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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Criticism

I have a friend who is always eager to tell me what is wrong. It’s not just the day-to-day crises; it’s also, “See this new place? Let me tell you what I don’t like about it.” I’ve tried cajoling him by saying that he can tell me the bad stuff only if he tells me at least as many good things as bad. He can’t do it.

 

After a while, he’s just not that fun to be around. If, God forbid, I should find myself kvetching about something, his reaction is always extreme. “Why are you friends with that person? I’d have punched him straight-away.” “Why would you go back to that place?” “Just throw it away.”

 

There’s nothing particularly clever or sophisticated about finding fault with things. Oh, I’m not saying that you have to solely see the positive side of everything—I may be a glass half-full kind of person, but I’m not an undiscerning person. I am, after all, paid to find the flaws in peoples manuscripts.

 

In any given day, more good stuff happens than bad, so why do some people feel compelled to focus on the bad?

 

Whether your task is to review a piece of software, a work of art, or a restaurant, it’s important to separate the facts from your opinion, and to be scrupulously fair in your assessment. If you’re going to write a good review, tell first how the product works (or how it’s intended to work), the theme of the artwork, or the genre of the food, and then tell a few specifics. At the end, you can tell us what you thought, be that good, bad, or indifferent. If you really hated it, try to keep in mind whether you’re trying to be informative or instructive, or whether you hope to put the perpetrator out of business.

 

The first part, telling how the product (artwork or restaurant) works or is intended to work should be completely without opinion. That means that no caveat words (like “intended to X” or “supposed to Y”) or other subtle slights are allowed. Just tell what the thing is and what it’s supposed to do. You can launch into a little detail, if that’s appropriate (“the duck l’orange takes 45 minutes to prepare, and it’s recommended that you order in advance”), but don’t use the opportunity to state an opinion (“the meals were slow to arrive because the duck l’orange took longer to prepare than other dishes”). You can say that you had difficulty accomplishing a given task as described by a Help file, or that menu items were in non-traditional places, but just stick to the facts when you’re covering the basics about the product, work of art, or restaurant.

 

The second part, the theme of the thing, might be covered in your introduction or spread liberally throughout. You’re writing about a piece of software for a specific development task, a play of childhood reminiscences, a modernistic representational painting, or a restaurant with a certain type of cuisine. Again, it’s not time for your opinion. Just say what it is, or at least what it was meant to be. If you’re not sure what it was meant to be, you may not be qualified to write the review. (This said from having been to a concert and later reading a review that said things like “the funny-looking choir” or “the metronomic conductor” because he couldn’t find fault with the performance or perhaps was unfamiliar with the period of music performed. I don’t know what a choir is supposed to look like that made that particular one “funny looking” to him or what the conductor—whose movements I thought were very clear, which is a nice change when you’re a performer—might have done differently. In short, he heard and saw a very different concert from the one I attended.)

 

In the specifics section, you can tell both the good news and the bad. That doesn’t mean it’s time to blast away, however. It means that it’s time to work your way through a project using the software, to tell the plot or design details, or to talk about service, ambiance, and the quality and portions of the food presented.

 

When you’re writing about a piece of software (or any functional thing), just tell the facts. If you encounter a feature that doesn’t work as expected, it’s okay to say so, just don’t give your opinion yet. Save that for the end. If you find a work-around, encounter difficulties with tech support, or find the solution in a surprising serendipitous sally, it’s okay to mention that here. If you’re telling about the plot or design of a tale or visual piece of art, it’s okay to say that you didn’t understand it while disclosing the details of the plot. It isn’t okay to say it was too stupid to follow or that you were offended by its ugliness, at least not in this section.

 

When you’re writing about your experience in a restaurant, you do have to cover more subjective details than you might in a technical document because eating in a restaurant is not separable from the ambiance, the quantity and quality of the food, and the quality of the service. You don’t have to say the server was rude or slow, though, at least not in this section on specifics. You can say the food took longer to arrive than expected, and then describe its condition once it arrived.

 

Finally, when you’ve covered all the facts without an opinion, you can let fly. If the product, artwork, or restaurant was really reprehensible, please find a few nice things to say about it too. Perhaps the UI was easy to use, the acting was excellent, or the coffee was particularly nice. In my opinion, you will seem more qualified to discuss the negative aspects if you are also capable of describing the positive ones, however few they might be.

 

On the other hand, an unrelentingly positive review begs that the reviewer be reviewed. If you just scan through a few Amazon.com book reviews, you’ll see exactly what I mean. There is nothing perfect out there, and even if you are bouncing off the walls with excitement about something, when you’re giving a review, it’s important to imagine that other people will react differently. You do the product (artwork or restaurant) the most justice when you look beyond your own needs or tastes if you’re taking your review to the public.

 

Also, to be fair, beta products, opening night of a play, concert, or restaurant, and last minute gallery changes might make the presentation less than perfect. Try to have a sense of humor about these things (late starts give you more time to study to program or the audience, after all), and don’t let these bumps in the road color your opinion about the greater journey.