her seem more real and relatable, and still come across as reasonable and well-adjusted.”

Here we not only explain what isn’t working, but why, and provide a useful suggestion on how the problem can be remedied. And we’re saying it in a way that isn’t drawing any lines in the sand–giving us a better chance of having our opinion considered. Isn’t that the goal? The point of critique isn’t to give you a chance to tell someone else they suck, it’s to help them improve.

And sometimes that means you have to be nice.

~ RM

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