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Constructive Criticism Works, Put-Downs Don’t

speak no evilI got an email today that took me to task for several typos and some phrasing choices I’d made on various posts here.

Mostly I agree with the comments.

But the tone of the email was awful. The writer said I shouldn’t be talking about writing when I’m obviously a terrible writer – actually the word they used was “horrible.” I gathered from the tone of the missive the sender has never, ever made a mistake of any time. I almost let the email ruin my morning.

I truly don’t get it. The sender had obviously taken a bit of time to go through at least a couple of articles and to demonstrate that they know how to at least copy edit. If they had been less accusatory or even (gasp) supportive I would have been pleased. Instead I felt put down and devalued. Fortunately I’ve lived long enough not to worry about this sort of thing too much, at least not for very long.

I do, however, wonder. I wonder why someone would take that much time and make it a slap in the faces. Did they make themselves feel smarter, better and more creative? Probably, but for how long? And really? When I hurt someones feelings I usually feel badly about it and myself. Even if I’m ‘right’ and have a moment’s gloating satisfaction, I end up not liking myself much, so I wonder about the people who seem to make a profession of putting people down.

Today’s email is a good reminder to me that kindness doesn’t mean not telling the truth and truth told with kindness tends to improve things rather than make them worse. Which sounds, perhaps, a bit sappy, but it’s actually how I’ve re-framed this for myself.

Thanks for listening.

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{ 38 comments… add one }
  • Friend

    Personally, I think it’s a shame for constructive criticism is allowed. I mean it’s already bad grammar so why do they say that it’s o.k. to criticize writing when they just made an error themselves. I hate hypocrisy. It’s better off that these things stay personal and not public as to try to humiliate someone. It’s critical.

  • Helen

    Anne, I do enjoy reading your tips and blog. I have also applied to several jobs that I have found on your blog. Could someone please point me to Marks blog, and e-books. I would just like to see some of his work.

    • Anne

      I don’t have a link to his blog – maybe someone else does or he’ll post it in comments.

  • I appreciate Anne’s site, the jobs I have found through here, and her perspective on our profession.

    There are hundreds, if not thousands of other blogs out there on the subject of freelance writing. If this one in particular is displeasing to the elite of our profession, then I am sure they can find other sites that are more worth of their time.
    .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..Too Burned Out To Pursue Your Freelancing Dream? =-.

    • Anne

      Thanks Benjamin 😉

  • I guess I use the sandwich critique when I’m editing a book. I also enjoy when people use those on me. I learn with positive reinforcement, not put downs.
    .-= Autumn´s last blog ..Find Out Why Quality Content Is Important To Your Site =-.

  • Mabel

    Oh my gosh. Don’t you love it when people are so eager to point out your mistakes? I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi myself, but it’s so true that snarking at people is not helpful. It doesn’t make them feel good about learning from a mistake.

    In the little bit of teacher school that I managed to get through we learned about the “criticism sandwich,” in which you put a positive statement first, then point out the mistake, and then finish with another positive.

    Example: “Your story is very entertaining. Be careful not to jump back and forth between calling one character by his nickname and then his formal name. That can be confusing to the reader. I enjoyed it very much.”

    This was a paraphrase of a real critique that a fellow classmate gave me in a writing class, and everyone who critiqued my story pretty much followed this sandwich format. It helped me to see where I was going wrong without making me feel as if my writing was a giant piece of poo. We all know how sensitive writers are! 😉

    • Anne

      A criticism sandwich… I like it. The adage ‘if you can’t say something nice… ‘ seems to work and this let’s you do both. Thanks

  • As one who recalls any of my posts to this blog might suspect, I share many of Mark’s views. As I’ve expressed before, it disgusts me that some people insult our profession by claiming membership undeservedly. I’m at the point that I cringe when someone claims to be a writer.

    Yet, I’ve had to accept that our “profession” is not really much of a profession anymore. When more than half the newly written words that appear in all mediums are, essentially, crap, maybe writing IS crap, and we old-timers are just behind the times.

    I definitely understand what Mark means by poor writing disrespecting the reader; however, I look at the entirety of the article when passing judgment. I don’t nitpick. The writer’s concern for her reader comes through in many ways, not only as accurate spelling and grammar. I won’t try to define it here. Like Justice Stewart on pornography, I know it when I see it. I have used an analogy of the moving sidewalks at the airport to describe good writing — it’s like effortlessly gliding along on that sidewalk admiring the artwork, reading the ads, and watching the other people.

    Notice the next time you are reading how many times you start a sentence over, or reread a paragraph. Each instance probably represents an opportunity for the writer to have better expressed herself. If there are quite a few, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the reader. Not “respect” in the current gangster slang meaning “insult,” but in the sense that the reader is made to feel unimportant, just as Mark describes. It is like inviting a bunch of folks over for dinner and serving whatever YOU want, oblivious to their tastes and diets. Or like putting your readers on that moving sidewalk, then starting and stopping it whenever you want, or making it go backwards, or race fast.

    It quickly becomes very apparent to me whether a writer is writing for me or for her own ego/jollies.

    I also do allow for some carelessness in “less important” communications, such as my posts on this blog and any forum. Just because we use the written word in these comments, the intent here is more like a casual conversation. Proofing to the level that eliminates all errors is time consuming and if forums held contributors to that standard, conversations would die out.

    On the other, I would distinguish the level of care required in these comments from that required of Anne’s feature blogs that instigate these threads. If I were her, I would improve those. I have privately wondered who would ever sign up for the workshops and services she offers after reading those posts, but knowing how many “writers” are even worse, I assume there is a market. That’s the funny thing about not knowing something — you can’t know whether your teacher knows anything either. It’s like taking foreign language classes from someone who can’t speak the language — how would you know?

    To me, a blog can have a more casual style, and I’d allow a liberal amount of rambling (can you tell?), but I’d still expect the writer to try to spell/grammar check, and to organize the topics logically.

    • Anne

      Hi Ron, you can be sure I’ll never ever do a workshop or class on how to proofread or spell… and know that with my clients I tell them up front they will need a copy editor in addition to me. I’m under no illusions about my spelling, ability to see typos, etc.

  • I have been writing for many years now, and have always been an excellent speller. Apparently, however, my fingers don’t spell as well as my brain does. I have my father, a professional Quality Assurance Analyst, proof all my work for me, and errors sometimes still slip through. Fortunately for me (and for my self-esteem in general), he simply informs me that something is misspelled, and he either corrects it, or has me correct it. There is no name calling, deriding, dissertations in my lack of professionalism, etc. It’s just something that needs to be fixed, so it gets fixed.

    I’ve known people like Mark all my life. The need to be “right” outweighs all other considerations, especially another person’s feelings. In fact, it sometimes seems that the worse they can make someone else feel, the more “right” they are. It’s possible to be honest with someone, to let them know they need to correct something, yet still not hurt their feelings unnecessarily.

    Like most writers, I read a lot. I routinely find spelling and grammatical errors in books by perennial best-selling authors. Where are the blog posts flaming them, and crying out to the world how unprofessional they are, or how inept their editors and proofreaders are? They may be out there, but I guarantee they’re not being posted by fellow writers, those of us who know and understand that mistakes happen.

    I agree with the comment that the random typo adds an air of humanity to a post or an article. If we were perfect, we’d be robots, and all articles and blogs would read the same. What an incredibly boring world that would be.

    I’ve found this blog and Deb Ng’s blog to be tremendously useful to me, not only in the number and quality of job listings posted each day, but especially in the posts and comments from real people who are real writers making a real living at this. Keep up the good work!!

    • Anne

      Thanks Will… believe it or not even I spot some typos in books and mags… print stuff.

      Glad you find this site helpful.

  • Thank you so much for writing this article. I write for a few sites and it seems like people just love to take a crap on me. I can write well, but sometimes I make errors like everyone else. You are completely correct in your rant, and I think that people need to realize that without someone to edit your work all the time, errors are bound to slip through. I personally love what you have to say, and if there are errors, well that just makes you more human because your work speaks for itself.
    .-= Patricia Vennes´s last blog ..Getting Sexy Together =-.

    • Anne

      Thanks Patricia… as I’ve said elsewhere, even with professional editing I’ve had mistakes in my work and others’ slip through… if I were afraid of making mistakes in public I sure wouldn’t blog 😉

  • Debra

    Mark,

    Aside from scanning the work of Anne, and others for possible fractured English, do you ever to a close reading of the material authored by others? I do, as it is one of the aspects of the dynamics of online interpersonal interaction that intrigues me.

    In doing a close reading of your posts you come across as scathing and are typical of many of the denizens of online communities. You use the internet as a forum to flaunt your pathology.

    The subtext in your posts underscores your issues, which go far beyond chagrin for possible instances of grammar gone awry.

    You need to take a “time out” for a little introspection and work on yourself. Writing mills can be rather stressful and that seems to be manifesting in your communiqué .

    I’m rather curious — in light of the fact that you deem Anne’s writing riddled with “horrible” errors, etc. what brings you to her site?

    I believe you owe her an apology for using her comment section to air all that is ailing you.

    -Debra

  • As someone with several regular trolls (and I know who most of them really are) , and as someone who receives hate mail on a daily basis, I can tell you it can be very hurtful and disheartening. I used to let it upset me – some even to tears. However, I’ve been blogging a long time and in that time I’ve learned several things about trolls and angry people with superiority complexes:

    1. They’re cowards: They use the anonymity of the internet to say things they would never say in person to someone’s face. They use their internet personnas to bully and belittle because it makes them feel better about their own lives.

    2. They’re jealous: Not everyone can do it. Sure everyone thinks it’s easy to spend 3 hours a day looking for job leads and coming up with interesting content every day, but not everyone can do it for two weeks, let alone all these years.

    3. They’re bored: Not enough going on in their own lives so they have to find some fun things to do.

    4. They don’t have enough work: If they did, they wouldn’t be spending all this time worried about YOUR blog.

    5. They’re not really interested in giving constructive criticism – If they were, they’d do it a lot better, you know? It wouldn’t be all angry and arrogant. My readers constantly call me to task for typos, but what sets them apart from the trolls is that they do it in jest or with humor and good taste.

    Anne, you provide a wonderful service and have a loyal, congenial community. Whenever one of the trolls comes on the attack, remember everything you built and the people who really care. Don’t give the trolls a second thought – they’re really not that important. As for typos? It happens, even to the best writers.
    .-= Deb Ng´s last blog ..50 Places that Hire Freelance Writers =-.

    • Anne

      Thanks Deb. And you’re so right about typos/misspellings showing up in even the most edited work. About an hour before the party launching my first ghostwritten book the publisher called me to tell me the author’s name had been misspelled on the spine. I started to ask how such a thing could happen, then let it go because I knew how hard we worked to get a magazine proofed and how often errors would slip through no matter what we did or how many pros took a pass at it. Found the same thing to be true on every publication I’ve ever worked on.

      A

  • Mark

    Anne wrote “If you had called me a horrible speller or a horrible copy editor I might have laughed and agreed with you. I do proof and I’m awful at it. What I don’t understand is why my being an awful proofreader means I don’t respect you. What causes you to make that assumption?”

    After considering the relevant comments here (dismissing the comments of your clique’s poker party-goers), I have concluded that I was in error. I should not have used the word “horrible” and I apologize. And I should have been more specific as Anne describes. The only excuse I have is that I was trying for an attention-getting headline in the email.

    Now, Anne, if you are speaking to another adult, I doubt that you talk to the person in the manner that you would a 5-year-old. When you post error-filled articles to your blog as I have described, you are talking down to your readers, contributing to the dumbing-down in the media, and causing some readers to have doubts about the attention to detail you put into every other aspect of your website. If you won’t take the time to spell correctly for your readers, maybe the other information on your website was also just thrown together.

    Of course, there is just no excuse for misspellings in any medium, if the article was written by a person over a certain age and who is in full use of his or her faculties. (Really, Anne, those computer manuals you wrote and published, did they include misspellings? I think not. So why would the content of a blog rate a different viewpoint about spelling and grammar?)

    I understand we have different styles of writing, but to assign a classification to spelling according to where the article appears makes no sense. For example, you’d spell everything correctly on your résumé, but a blog post, well, just be sloppy there. Get it? Job, boss = important. Blog readers = not so important. Yet you hope to gain trust from your blog readers.

    I’ve seen a gazillion blogs and websites. There are blogs and websites at which the writer has interesting points to make, yet there are those misspellings again, the wrong word (words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings), punctuation, grammar and syntax errors. I’d like to read those articles. But can’t get through ’em. I can point you to a blogger who writes in such a way, and who also states that he has a degree in journalism! The irony.

    Furthermore, my occupation, location, age and traceability are all irrelevant. Misspellings are misspellings.

    By the way, Mark is my real name. (Who chooses “Mark” as a fake name for a blog comment post?) No. Wait. You’re right. I needed a fake name. No problem. I’d just use the name of someone I knew. Mike? Ken? Too easy to guess they are fake names! I looked around the room. TV? No. Mr. Book? That didn’t sound right. Then I saw a felt tip marker on my desk. “Felt Tip” would be a giveaway, so I decided to shorten “marker”, and came up with “Mark”.

    • Anne

      Apology accepted Mark.

      Thank you.

    • Anne

      Mark, you said:

      Now, Anne, if you are speaking to another adult, I doubt that you talk to the person in the manner that you would a 5-year-old. When you post error-filled articles to your blog as I have described, you are talking down to your readers, contributing to the dumbing-down in the media, and causing some readers to have doubts about the attention to detail you put into every other aspect of your website. If you won’t take the time to spell correctly for your readers, maybe the other information on your website was also just thrown together.

      I just flat disagree that my misspellings mean I’m talking down to readers. And I refuse to be responsible for other’s errors, although I’ll take responsibility for mine. We apparently see the world, or at least the blogging world differently… but I appreciate the time you’ve taken to explain your thinking.

  • I just realized today that my favorite author is not very good at spelling, judging by her blog (and some of her books that have even been edited). However, her ideas and storytelling abilities are great. I, on the other hand, pride myself on good spelling but consider myself pretty bad at coming up with story ideas. I can write nonfiction but never a good book. It would be one thing if Anne wrote constantly about editing and checking for typos, but she focuses more on the overall business of writing, which is valuable. I don’t read this blog to learn how to write or edit, but rather to learn how to deal in the world of writing. Plus, it’s a blog, which is considered more casual than a business letter or query.
    .-= Autumn´s last blog ..Find Out Why Quality Content Is Important To Your Site =-.

    • Anne

      Autumn, I suspect those of us who have highly ‘creative’ spelling actually have a mild form of dyslexia or something like it. I remember my mother’s frustration drilling me for spelling tests in the 4th grade and my tears. I know that slowly, over time, have a computerized spell check has actually improved my spelling a bit – not much but a bit. Suspect it’s the rote of retyping. But as everyone knows spell check can do more harm than good.

      One of my sons is a worse speller than I am, another is probably average, and my daughter is good enough to be a proofreader – same parents – the good spell and the average speller are actually twins – so go figure.

      BTW you may find you’re able to write a book as you move through your writing career… be willing to be surprised 😉

  • Sigh . . . you know it’s one thing to give constructive criticism and another to just tear people down and make them feel bad.

    I’m reminded of Foster’s Law: “The only people who find what they are looking for in life are the fault finders.”

    Even so, since you are a professional writer, I would try hard to avoid tpyos in your bolg potss.
    .-= Debbi´s last blog ..Quotation for the Week of July 19 =-.

  • Alright, now I can see your point. This must be what got you so upset. I’m not sure that I agree with you, but I can see where you are coming from. I don’t pay attention to the job ads here so I really have no input, but thanks for sort of being civilized.
    .-= Yolander Prinzel´s last blog ..How to Tell If Your Freelance Writing Business is Headed in the Wrong Direction =-.

  • Mark

    All I can add is that when you do not take the time to proofread your own material, then post it for the world to see, you are in effect saying “I don’t respect you, the reader. I don’t care if I’m careless. But trust me, all that information I post about jobs, well, that’s different. I did check the validity of the ads. Believe me. Really.”

    • Anne

      Mark, here’s the thing. If you had called me a horrible speller or a horrible copy editor I might have laughed and agreed with you. I do proof and I’m awful at it. What I don’t understand is why my being an awful proofreader means I don’t respect you. What causes you to make that assumption?

  • I give the untraceable Mark (if that’s his real name) credit for weighing in, and I do tend to get peeved over the same couple of points he mentions. Theirs a comment post right hear that anoyed me to reed it. We do claim to be writers, after all.

    On the other hand, “Mark” (looks at other hand) lighten the f%#@ up! Do you turn down job assignments because the ad had an error (and if you do, can I have those jobs)? From reading Anne’s other posts, it’s quite obvious that this blog isn’t how she earns a living … it’s a blog! The Grand and Omniscient Market will decide who is a professional. If Anne or Jennifer or the lovely pink-jacketed Yolander continually make these skull-exploding errors that drive you insane, people will stop reading and they’ll go away. Problem solved. Some of us need to work on our attitudes and stay away from the computer until after coffee (slurp).

  • As a matter of fact, it is not ironic. Being rejected for a query is par for the course. This blog is not a query. Anne is not asking you to hire her. If you “reject” a blog that you read and were not asked to opine on or approve of, you are being honest, but your rejection is unsolicited–unlike a query after which writers expect either an approval or rejection. I think the point of Anne’s post is that there is a way to approach someone about an unsolicited criticism.

    But, I know what you are going through Mark. All of these misspelled blog posts and comments (OMG, did I just start a sentence with “But?” Can I do that? Oh…I claim creative license!) are part of a recent outbreak of misspelled corporate communications and newspaper spelling freak outs (oh jeez, I’m supposed to use hyphens somewhere in there….um…I’m so nervous my palms are sweating…). It is nice to see someone who obviously cares so much speaking out about it. The literary world is a safer place with you there to do nothing but criticize a bunch of crap after it’s printed. You could use those powers for good and, I don’t know, become a crime fighting editor or something. I would happily make you a cape. We could get a big spotlight that we shine in the internet sky whenever we catch a hapless blogger giving out advice about something and spelling things wrong.

    And yes, we are definitely a clique. We all hang out on the weekends in our pink satin jackets and quickly form a chain of protection around anyone who seems to be in danger of flaming insults. We even have a theme song, so watch your back. We will sing you into a quivering mass of fear.

    Or…maybe it’s that you are in the wrong in your approach…judging by your comment here, I would say that you were not trying to be polite or professional when you approached Anne about mistakes that you found. Now, maybe I’m wrong and you went forward in a completely professional manner with no attempt to hurt her…oh wait, didn’t you refer to her as a “horrible” writer? Hmm….seems that is a little emotional on your end….well, that’s really up to you to think about I guess. Oh, and I would not assume we are whining since you can’t hear our voices and most of us weren’t self-pitying. Of course, I do understand that the internet is YOUR place to speak your mind and not anyone else’s, but I would beg that you allow us dumb little people to have some rights–just once in a while, if you please, sir.

    Anne, I got your back–are you coming to the clique’s poker party on Friday? Also, I head about another meanie trying to insult a writer on another blog, quick everyone, let’s all pretend we care about it and go defend another member of our cute little pack–because we all know that people like Mark can’t feel right unless there are commenters he or she can call sycophants at the scene of the inappropriately delivered critique.
    .-= Yolander Prinzel´s last blog ..How to Tell If Your Freelance Writing Business is Headed in the Wrong Direction =-.

  • Mark

    All of you stop yer whining. Anne didn’t “go through” anything. For cripe’s sake! How a message is interpreted is up to a given reader. It was her decision to feel bad.

    Presumably you are all writers who have submitted articles and have been rejected more than a few times. Does that rejection “ruin your day”? Judging by the few responses so far (above) this blog seems like a clique and any opinion that deviates from the group’s is unwanted.

    After graciously allotting some of my time to look over some of Anne’s writings, I offered her constructive criticism in two emails I’d sent in the previous few months. Those comments had a nice, heartwarming tone.

    You see, it’s not one mistake once. It’s numerous mistakes, often.

    Now, here, in a classic attempt to avoid the issues that I mentioned, Anne has focused on the messenger and the style of critique.

    She suggested I need never look at her articles again. Ok. (Well, I hope I can still look at the jobs list, unless she figures out a way to ban me.)

    But it disappoints me that the readers of Anne’s posts accept all the types of errors I mentioned to her.

    Surely you’ve noticed in any correspondence from businesses these days, whether in email or hard copy, the messages contain numerous misspellings. When the copy in the letter from the bank contains spelling errors and poor grammar, I become concerned about the people in charge of the safe.

    Is it not ironic that a writer (Anne) who writes about writing, and is also paid to write articles, would offer posts consistently containing spelling errors, incorrect grammar, syntax issues and the like? If you are submitting articles in hopes of receiving payment, are your submissions full of misspellings? Is that ok?

    It is surprising that some of you take pride in your inability to spell correctly, and think it’s alright to call yourselves “professional” and then post or submit writings full of grammar mistakes, the usage of the wrong word (e.g. their vs. there) and so on.

    Why not set an example and do your part to improve the quality of written material that’s out there on the web and in printed publications?

    Your fifth grade English teachers would be ashamed of you.

  • David BruiseDude

    Man I can’t believe that editor for saying all that stuff to you. I get editors like that all the time and when I do I tell em to you shove it. Its not like a can’t and don’t take criticism, Im perfectly fine with it if the person is reasonable in their approach, or at least im making over 15 an hour. For 10 hr you probably cant talk to me like that, and for under 10 there is no god damn way you can talk to me like that……Im a professional…..Thats what I would do…..

  • Wow, I’m so sorry you had to go through that today. You know this person was sitting at home this morning wondering, “Wow, how can I make someone else as miserable as I am? Oh I know, I’ll make an ass of myself anonymously on the internet.” Everyone’s a critic, right? I hope one day (the sooner the better) you’ll look back on this and laugh at this person’s silly attention seeking tactic.
    .-= Jennifer Escalona´s last blog ..[SpecialtyBuzz] Science Writer Tim Fitzpatrick =-.

  • I am so sorry Anne–you are such a valuable source of information and support to writers–new and old, please don’t forget that. I would venture a guess that it is jealousy, pure and simple. I can’t imagine that anyone who has reached your level of success and popularity would take that tact. Some poor slob who can spell seems to be busy trying to insult those who are doing well rather than trying to find their own method to success. Oh, and, please–we can all read EVERY writer’s blog and find at least one mistake. I mean, come on internet police. Get a life.
    .-= Yolander Prinzel´s last blog ..How to Tell If Your Freelance Writing Business is Headed in the Wrong Direction =-.

  • Eve

    There are so many unhappy people out there who want to spread their misery. And the internet makes it easier, I think, for people to be cruel. I try not to let it get me down, but I too sometimes wonder why people would take the time to send an email or leave a comment that basically says I’m an idiot, when it would take them exactly the same amount of time and probably less energy to say something useful in a positive way. I don’t get it, either.
    .-= Eve´s last blog ..Date Set for Russia! Writing Like Crazy! Hate SEO! =-.

  • Marian

    There’s a couple of typos in this post.

    Just kidding! Even if there are, it really doesn’t matter. Readers can decide for themselves what they think is good and what’s important. I overlook errors for a writer who shows heart.
    I ‘ve also worked at a leading broadsheet newspaper with some of the most pedantic people on this earth but it was fine because they had the gifts of courtesy and goodwill.

  • The online corollary: those who can’t teach, tear others down. The web has become a nasty place, judging by the people who come to our social network shaking and afraid to say anything that might be criticized. It’s like there’s a point system; if you can get someone upset, you win. Fortunately, we’re the ones actually working and creating things — they’re stuck railing against the cyber-wind. You do good work, Anne.

  • Hey Anne – I think there is a Proverbs that says something about a soft word 😉

    Not only do I need to work on my kindness when I am dealing with writers but also in my life. It is okay to say something is not right but please help us figure out how to make it right!

    Everything that I say to another should be an effort to build them up to a better person.
    .-= Kathryn Lang´s last blog ..Building a Better Blog =-.

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