Ramblings, meanderings, rants and discoveries.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Criticism is needed

For those of you who do not know in a previous life I was a professional writer/editor. Ok, perhaps it was this life, but it was long time ago. I have to say that while I was not working in a top publishing house, nor was I writing the Great American Novel, we were professionals. As such we always looked to improve our writing. The same was true when I began coding, we looked to others to assist us in writing more efficient code. Perhaps the entire program design was beautiful, but we always looked for ways to improve speed.

About ten years ago I noticed a slight change among new coders. When a suggestion was made for efficiency’s sake, they argued. I do not mean they said, hmm I’ll think about it and keep the code as it was – we all did that if we thought someone was wrong. Or maybe we would test it off on the side quietly . If the suggestion was a significant improvement the app changed, if not no more would be said. But each coder took pride in their work and strove to produce the best they could. I mean the new coders would argue the point as if the person making the suggestion had not actually reviewed the code. (Code reviews were mandatory by the way) “But I HAVE to use a nested IF instead of a CASE here.” And twenty minutes later they would walk off either having decided the coder with 15 years experience was out to get them, had antiquated views or did not know anything about the new world of code, leaving the senior coder scratching his or her head and returning to their project. But as a boss once told me a great coder is like a racehorse and some have a bit of an ego. We would shrug and continue.

I now see this attitude permeate every aspect of work. It seems no one can take criticism or even suggestions for improvement. It was a sad day when this became apparent in the writing community. Yes,I still keep my hand in. I always have. I am a member of several writers’ groups. I edit for a few sites. I have written online doco for a few. I am sad to say that it has finally become the case that writers no longer seek constructive criticism. Rather they seek to be stroked told how great their piece is and perhaps have a couple of grammatical errors pointed out. I have been in groups where if someone suggests that a paragraph is unclear to them the writer argues rather than asks for further input or for suggestions f how to make it clearer.

It has become the norm to ridicule the critique and its writer rather than thank the person for taking the time to go through the piece and offer suggestions. Nothing says you HAVE take them. One site on which I am an editor offers an award for top sites. We have certain criteria we must check and once that is done it becomes a matter of personal opinion. A petitioner for the award failed some of the base criteria, which includes things like: onsite links must terminate to a page with relevent content, HTML must pass W3 compliance, music must be by request, etc. I informed him his site was not ready for an in depth critique and moved on. The idea is not to critique the contents of the site until the mechanics are completed. Being the best of the best means all code works, the site looks good, is accessable to everyone and contributes uniquely in some way to the RPG community. The site designer/owner argued that the minimum requirements for consideration were unfair. He wanted the prize with out the work. When it was pointed out to him some was merely HTML choices for basic formatting (non W3 compliance) He replied he was not a coder, just a designer. I curbed my tongue and did not state, "Then when you are good enough to try for the award do so otherwise do not waste my time." Sorry but the point of the award is that it is the best of the best overall. If you are not capable of making the site so, do not whine. Go learn how to do it and try.

Which brings me back to the old days in writing. I functioned as both an editor and writer. None of us felt we were writing a great novel. We wrote user manuals for commercial and proprietary software packages and accompanying training materials. Her is how it would work. The author would write a guide. A first level (copy) editor would go through the guide looking for obvious errors in grammar and ensure it complied with the house style.and A tech editor would run through the guide step by step, check the veracity of the information and perhaps catch some errors the copy editor missed. The manuscript would be marked up and sent back to the writer to make changes. The writer would make them or not.

The editors would go over the new manuscript when it arrived, test and make further suggestions and send it back. The writer would do what he or she wanted and send it back. IF an editor noticed a common error they might mention it to the writer: watch tense, avoid to be, use active voice. That was all part of the editor’s job. If a paragraph or more really needed a rewrite it would be noted. The manuscript was sent back again to the editors after changes were made. It was in the best interest of the writer to make the suggested changes. Why? Because the editors had the manuscript last. Many were the times I rewrote a manual that was wrong technically, too long (there are page limits set), or was just poorly written. We called that a heavy edit. Yes, the author’s name went on the work. And we usually never re-contracted with that writer again. Why? Because there are a lot of writers out there who are willing and able to comply with a house style.

What saddens me is the lack of desire by writers to improve their craft. I give some of my worst writing to those groups of which I am a member to critique. Why? Because I know the good stuff is good. I can work with that. It is the parts I need help with that I present. The portions I KNOW are not working. I have received 0 critiques. Why? I request specifically for people to pull them apart. Grammar, I do not worry about too much that is what grammar checkers are for. But tense, tone, action, am I clear? Have I missed stating something does the dialog seem contrived? Does the action seem contrived? Is too much time spent on something? Not enough? Does the piece convey the feeling I want it to through the language used? If I am lucky I will be told “I got confused here who had what.” Most of the time I get, “it’s good, you have a typo here and that’s it now onto the next piece.”

I know I am not that good. Is it that I am such bad writer that they cannot say anything about it to improve it other than throw it out? Is it that they are afraid they will hurt my feelings? I suspect it is more that they are afraid I will argue and take up too much time or that they want to get to their pieces as soon as possible to hear exactly the same “It’s good, maybe change the tense here, now on to the next piece.” It is sad people have lost interest in improvement and rather hear praise than suggestions. But then that would be why so many computer applications are released with bugs. It takes less time money and energy to write a patch than to argue with a Prima Dona.