Friday, September 27, 2013

Going Critical: Constructive vs Destructive

I have a rather lengthy story I wrote not to long ago sitting on my hard drive.  I think it's pretty good and have considered posting in various places, here and deviant art for example.  I don't not because I'm afraid people will say it's awful, or say nothing at all.  No, I'm afraid of four words:

"Great job.  Post more!"

Afraid because that is utterly useless to me.  It doesn't help me improve my work at all, and worse, it might encourage me to keep going with terrible ideas when they should be reigned in.  This phrase, these four words and its various forms, is a form of destructive criticism.

It's not alone of course, and the reason this kind of "encouragement" exists is because of the weakest of the three major destructive criticisms:  The troll.  Trolls, in internet parlance, are people who spout off insulting comments for no other reason than to make people respond to them, and then they can say more.  The vast majority of trolls are, well, obvious.  There are good trolls out there, that can play a community like a fiddle and drive them into frothing at the mouth rage, but most are obvious, terrible, and not worth the time.  If someone is discouraged by one of these, then they probably have greater problems than just what's in the piece.  At the same time, sometimes trolls can reveal potential problems on accident, and might be useful, but they should only be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, the internet is full of touchy-feely people who believe everyone should be encouraged, so they post things like "Great job.  Post more!"  The reason it's useless is because it doesn't say WHY it's great.  What worked to make the commenter enjoy it?  Why did the commenter enjoy it?  It says nothing.  It is meaningless, meant only to counter trolls whose opinions are meant to simply hurt.  The result is most of the comments on any given piece of work is utterly worthless to improving the comic.

And what's worse is that the creator might start buying it.  Hearing everyone and their uncle say "great job" does have a positive impact, right up until someone counters it.  Then the creator goes ballistic.  How dare someone counter their work that everyone else claims is the greatest thing EVAR.  I've had that happen once.  Remember back when I was talking about Dreamfall I mentioned I wrote a fanfiction for the series.  I was posting it to a particular board, and others were writing stories as well.  I wrote a critique on one, and while the details are fuzzy, the result was that it wasn't all that great.  The author came unglued on me, and I left the board, and stopped writing that fanfic because of it.

Finally, the last form of destructive criticism comes from the nitpickers and grammar nazis.  Their problem is they focus on things that, in the end, aren't important at all.  To a point, some of these things are important, and useful in refining a work, especially on the grammar end.  The phrasing and wording can change the meaning of a piece easily, but it's not that important in the earlier drafts.  Same with nitpicking plot elements.  It's unnecessary criticisms that, while they might be useful, often miss the point of improving a piece, instead beating on the little things.

My Not-So-Wild Review of Schlock Mercenary got this treatment from a commenter.  Considering I write most of these articles kind of off the cuff and do no editing whatsoever (because I'm lazy), I'm sure those errors are there, but it didn't affect the substance of the article, so what good did it do in the long run?  I'm not unappreciative, of course, but it doesn't help me work on expressing my ideas better.  He did follow up by saying he agreed with my ideas, but didn't add in if he had different thoughts.

Meanwhile, my brief discussion about Sinfest a bit ago resulted in a much more constructive comment.  The commenter disagreed with my suggestion that maybe something deeper is going on.  I didn't reply to the comment (sorry!) but I suspect he might be right and if I do a follow up, I may quote him on it.  That comment added to my ideas in a way that quoting off all my grammatical errors did not.

So what makes criticism constructive?  That's easy, answer one question:  Why?  Why is it good?  Why is it bad?  Why did I enjoy it?  Why do I want read more?  I say easy, of course, but it's not.  In trying to write my Supermassive Blackhole A* RE-Review, I had to struggle with why I wasn't enjoying it.  Eventually it came down to bad pacing, and a character that was a little too perfect for my tastes.  It sounds quite harsh, and it is, but I hope it comes across that I didn't HATE the work because of it, I just didn't enjoy it.  The next step is to try to present options to fix it, which I only half did, but we're not all perfect.

The point is to make the product BETTER.  But as I've said, criticism is practically a dirty word, even the constructive kind.  I'll explore why it might be next week.

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