Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Constructive vs. Destructive Criticism

As a professional writer, I get a lot of requests for criticism of other people's work. Sometimes it's from potential clients asking for a critique as part of the buying process. Sometimes it's from friends who want to know what I think of their new website or blog. Giving criticism is always tricky, because many people have their egos tied up in what they write--even if they don't realize it. Even that potential business client may have written that web copy himself and be proud of it. And some people, consciously or unconsciously, may seek to use you to validate their own talents--they come to you for "criticism," hoping you'll have only positive things to say.

Of course, as a professional, you don't want to let your friend or potential client keep bad copy in their promotional materials--but sometimes preserving that friendship or landing that job involves giving criticism carefully. Here are a few tips for giving constructive, not destructive, criticism.

Emphasize the positive. I've heard it said that you should always start your criticism by listing three or four things you like about the piece. Then again, I've heard others say that if you start this way, the person you're criticizing is just waiting for the other shoe to drop--and that you should offer positive comments at the end. Whatever order you choose, there's no doubt you shouldn't let your comments be all negative. Try to temper negative critique with positive commentary.

Don't offer unsolicited advice. I've also heard some suggest that to get new business, you should email, mail or phone businesses telling them why their existing promotions suck and what you can do to fix it. Do this with care--you're offering unsolicited advice the other person isn't prepared for, and that person may a). be getting good results from that ad, despite the glaring typos or b). have written it himself (or had his wife/kid/brother write it) and feel protective of it. Don't offer advice unless others ask for it.

Stick to specific issues. When criticizing, avoid broad-based comments like "this is terrible." Instead, stick to specific issues, such as "this piece doesn't address the interests of clients who are already doing business with our competitors." These comments are less about the value of the overall piece than about specific qualities that can be more easily changed--so you're not condemning the entire piece (and thus the writer's abilities).

Always offer suggestions for change. Constructive criticism should always end with ideas to make the piece better. Otherwise, you leave the writer at loose ends--you've told him what to fix, but not how to fix it.

Giving criticism is a delicate matter--but not an impossible one. Do it with tact, and you should be able to preserve your relationships and save the world from bad copy at the same time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great advice - I hope you don't mind that I have shared it with a home-based business group that has some members always being negative! Let's hope they can pull out the positives and become more productive.