Monday, May 18, 2015

Constructive Criticism

Copyediting is one of the services that I provide through Kutter Consulting, and this work necessarily involves reviewing others’ writing and making occasional recommendations. Part of a copyeditor’s job is recommending different words, asking for clarification, and pointing out weak arguments. There will be more or less of these depending on what the author wants from the copyeditor (in terms of how deep a copyedit to make), but basically, copyeditors include these kinds of comments along with corrections to grammar and style. And whenever I make such comments, I always formulate them as constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is not so much criticism as it is making recommendations on how to improve a piece of writing. It should come from a fundamentally positive place and aim to help the author improve his or her work.

In one of my recent projects,1 I saw the ugly flip-side of constructive criticism: cutting someone off at the knees. This project involved editing a chapter of a student’s dissertation, and the version sent to me included comments from the student’s advisor. I am not reproducing exact quotes here, but the advisors had made comments like the following:

Okay, you are introducing the theory of the framing effect, but this is the results section. Assuming this actually is the results section, Dave, why haven’t you discussed this earlier in the literature review???

The following is another example of a short comment:

Still in the results section? Really???

(Some of the comments were actually followed by three question marks!!!)

My main objection to these comments is the tone, and I have a more minor complaint about the content. The tone is condescending; the comments seem to be asking the student, “How could you be so incompetent???” (Yes, with three question marks.) And that tone is not only unhelpful, it is harmful, especially when directed at someone building confidence as a professional in a new field. Moreover, comments should focus on how to improve what’s on the page, not what’s wrong with it. These comments only implicitly tell the student how to improve his chapter. They say, “Do not do this,” rather than “Do this,” so the student only knows what the problem is, not how to fix it. Identifying solutions rather than problems is not only more clear, direct, and concise but also more positive and supportive.

One could argue that the advisors might be trying to prepare the student for getting these kinds of comments in peer review on future academic journal article submissions. And to be honest, I could see some merit in that strategy if the advisors were indeed employing it, but based their other comments, I doubt their commenting style is intentional. An advisor who would go to the effort of changing their natural commenting style to prepare a student for the peer-review process would be a fantastic, supportive advisor, and I would expect to see some hint of that in the comments. Or I would have expected the student to rebut my interpretation of the comments when I mentioned to him that they seemed incredibly rude.

In any case, whether these particular comments are intentionally or accidentally condescending does not really matter; there’s no question that many people use the same style when commenting on others’ writing. So to people who comment on others’ writing (whether as copyeditors, academic advisors, or any other position), please consider the tone and content of comments that you make on others’ writing. Is the goal to feel smart (i.e., ego inflation) by pointing out all the flaws in a given piece of writing? Or is the goal to improve the piece of writing and help the author communicate with his or her audience?

Of course, I have also copyedited poorly written articles and become frustrated, but regardless of the quality of writing, comments should be tactful and respectful. Poor writing is harder to copyedit for a couple reasons. First, poor writing has more errors, so the volume of work is simply greater. Second, poor writing is confusing, so it takes longer to understand and, therefore, longer to fix. But poor writing needs and usually deserves more help than good writing. “Poor” writing often comes from people speaking and writing English as a second language. Having lived abroad and learned a foreign language myself, I empathize with those trying to produce technically correct prose in a foreign language. I have not only experienced the frustration of making simple grammatical errors over and over but I have also felt as though my voice was muffled because I could not communicate in a nuanced way. Everything became simply “good” or “bad.” I either “liked” something, or I did not. Because English is a global lingua franca, I feel fortunate to be a native speaker, and I appreciate that I am in a position to help people bring their own thoughts to life.

My argument in this post is that criticism should be constructive rather than negative, not that criticism in general is bad. This post itself is critical of others’ writing (other commenters’ writing), so I would be a hypocrite if I argued that criticism in general is bad. My goal with this post is to point out a problem (overly negative comments on others’ writing) and to provide a solution (constructive criticism). To that end, the comments quoted above would be better rendered as follows:

The first mention of the framing effect appears in the results section. It would be better to introduce the reader to this concept in the literature review (to provide context) and then refer to it as you already have in the results section here. Also, I’m not sure whether this is the results section, so I recommend to delineate the sections more clearly with headings that are numbered and have distinct formatting (e.g., bold text).

The shorter comment could be rendered as follows:

There is a great deal of content in the results section that belongs in the literature review section. (This content is mostly about existing studies rather than the results of your own research.) I will highlight and mark text throughout that I think belongs in the literature review.

These versions communicate the same points but without the vitriol. Notice that these versions do not ascribe problems to the author himself. The original version of the comment criticizes Dave directly for writing the chapter out of order (“Dave, why haven’t you discussed this earlier in the literature review???”) In the versions I have recommended, the problems are in the text (“The first mention of the framing effect appears in the results section”). Then, it’s up to Dave to decide if he takes criticism of the text personally. As an author myself, I know how easy it is to interpret criticism of text that I have written as criticism of me personally, but as long as comments are only about the text, the fault for doing so lies with me. Additionally, the versions that I recommend clarify what is wrong with the current text and, more importantly, how to fix it.


  1. I have changed some details and the quotations because I have not requested permission to write about my work with this student publicly.