The Toastmasters have a way of offering constructive criticism that I endorse fully. They call it their sandwich approach, and in it, they let their developing speech-maker know about something that (s)he did well, then they speak about the areas needing improvement, and then they close their remarks with another word of praise about an area of strength upon which the budding speech-maker can build as (s)he moves onward to new heights. Not surprisingly, this method of helping colleagues to improve is highly effective, and so I want to recommend to everyone that we all try to adopt this means of communicating with each other; not just when we leave “constructive” feedback about the offerings that you read here on this site, but also in life generally, since I think that there are widespread benefits to be derived from this way of operating.
Can you imagine something as radical as this in your communication with your spouse or significant other; with your boss or your peer or your assistant; with your child? Wouldn’t you enjoy it if your clients did this with you? Can’t you imagine how your service providers would feel if you tried to be polite to them, even if you were making a return, or a lodging a protest about some disappointment in your dealings with them? This is not the stuff of fantasy, but it would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?
So, you might ask, what if there is really nothing to praise in the piece that I have just read? How do I find something positive to say about that? What do I do if something really needs to be said about the shoddy way in which the piece has been slapped together, without any attempt at editing or developing characterisation or plot, without any regard for grammar or spelling? Are you suggesting that I be a hypocrite and say something nice? Saying nothing is not an option for me, GB; what you just wrote was crap and you need to know it…
Alright, I grant you that sometimes, you may feel that the work is truly poorly presented, and that you cannot do as I obviously did, and just move on to the next story or essay. You might do what I have done elsewhere where I see some potential though; and you might send a private feedback message to the author with your comments; beginning with the good that is there, even if that is only a line about their bravery in putting their work into the public domain for general scrutiny. That is something positive. There are many more persons here, talented people who visit websites of this nature, but who are afraid to allow their voices to be heard, than there are people who have taken the risk of airing their deepest thoughts, most profound fears and darkest secret yearnings in their blogs and their stories and poems; and so even if this is the only positive thing that you can find to say about their work, then you might want to start, and perhaps, if necessary, end with that as well.
Of course, after telling the person what (s)he has done well to step up to the plate at all, one does need to deliver the bad news, but even here there might be some ground rules that would help the person. The first thing that I would recommend is that you be specific about what you want to see from the person to whom you are directing your remarks. I know that for me, the person who told me that I shifted point of view in my early stories on the Literotica website (no need to go rushing there looking for them; I asked the moderators to remove all 82 of my submissions from their catalogue) did more for me than the one who told me that my stories were rubbish. The man who praised the standard of my editing of my own work has caused me to re-read my stories just that one extra time before publishing them here, since I don’t want to disappoint him in the future. To be sure, I still get it wrong sometimes, but, again, because of this generous-minded person I have become a better writer.
The second thing that I would recommend is that you try to give a little of yourself in your comments. Again, the person who told me that my poem Birthday was “gripping and disturbing but profound” conveyed much in these few words, as did the person who told me that the “cheating and blackmail was a real turn off. please (sic) keep the garbage out of the incest area” for Søren and his Sisters on Literotica.
In truth, because of that second, more negative comment, I have tried to be more sensitive and respectful of the feelings of others in my writing, not only for the stories that I write myself, but also for those that fom time-to-time I am asked to read and critique. As harsh as that was to hear, and even though that proved, ultimately, to be a minority opinion, I learned from it, and hopefully, if this person bothers to read any more of my work (s)he will be more satisfied.
Finally, it has been a suspicion of mine for some time, that some of the anonymous comments that I read are really from people who know me but who feel that they don’t want to say something to me lest I take them in the wrong way. I can’t speak for everyone, but one thing that I can say is that usually the more profound the comment, the more that I would like to get further clarification, or to discuss the technique change being recommended, with the commentator. Leaving no return contact information on a comment in my mailbox or leaving a vague, anonymous comment is frustrating if I really need just five minutes more of your time.
So, I’d like to urge those of you who have something to say to speak up so that we can all have more access to each other’s ideas. You have access to mine; I’ve written them down for you, but I need more access to you since there may be times when I need to know what you meant when you said whatever it is that you did. Certainly, for me it would be helpful, and so even if you don’t do it for anyone else, if you’re not sure how they will react, please let me understand what you want of me. Let me decide if I can lift my game to wherever it is that you want me to be. I’m not promising that I will be able to do so, but at least you will have given me a chance to become one of the greatest Jamaican writers of all times.
In closing, I would like to remind us all that it takes relatively little effort to sweeten the bitterest medicine with a spoon of sugar; and the effort is sometimes worth it since you are likely to be given a better reception if your aim in offering your comments is to help the person involved to do a better job next time. Of course, if your agenda is something else, like crushing that person’s spirit, then you could probably continue doing what you’re doing now; but don’t be surprised if you continue to be ignored.