A publisher I know likes to help his writers write better by criticizing their published work.
Once or twice a year, he sits down with them and comments on articles they wrote months before. His comments are usually profoundly good. Yet I don’t think they are very helpful. They don’t help very much because the writers are not emotionally prepared to hear them. They feel that their work is under attack. The natural reaction is defensiveness.
Imagine your spouse criticizing the shoes you are wearing when you are already at a party. “Why didn’t you speak up when I put them on?” might be your natural (and justified) reaction.
I understand why this publisher does what he does. From his point of view, it’s the most efficient way to convey his good ideas about writing. I used to do the same thing, but then I realized I was mostly wasting my time and the time of the writers I was trying to help.
Providing negative criticism of published work is by and large a bootless endeavor. In the writer’s mind, hearing negative things said about it so late in the game feels like Monday morning quarterbacking. The game is over. The score is what it is. Better to focus on the next game.
If you want to help people write better, ask them to show you their work before it is published. If your criticism is likely to be profound (i.e., related to the idea or structure), ask to see it as a first draft. If you just intend to critique more superficial things (grammar, punctuation, and/or facts), it’s better to do it with a final draft.
Give positive criticism – something good about a piece of writing – both before and after it’s published. Since I don’t have time to read the hundreds of articles that my client companies produce every day, I spot-check published pieces and provide positive, post-published criticism where I can.
Saying something good about a published piece bolsters the writer’s confidence and makes him eager to write more. Being positive about a piece in draft form lowers the writer’s natural defensiveness and makes it easier for him to receive negative comments when they need to be made.
It is always better to make your criticism – positive or negative – specific. Specific comments are easier to understand and more likely to result in the desired change. General criticism, even when it is positive, serves to challenge or bloat the ego. The ego is always the foe of good writing.
Rather than say, “Great essay, Joe. You are a genius,” say “Great essay, Joe. I particularly liked the story you told in the beginning. It was concise and yet carried a lot of emotion – just the emotion needed to bring home your point.”[Ed. Note: Get Michael Masterson’s insights into becoming successful in your business and personal life, achieving financial independence, and accomplishing all your goals on his website. You’ll find updates on Michael’s books, news on upcoming ETR events, Michael’s blog, and room to send in your comments and questions. Check it out today.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]