Are We Programmed to Fail?

Stumbled across these words in a writing magazine:  What you really need is kind yet constructive criticism.  Nothing neoteric here; I’ve heard these words so many times I’d called them a cliché.   They are, in fact, the mantra of all writing sites, emags and blogs.

Being a natural born rebel, I wonder about the value of this advice.  Let’s analyze the sentence for validity.

What you (the wannabe writer) really need (require) is kind (sympathetic and warm) yet constructive (to improve or help) criticism (a harsh or critical judgment.)


1. Question:  Do you require kindness?  Answer:  No.  You want it.  It’s nice, but you do not require it.

2. Questions:  What is kind criticism?  Does the phrase ‘kind criticism’ represent an oxymoron?  Answer:  Yes, this convoluted logic?

3. Question:  When you were in school and earned yourself a D-, did the teacher put an apology beside your grade?  Answer: Nope.

4. Question:  Whoever heard of a kind critic, anyway?  When a professional critic reviews a professional writer is kindness foremost on his mind?  Answer:  No.  The critic is thinking about amusing his own readers.

So, if this is the model, why have we chosen to ignore it?  Why, I ask, does the word ‘kind’ come before ‘constructive?’  We do not need kindness; we need help.  But we have been so conditioned to expect our dessert first that we will not accept our vegetables without sugar on top.  This whole idea is counterproductive.


Constructive criticism

I’ll take that to mean that we want our critic to expound upon their advice; we want to hear more than:  You suck!

We want to be corrected, enlightened and assisted.  (Okay, I’ll buy that for a dollar.)


Now, let’s rewrite the sentence:   What you want is to have your ego massaged, while simultaneously receiving constructive advice.  Meaning that you want a soft, sweet, smiling angel, with big doe eyes, a bunny nose and melodic voice, to float down to earth and teach you how to write.  (Whahah, good luck on that one.)


Okay, so that’s from the wannabe writer’s point of view, but what is the critic’s point of view?  Criticism, hopefully educated, is fairly easy, straightforward and often on the tip of the tongue.  Lapping it over with a sweet coating of Nice-Nice is the tedious part.


Some people reading this will say:  Umph, I don’t care what CM thinks; I want sugar with my medicine.

In this case, I might opine that you will never find the cure for your mistakes.  Perhaps, a writing career is not the right choice for you.  At some point all artists–be they in music, painting or writing–have to expose their work to UN-KIND criticism.

If you are really hungry to be a better writer, you will take your whippings and say:  Thank you, may I have another please.  Kindness?  What’s that?  Who needs it?  I’m trying to write here.

If you don’t want to hear criticism now, then when?  After publication?  Horrors.  Or, maybe, you were  thinking that the whole world was going to fall down weeping over your glittering words.  Well, what do I know, maybe, they will.

Final questions:  Do these articles that encourage us to be kind have the seeds of failure by not allowing us to help each other in any meaningful way?  Dose this make it too difficult for us to speak, lest we break protocol? Is it kindness to be silent?  When professional writers collaborate, do they hesitate to correct each other?



15 thoughts on “Are We Programmed to Fail?

  1. Yes, we are, and when you realize how many other people are doing exactly the same thing you are, you will give up everything, break your pencils, pour coffee in your computer, etc. Look at the history of getting the novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces” published, and you will understand perseverance.

    It was published 11 years after the writer’s suicide!

    • What I’m doing???? No, no. I abhor the suffocating politeness on writing sites. I actually enjoy editing and commenting. However, they did not enjoy me. 😦 And, as you well know, dear DO, one seldom gets back as much as they put in.

  2. The problem is that in order to adequately criticize you must communicate directly. And the internet is all about the avoidance of the personal.

    • My immediate response to that is negative, but I’m going to consider it more. (You might have even inspired another blog.)

      I think the main issue here is the appearance of a public humiliation, in other words, to correct someone in the public view. On Editred, for instance, I engaged in many private emails where I corrected tersely, spoke sternly and even teased some folks, with no apparent hard feelings. However, one dare not do such a thing in an open comment.

      This practice of private emails between two writers was quite common on ED. I heard about more than I was involved in. However, I always felt that it was unfair to the others in the group and may have even led to the downfall of the site–given the size of such emails.

      So, there is a big difference in what you can say in public and what you can say–and how you say it–in private.

  3. “Thank you, may I have another please.” A *very* interesting way of putting it. Of course, you got that from some book about English boys’ schools. Of course.

    Two reasons why I’ve never participated in mutual critiquing — online or off — 1. I really don’t have the time or patience to give to reading and commenting on someon else’s work. 2. I know that honest criticism usually won’t be appreciated.

    • No, I didn’t get that from a book; I heard it in Basic Training. It was the response that our Drill Sgt demanded. But I will admit that I’m not above using cliches in a comment. I do try to avoid them in a story.

      • Oops. I forgot you were in the military. It wasn’t intended as a comment about cliches, but as a sly dig about another — ahem — genre. Subtlety does *not* work on the internet.

        Just ignore me. I’m not really awake yet.

      • Saw’Right. But it still went over my head… Don’t worry about hurting my feelings; I’m as tough as they come. Unless, of course, I get the crazy idea that you don’t want to hear from me anymore. I very good at disappearing. Comes from years and years of living like a gypsy. Ah, the good old days. 🙂

  4. Here’s the thing…As a advertising pro, as well as being a lifelong fiction-ist, I hear UNKIND criticism all the time. From people who think they understand how language should work. Much of the time, it’s like somebody who scored a touchdown in a high school football game thinking that they could easily play in the NFL. “Kind”? Why not? “Civil”? Without question. Anyone worth his/her salt as writer or critic understands that this is not an art of absolutes. Kindness is nothing more than a humble awareness of that fact.
    xo lynn@skydiaries

    • Ah, yes. You make a good point about the unwashed, armchair bandits. Ignore them. But also be aware of ‘friends’ who will lead you to believe that everything is WONDERFUL.

      My main point that I’m trying to express is NOT to be mean and cruel to anyone; it’s more a question of why can’t we speak directly and plainly to each other, when professional people do it all the time–they must do it to produce quality work.

  5. Uuuummm…

    You said, early on, “…criticism (a harsh or critical judgment.)”, and I just want to put the meanings I found in my dictionary for that word:

    1. Disapproval expressed by pointing out faults or shortcomings

    2. A serious examination and judgment of something

    3. A written evaluation of a work of literature

  6. A little kindness never hurts, but I think the key word that’s missing is “balanced.” Useful criticism points out what’s right as well as what’s wrong. Look at the difference between these two critiques:

    1) This book stunk. It was poorly-proofed, riddled with errors, and spent too much time on tangents.

    2) This book was almost unreadable despite being filled with great information and very well-organized. If you dropped the fourth chapter and spent some money on a copyeditor and a fact-checker, it could be a good book, but it certainly isn’t now.

    The first critique would send most newbie writers off to sulk (we veterans are used to it), but the second provides some specific advice and presents both the good and the bad. Neither one is “nice” or “kind,” but the second one is certainly a lot more useful.

    (NOTE: I made up these critiques. Personally, if I was handed a manuscript full of grammatical or factual errors, I’d never even make it to chapter 4.)

    • Several excellant points here, not the least of which is the word ‘veterans.’ It does take a tenacious drive to keep moving forward despite everything. But who said it would be easy? And I agree, the more specific the information the better it is. A vague comment about errors only serves to undermine rather than help.

      Being hard-nosed, I still think too much time and effort is wasted on sweet talk. I would love to find a place where writers get ‘down low’ and right to buisness. But then again, I am an oddball, always bowing to what is considered normal in polite society. I’ve always been a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of girl. If I was lucky enough to find a mentor, I’d want straight talk …and maybe a few jokes.

  7. I am very pleased with the responses that I got on this post. I respect everyone’s opinion and I want to thank everyone for sharing.

    I am not wise enough to drive a straight line to my goal, but I am smart enough to stop and take a few directions from time to time. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s