How to Not be a Meanie Head

Last time I talked about what to do when faced with meanie heads online. But why are they so mean? Interestingly, if you ask them, most people don't think they're being mean at all. "I'm just expressing my opinion," they might say. Some even believe they're helping.

Sometimes, I'm one of those people. If you read all the comments and blog posts under my name, you might find some mean, arrogant stuff - probably more than I'm aware of. I'm just trying to help people, but I come off sounding like a jerk. What am I doing wrong? How do I express my opinion without being a meanie head?

The problem, I think, is that we don't separate what we're saying from how we say it. We think "This story sucks," and so we say exactly that. Maybe we're even specific, "Your protagonist is stupid. Everything you wrote is cliche."

What if the story's not any good? Shouldn't I tell them what I think? Absolutely. If a story sucks, or a query is confusing, or someone's political beliefs drive you nuts, we're free to say so. BUT if we want people to actually listen to what we're saying, then we need to be more careful. The following are things I'm learning myself, as I try to do this very thing:

TIP #1: Assume the person you're talking to is as intelligent as you are. This is really hard, but it's fundamental. If you can't do this, see Rule #3 from last time.

TIP #2: Emphasize that it's your opinion. No matter how convinced you are that you're right, your thoughts on writing, politics, religion, agent behavior, etc. are in the end only your opinion.

TIP #3: Never say "never" (or always, or must, or you have to). There are times when these imperatives are necessary (e.g. never send Nathan a query with a rhetorical question), but for the most part they should be avoided unless you, personally, make the rules.

TIP #4: Don't be sarcastic. Sarcasm is mean and hurtful by nature. It's fine with friends, where everyone knows that everyone is joking, but not on touchy subjects. If you want people to listen, just don't do it.

Note that none of this changes what you're saying, only how you say it. So what about you guys? Any tips on how to say harsh things while still respecting the person you're talking to?


Natalie Whipple said...

Love this, totally agree. I did a post on this a while ago: Critiquing With Class. I think that was it. I'll have to look it up...

ah, here it is.

Yeah, that's what I think.

storyqueen said...

Your point about realizing that the author is intelligent is a good one. A response is also only as valuable as the responder.

What I mean is, if you look on Amazon and read a negative review and click on the link that says "see all my reviews", often all of the reviews are negative! Some people see things as half-empty, some as half-full.

The best way to give feedback (I think) is to be honest, but not so evaluative......not so judgmental. Which means using words that say exactly what you mean, but are not weighted with evaluation.

Does any of this make sense?

(Yeah, it's late......I'm sleepy)


MattyDub said...

The problem with the "it's only my opinion" thing is that some opinions are better-supported than others. So the point is to clearly convey WHY you hold your opinion. This will mean you need to understand yourself why you hold that opinion, which means you might need to think a bit more before typing. This sounds silly, but in fact is non-trivial.
This also assumes that you and the person with whom you are communicating are both interested in the same thing. That is a big assumption. If you're critiquing a query letter, you might be interested in making the query letter better. The author might only be interested in you saying "Wow! This is the best query letter ever!" If you're not both on the same page (which often, again, involves some self-reflection) then the conversation will be...sub-optimal.

Adam Heine said...

I remember that post, Natalie. There are some very good points in there, especially for critiquing.

Shelley, that makes perfect sense. But there's something about the internet that makes people (me too) act like we know everything.

Adam Heine said...

Matt, that's a good point, but I think it's still important to emphasize that it's just an opinion. It's easy to believe that if I can support my opinion really well, then I Am Right.

There's also the problem that people are not won over by evidence and logic, no matter how much you and I want them to be. If we want people to listen to what we're saying, we have to soften it to the point of weakness and let them make whatever decision they will make.

At least, that's my opinion ;-)

fairyhedgehog said...

These are very good points. TIP#2 is probably the one that I feel most needs to be heard but they all matter.

I also think it's important to give feedback on what is good in a story if that's at all possible. In fact I try not to critique stories unless I see potential in them, that way I can mix up the encouragement with the thoughts about what worked less well for me. I'm not sure that critiquing a story that really "isn't right for you" is always much help, for example someone critiquing fantasy who absolutely hates the genre.

fairyhedgehog said...

PS Have you seen Inky Girl's take on the subject?

Adam Heine said...

I hadn't seen that, hedgehog. That's hilarious.