It’s Cruel to be Kind

When someone asks why they’ve failed at some endeavor, do you tell them it’s because they’re up against people who are cheating their way to success? Or maybe that they’re being too self-critical, and their effort isn’t as bad as they think? Or do you tell them the truth — that their effort is poorly done? When a writer asks why a book that’s been available for a long time (more than a year) has only one or two reviews, and those are mediocre, what do you tell them?

It should be considered a kindness to let them know why they failed, but these days, that can provoke a tantrum rather than a willingness to take another look and try to discover what they’ve done wrong. Truth-telling is a kindness, but if it’s asked for and rejected, all you can do is shake your head and move on, knowing that the questioner wanted sympathy and an easy solution, not hard truth. This morning, I joined another person in replying to a pained query, both of us pointing out significant problems, including writing that would probably get a grade of C- in a fifth grade English class. It will be interesting to see what the reaction is. Or if there is one.

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8 thoughts on “It’s Cruel to be Kind

  1. You’re brave; I don’t do those any more.

    If asked directly, by a good friend, I would first ensure they wanted the truth, and then couch ‘truth’ are carefully as possible. But I’d still be risking the friendship.

    It is always better for the writer to make a list of possibilities of what might be wrong. To not do so is to abdicate the freedom we crave.

    Then you could point out books or websites that tackle that particular possibility.

    True critique is for when you’re being paid for your opinion; for some reason, it is easier to accept the ‘truth’ from someone you’ve researched and paid. It is still only their truth.

    Self-education is the only true remedy for bad writing.

    1. It doesn’t take courage. More like being annoyed at such obliviousness. I don’t do it very often, though, since it’s usually a waste of time. The person was only concerned with getting more reviews, and claimed to have done “everything.” Everything but ask someone who might offer an informed critique of what they were doing wrong.

      1. I’m not an expert; I would not feel comfortable telling someone else they’re ‘doing it wrong.’ Except in a very gentle and generic way.

        I’ve had unsolicited advice (and some solicited) telling me I did something wrong, that I didn’t agree with – how am I objectively better than your questioner?

        If I become a bestseller, there would still be people saying I X or Y, and that was ‘wrong.’

        Your person couldn’t have done everything: there are an infinite number of things to do to get reviews.

        That’s why I admired your courage – this one is unwinnable except for people who really want to learn, and they’re already teaching themselves and asking very specific questions of carefully chosen mentors. Their mentors don’t make exasperated comments.

        1. There are many ways of “doing it wrong,” and some of them are debatable as to how wrong they are or whether they’re wrong at all. But when someone is lacking in the basics of both grammar, and novel writing, there’s little to argue about. Either they’re willing to learn or they aren’t. Ordinarily, I don’t put my two cents in because there’s no knowing whether the person is asking for sympathy or real help. I think in this case it was more to confirm what the first person had said, which was very specific, not a matter of personal taste. And of course, it’s unwinnable, because someone who’s so oblivious to their lack of the most basic knowledge, and who’s mostly concerned with getting more reviews, isn’t likely to take any criticism as it’s meant.

          1. Ah, the obvious problems – wrong homonym, can’t use apostrophes, hasn’t figured out where to put the comma for dialogue attributions, can’t seem to get subject and verb to agree on singular and plural – but I can’t see someone accepting criticism on the basics.

            You better than me. I know HOW to do it, but not often WHY (didn’t go to school in English). I just know it’s right – or if it’s wrong, in which case I look it up.

            Some people think it’s some editor’s job to correct their work. Yes – but the editor is me.

            1. I learned more through osmosis than school rules, and still have a few weaknesses I struggle with. PWA keeps bringing up one particular comma problem I can’t seem to learn, but at least my virtual editor keeps me aware of it. Maybe one of these days, I’ll *get* it.

              1. I have a small subset of things I just look up each time. I think I’d recognize if they were misused in something I read, but on the pristine page, where it’s up to me to choose, I sometimes have to stop and think – and then check.

                Certain things have become so ubiquitous in the wrong form that they are making ME, who knows the correct form, make mistakes.

                In the category of repeat a lie often enough…

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