The Art of Criticism

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Lmns Crn:
Out of CharacterWhere I am coming from:

We don't get much conflict on these boards, and that's the way I like it. Sure, we have a nice, rousing holmgang now and then over our deeply-held differences of opinion ("Theme Wars," anyone?), but that's the way it ought to be. It's all good-natured, and we end up agreeing to disagree, parting as friends, and learning a few things in the process. Such discussions are healthy and cathartic!

The Opal Council has observed (and I agree) that on the rare occasions when things get truly ugly around here, the dispute almost always has to do with a mangled review. Either somebody made some comments on another's work that are, shall we say, insensitive, or somebody flew off the handle in response to a critical review, et cetera. I think it's unfortunate and cruelly ironic that we focus so much community energy on promoting the review process, but that same review process seems to be the source of most of our problems.

To try to address that issue, I volunteered to say a few words about giving and receiving criticism gracefully. I feel I am well-qualified to do so. I hold a degree in music education and a license to teach public schools, and as such, have been on both sides of the feedback process many times. When I review a campaign setting on this site, I apply many of the same principles I use when I grade an essay, give a violin lesson, or conduct a rehearsal. I am not mentioning this to boast, but to let you know that these ideas are well-tested, and not just something I'm pulling out of the air.

I'm going to say my piece and then shut up. So feel free to use this thread to discuss the feedback process if you like, to ask questions, to point out review techniques you find especially helpful, whatever you like.


Part 1: Dishing It Out
It doesn't matter what you say if you don't get people to listen. Being antagonistic in your communication will alienate your intended audience, so that even if your ideas are absolutely wonderful, your readership will be less likely to take them to heart. I am of the opinion that no matter what you want to say about another's work, there is a way to say it tactfully and respectfully (and therefore, usefully.)

Start With Something Good
This might be the one thing I'll say in this thread that I think is most important, even though it may seem a bit trivial. But whenever you give anyone feedback, begin by pointing out something they've done well. Starting with negative feedback puts your audience on the defensive and makes them less receptive to the remainder of your ideas. So even if 90% of your review is going to consist of things that need improvement, the first thing you mention ought to be something from the other 10%-- point out one of the things you think was really on-target.

But It Doesn't All Have to Be Good
Many people walk on eggshells when they give feedback, because they are trying very hard to avoid offending anybody. This behavior is generally counterproductive, since negative feedback (that is, pointing out flaws that need to be corrected) is a very valuable tool. Imagine if I were to give violin lessons without ever telling my student when a note is out of tune. I might think I am sparing the student's ego, but in reality, I'm just preventing the student from improving her intonation, by not giving her the negative feedback that would help her polish her skills.

Obviously, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. Waltzing into a thread to say, "Your work is terrible! Absolute rubbish!" will do nobody any good. It is not hard to give negative feedback without starting fights, however, if you are careful how you say things. (Personally, I tend to delete and rewrite large chunks of reviews-- sometimes three or four times-- when I think what I am saying has the potential to be taken harshly.) But I find that when I receive reviews, the most useful comments are the ones that point out the flaws in my work so I can fix them. So please, don't be shy about doing so-- just do it gently.

Be Precise
The more detail you can give in your review, the more useful it will be to the setting's author. Let the setting's author know exactly what you are talking about when you make your comments. (This is why my reviews of others' work are generally full of quotes of the original material. There are plenty of other ways to to it, of course.)

Here are some sample responses to an imaginary setting, all describing the same thing, but ranging in order from least precise and least useful to most precise and most useful.QuoteHey, I really like your race information.
QuoteHey, I really like your version of elves.
QuoteHey, I really like the amount of detail you put into elven customs and traditions.
QuoteHey, I really like the whole idea of elven shazam tradition, and the way it affected the outcome of the War of the Three Tribes. In particular, I like the way your work on customs and traditions seems to be interwoven into history and global politics (see also: the lizard armies' behavior at the Council of Middlemarch), because it makes it feel very believable and real.

Embrace the Power of Questions
Especially because the work on these boards tends to be complex works-in-progress, a few well-crafted questions can be very effective. Questions serve many purposes in a review, and are probably the most efficient way to deliver a lot of impact in a very short comment. When you ask a question in a review, you are doing all of the following at once: 1.) pointing out something that may be insufficiently explained, 2.) encouraging the setting author to provide more detail on that subject, 3.) encouraging the setting author to consider some aspect of their work from an outside point of view, and 4.) indicating an are of the work that you find personally interesting.

Questions open up discussion in ways that mere statements rarely do, and because of that, they are particularly useful for keeping a setting talked about. Personally, if I am going to get a one-sentence response to some of my work, I much prefer a good question to a "Hey, good job!", because the question allows me to answer it, while the compliment just gives me an opportunity to say, "Thanks, glad you liked it."

Recognize Relativity
Music theorist David Lewin remarked that when writing about a piece of music, deciding between "I like it" and "I don't like it" is not as valuable or as useful as deciding between "This engages me (whether I like it or not)" and "This bores me." I'm inclined to agree with him. We all have certain pet peeves about this hobby, and some people are simply never going to like a high-magic world, or a steampunk setting, or a world with dwarves in it, or whatever. However, it's valuable to keep in mind that these are all opinions, and even an element you severely dislike can be very well implemented.

Again, there are useful ways and not-so-useful ways to comment about this. It is probably a good idea to avoid comments like "I stopped reading your setting as soon as I found out it has dwarves in it!" or "I suggest you get rid of all your dwarves," because the former is pretty pointlessly rude, and the latter is in direct contradiction to the author's apparent vision of the setting (and therefore, not very useful.) If you must discuss your rabid loathing of dwarves in somebody's setting thread, consider perhaps "Why did you choose to write dwarves the way you did?", which will hopefully open up a detailed and productive discussion about whether dwarves are strictly necessary, and how their presence in a setting could be fine-tuned and improved.

The two big pieces of advice on this subject are as follows: 1.) DON'T use someone else's thread to go on a crusade against some idea, and 2.) DON'T avoid reading somebody's setting just because it contains things that provoke a negative reaction in you. I won't name any names, but there are quite a few settings on this site that at first glance, I thought I'd dislike, but after reading a little more, I really cherish.

Take Your Time
Some of the work here is long and detailed, and we are only human. You do not have to read the entirety of Jim-Bob's Massive Campaign Compendium (all 500 mb of it) in one sitting. We are not marathon athletes here. We don't need to make every review an endurance battle.

If what you are reading is long, break it up. Do your review in short segments, or spend a week reading a setting slowly, then review it at the end. Consider a focused review on one aspect of a setting, and leave the rest for later (or if you prefer, for someone else. A limited review is better than no review at all.) The worst strategy is to be so determined to finish this all right now that your eyes glaze over, and you're getting only a handful of words per paragraph. "Read" a setting that way, and you'll miss quite a bit. Much better to take a break and come back the next day with a fresh mind.

Get Help
One of the neat things about this community is the ease with which we can contact each other. If a setting confounds you, you can always PM the author to ask questions, or to ask about a good place to begin. Many setting writers get asked about what particular things they want reviewed, and I've never ever heard a single one of them complain about it.

Part 2: Taking It
Even when a review seems harsh (maybe especially when it seems harsh), it's worth taking into consideration what the reviewer is saying. Paying careful attention to feedback will help you improve your work in ways that merely getting indignant will not, so the importance of receiving reviews graciously can't really be overstated. Nobody's putting your work on trial, here.

Give the Benefit of the Doubt
We're all trying to help each other here. If a reviewer says something that really burns your toast, try to keep in mind that it's only done to help you. The internet is a notoriously difficult medium in which to try to get your point across; because of lack of facial cues, tone of voice, and innumerable other elements of communication. If you think you've been insulted, take a deep breath and consider that perhaps that's not what the comment was supposed to mean at all.

You Aren't As Clear As You Think You Are
This happens all the time: you've been lovingly crafting your setting for months (or maybe even years), and you finally get around to putting it down on e-paper for others to read, and they're getting it all wrong! A common pitfall for people who know their own ideas so intimately is to assume that everyone else shares the same insight. If your reviewers don't understand your setting, maybe the problem is that you forgot to describe something as well as you think you did. I'm pretty convinced that nobody is ever as clear as they think they are-- I know with certainty that I am definitely not.

Transferring ideas from brain to paper is a complicated and tedious process-- more so than we often give it credit for. It is worth keeping in mind that even if you've been at it for years, you may still have lost a few details along the way. The questions and confusions of your reviewers will help you find these omissions, especially when your reviewers are confused about things that you know they ought to understand. Double check your stuff!

Take Your Time
This is probably the most difficult piece of advice to take, but it's important. When you get a particularly rough review, read it through, then walk away for a few days before responding. Sometimes, it can be very easy to get upset. The best way to deal with this is to take your time, make sure you've cooled down, and then respond, so that you know the response is made not out of anger, but out of calm rationality. It's likely that once the red-hot coals of indignation cool down, you'll find some useful insight in the review that set you off.

A good rule of thumb is to take your time out, then re-read the review. If re-reading it makes you upset again, you haven't taken quite enough time yet.

Put Down That Shield
Closely related to the above point. It is not in your best interests to always leap to the defense of your own work. When confronted with negative feedback, it can be tempting to shout it down with, "You've got it all wrong!" It's a coping mechanism: if you can convince yourself that the person saying bad things about your work "just didn't understand," you can convince yourself that there's nothing wrong with your work after all. And to be sure, sometimes people comment when they don't really understand, but other times, they understand better than we think they do.

It takes practice, but it is far more useful to consider comments objectively. More often than not, I discover that the person reviewing my work really has a point, and that realization leads me to something I can use to improve my work. And that's really why we're all here, isn't it?

Coda: A Friendly Reminder
We're all here to help each other improve. Not to show off our masterpieces, or to accumulate the most impressive post count or collection of little review badges. In this thread, I am not really asking for much, just that reviewers take the effort to present their comments in the most helpful way, and that reviewed writers receive these reviews cheerfully and thoughtfully, even when they seem like censure. If my suggestions can improve the overall usefulness of the feedback that gets passed around this site, I'll be tickled pink. If they can help avert a dispute, even better.

Thanks for reading.

Matt Larkin (author):
I pretty much agree with everything you said.  Perhaps this should be an adendum to the CoC.

Oh, so true. *nods*

Kalos Mer:
I'm gonna chime in just to reinforce that questions are extremely valuable to worldbuilders, as they either point out something that we already know but inadequately explained, or they make us think about aspects of our world we hadn't considered at all.

Plus, I gotta commend you on a very thorough 'guide', LC.  I always liked my music teachers througout my secondary education. ;)

Captain Obvious:
Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.

Well put. Very succinct and well explained.

Also, love the use of music corollaries for stuff. Further proof that music can be applied to anything.


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