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ACAB | ♠️ | A teacher, student, writer, and opinionated reader. Responsible for cleverpun's Critique Corner. | Donate via Ko-fi

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Are My Critiques Too Negative? · 8:23am Jan 10th, 2020

I often mention—unprompted and at length—that self-reflection is crucial for personal growth. And not merely growth as a writer, but growth as a person. I have made many adjustments to my review formula over the years. But has that made things better? Or has it merely masked an issue that still persists?

A common piece of advice when delivering critique is to sandwich positive and negative points. The presence of positives makes the negative points easier to swallow. Many journalistic reviews often intentionally follow this structure; positives, then negatives, then a rehash of the positives in a conclusion. 

I discontinued my “concise” critiques partly for this reason; it was too difficult to fit both tact and valuable critique in so small a space. I originally moved away from long comments directly on stories to blog posts for this reason. I intentionally based the format of my blogs on this tried-and-true formula.

But has that been enough? Despite the safety nets of my blog formula, it is still easy to over-criticize things. I often look back at my earlier reviews and comments with some measure of shame. This is particularly true of CCC #7; I stand by everything I said, but the delivery makes the content look petty. A single token positive point followed by a lengthy listing of flaws.

I’ve had many negative interactions with authors—soured relationships before they even began—because of the nature of my criticisms. No more than can counted on one hand, fine. But even a single such conversation/argument is cause for concern. And it would be easy to write those interactions off; “people take things too seriously on the internet” or “it’s the other person’s fault.” But that defeats the entire purpose of self-reflection. How am I at fault in this scenario? How could I have handled that better?

I recently considered adding a restriction to my review blogs; the number of “what does this story do well” points and “areas of growth” points must be equivalent. But is this merely a band-aid, another layer of gloss over a deeper issue?

This is a sincere concern I’ve been having for a while. Any feedback or insight is welcome!

Comments ( 7 )
Author Interviewer

The structure of your reviews, specifically of having a section for negative things in every review no matter how strong the negative parts are, often tends to play up the negative side. Like, when I mention something negative in a review, it's because it either impacted my reading of a story or stuck out in my mind in such a way I could see it impacting others. But always ensuring you have something negative to point out undercuts whatever positives you've built up.

I read one of yours recently, and I can't remember what it was, but it sounded like a good story until I got to the negatives part. Though you ended on a high note, suggesting it was a good story worth the reader's time, the amount of negativity made me feel like maybe it wasn't worth touching. And it's not because you brought it up so much as you gave it its own little platform, thus inflating its importance to the overall package.

That is, at least, what I've gotten out of this. :B I do still read them all!

Personally, I find both very valuable, and the format useful. For context, I work in a STEM field, so I'm accustomed to having my work critiqued, harshly at times, because it's necessary to improve it.

Here's the thing as far as I'm concerned. If you don't point out the areas to improve, the author can't correct them in future works, or make changes to the existing story. What matters is the delivery, and if it's useful feedback. Well thought out, clear critique is valuable, because it gives the person in question a chance to learn and understand what needs to be improved, or what took you, as the reader, out of the story. From the reviews I've read, the critique is well thought out, and provides good feedback on specific points that need improving, or, if its something that is your opinion, you make it clear that's what it is: your opinion.

Whenever I get feedback on where to improve my writing (both creative and professional), if the critique is productive critique, I don't take it personally. Instead, it's an opportunity for me to learn and do better in the future. One of my friends that works in theater tells me that they have a saying in their troupe: "kill your babies." Grim, but it emphasizes a point: your creations are your babies. But, as a creator, you have to be willing to kill your creations if need be.

Anyhow, just my 2¢.

Maybe a little, and some of the things that you mention aren't things I was bothered by in the story but they're presented in a way that makes them seem more important than they are? I have to go to work soon so this isn't helpful, I'll be back.

Yes! Maybe do more to emphasize it's how it's your opinion and other people might not feel the same way. It is worth remembering that most of the people here are doing a hobby, and while I care a lot about being a good writer, there's nothing wrong with people who only write to have fun while they're here.

I suppose might as well toss in my two cents from the receiving end of various reviews and critiques.

At some point, I figure, no matter how well crafted the story is or knowledgeable the reviewer, tastes will vary. At least, after we pass the point of critiquing on grammar and any other applicable "hard" rules (like pointing out that the story got some basic facts of reality wrong). I look forward to seeing 5183822 post his reviews because he's clearly acknowledged that he'll have his own views and constantly presents them as such, and why I similarly despise large portions of the feedback that I have received from at least one EqD prereader on multiple occasions who has told me in no uncertain terms that one thing or another was a problem in direct contrast to the feedback I received here.

Anyhow, I'm not trying to go get all rant-y, here. I say you ought to always call it like it is. Some things are your opinions, of course, and I think those are great to hear as such. As an editor, I've found for myself that even thinking I might be accidentally coming off as pretending otherwise makes giving feedback more stressful anyway. You might even notice the qualifications I've already sprinkled in my comment. :twilightsmile:

Another point I'd like to add is that I think forcing a certain amount of feedback is detrimental to all involved. A couple of personal examples:

I've had the privilege of taking classes at college, where I quickly learned that performance of the average student was clearly disappointing some of my instructors (and probably people above them). In two of my classes, we had peer-review assignments. In one case (a creative writing course), with nothing but a word count minimum; in the other case (comp. and comm.), a list of points to address with no word count requirements.

In the former case, I don't actually recall any of the feedback specifically. I do remember talking to people I knew outside of the class and pointing out how fluffy, empty, and redundant (when they actually had a point) it was.

In the latter case, I literally got a comment saying that my paper "flowed too well".

I didn't blame my peers, 'cause I know they had to earn their grade and we were explicitly given a bar to clear to get it. I also had any prior writing experience at all with both cases, something the classes didn't appear to have expected, so there wasn't much of anything obvious for a novice to easily critique. I really don't think anything that remotely resembles an arbitrary requirement on your reviews is going to make them better. If you aren't skilled at what you do, I think it runs a high risk of making them worse; something, positive or negative, given too much weight because you want to create a sense of equality could distort what an author inexperienced in picking through critique would get out of it. Fortunately, you don't have someone else forcing those on you.

Personally, if I write a pile of garbage, I'd like to see a review reflect that. I'm not the pile of garbage, after all. Not simply for writing one. And I've tried – twice.

On the flip-side, my entry into the IS2 contest has been my most highly praised story yet – but (and I'm sure you've seen) people have pointed out how I didn't quite stick the landing with how I ended it. I won't ignore that, even if it's comparatively and explicitly a small factor. If I were going to ignore that, chances are that I'd be the sort of person who wouldn't hear it from you no matter how much space and attention you give it when you review my story. This isn't to say it wouldn't be worth devoting an appropriate amount of space and attention to.

Now, I point out that I have not read very many CCC blogs myself. I've mostly been addressing what's been brought up in the post here. With that in mind: In short, I think it's better if you steer clear of self-imposing any arbitrary requirements on your reviews. Compliment sandwiches may be a good tool to use, but I suspect they aren't always the most appropriate one to use. Also, if I dare compare your critiques to PP's reviews yet again (say what you will about apples and oranges), neutral comments are also good to include. From what I've seen, PP tends to frequently include a random thought or two that occurred as he read something. Otherwise, it'd seem more like a score of good vs. bad than it is rather than a glimpse of the actual impact your story had.

Notably, I might have missed on some of this, or simply failed to make the point I had in mind, or made a point that future me will have a more nuanced or different view on. If there's only one thing that I want you to get out of this, it's 'please never go down any path that could lead you to leaving a critique in the spirit of "It flowed too well"'.

Edited to include several accidentally omitted words because I am apparently only on guard against typos.

5183822 This confirms my suspicions. Perhaps removing the section labels and having some more freeform structure would help? This would also make it easier to pair related points, instead of awkwardly dividing them across subsections. 

5183831 this is an excellent attitude to have. I try and have the same attitude, both in my job as an educator and my hobby as a writer. But not everyone has that attitude, and they can't be expected to. Despite my efforts to remain open to criticism, I still resist advice and critique that is exclusively negative. Phrasing, context, and delivery are important.

As a reviewer, it is one's job to convince others to murder their darlings. It is not fair or realistic to expect everyone to have the same professional detachment from their own work. It's not even fair to expect that of oneself, a hundred percent of the time. As you said, it is important to have a clear and well-thought-out delivery. But if the delivery is phrased in such a way that it comes off as more negative than intended, that is a concern.

5183839 The problem with this is that mentioning "this is just my opinion" every other sentence is bad writing. It bogs down the critique with a lot of additional words that aren't needed. The whole thing is implied to be my opinion from the start.

Now, I could make, and have made, this more obvious. Perhaps a blanket statement at the beginning of my reviews might be helpful in this regard. I was trained by years of school papers to leave out weasel words and qualifying statements. But writing a research paper is quite different from writing for an amateur audience on the internet.

5184018 I've had a few classes that moved along the lines you describe. Thankfully, it did not include my creative writing classes. I've had more than my share of English, Group Communication, and several others with a fair share of "flowed too well" in them. Your point about arbitrary requirements is well-taken!

The issue with including "neutral" points in my critiques is that they would bloat the length significantly, for no real benefit. In the past, I have made additional such points in the comments section (usually in direct response to an author's comment). The same is true, to some degree, of mentions of "just my opinion".

Present Perfect can afford to make such asides and value-neutral comments, because his reviews are concise, efficient affairs. He also has much more experience reviewing than I do, and so pinpoints noteworthy items with regularity. My reviews are lengthier, and so cannot follow the same style and content distribution that Present Perfect's do.

I suppose I could retool my critiques to be shorter, but I'm much more comfortable with their current average length.


The Voice in the Water this is an excellent attitude to have. I try and have the same attitude, both in my job as an educator and my hobby as a writer. But not everyone has that attitude, and they can't be expected. Despite my efforts to remain open to criticism, I still resist advice and critique that is exclusively negative. Phrasing, context, and delivery are important.

As a reviewer, it is one's job to convince others to murder their darlings. It is not fair or realistic to expect everyone to have the same professional detachment from their own work. It's not even fair to expect that of oneself, a hundred percent of the time. As you said, it is important to have a clear and well-thought-out delivery. But if the delivery is phrased in such a way that it comes off as more negative than intended, that is a concern.

Light willing more people were open to honest, well intentioned critique, but here we are. As a STEM instructor (Biology to be exact), let me tell you, getting my students to understand that when I don't give them perfect grades, its not me criticizing them personally, it's me trying to show them where there are gaps in their knowledge, and where they need to improve. Honestly, just over the last five years, its gotten worse.

As you say, phrasing, context and delivery are key, but I think intent also comes into play. Is the intent to tear something down (I've seen more than a few of those, especially in the gaming sphere), or is it to help it rise higher and be the best that it can be? If it's the former, its not valuable. If its the latter, then it can be very valuable. *shrugs*

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