Communication Breakdown

Totally unrelated to the bulk of my post, but you know the weather has gotten nice when a gnat tries to fly up your nose….sheesh….

I’ve spent my share of time surfing around online for compatible writing groups, forums, mailing lists and the like, and I’ve noticed they all have two things in common.

1. They all possess a guideline of sorts containing the ingredients for an effective review. These include aspects like plot, character, originality, voice, direction, etc. While I’ve never found it necessary to adhere to an outline, I’m sure it’s very helpful to some. In fact, I’ve encountered reviewers who have manufactured their own structure for writing reviews.

2. While all the above information is well and good, what all these communities lack is any discussion on how to communicate effectively. I realize the concept seems slightly absurd, given I’m talking about writers addressing other writers, but believe me, the ability to construct prose doesn’t have a direct causational relationship with the ability to compose a mutually beneficial review.

Many misunderstandings and emotional upheavels could be avoided if moderators, in addition to listing all the technical aspects of review writing, would say one simple thing –

Please use “I” statements whenever possible.

None of us are experts, and even if we are, we’re not. What we’re providing is our Opinion and not Truth with a capital T. We’re telling another writer what works (or doesn’t) about a certain piece – for us. Not for the president of Zimbabwe, and certainly not for the public at large. Sure, we might be prolific readers and even experienced writers (perhaps even ‘teachers’), but that does not, under any circumtances, mean what we have to say is the Be All, End All of the written word.

Such attention to sentence structure makes a big difference. For example:

This chapter is disjointed and difficult to follow.

As opposed to:

I had difficulty following the plot. Switching scenes between present and past felt disjointed to me.

The first can easily provoke defensiveness in the recipient while the latter conveys a sense of personal impression. It keeps the burden of responsibility for the sentiments on the reviewer instead of labeling the writing itself as flawed.

I’m sure some folks would argue that phrases like ‘I felt’ or ‘to me’ are inferred, but I would disagree. In any communication, there are actually six “people” involved.

They are:
1) who you think you are
2) who you think the other person is
3) who you think the other person thinks you are
4) who the other person thinks s/he is
5) who the other person thinks you are
6) who the other person thinks you think s/he is

As a result (adding the anonyminity of the ‘net to the already complicated proceedings), the use of “I” statements is even more imperative.

Another reason why I believe this should be rule numero uno is because there are a class of reviewers (so yes, they’re writers too) who don’t understand they are not the intended audience for every short story or chapter ever written. They don’t approach a piece with the intent of trying to understand what the author has intended, but look at it in the simplest terms of “What does it do for me?” Their reviews end up looking something like this:

What kind of a name is Faramir, and who talks like this – “We seek that land in haste from long afar”? If the wizard is so powerful, why doesn’t he just get rid of the ring? There’s nothing compelling about a short guy with big feet.

Admittedly I cheated a bit by using a fantasy genre example, since it does have the most ‘specialized’ vocabulary and audience, but similar things occur in all genres. Since a reviewer like above is (unintentionally) arrogant enough to think the fact s/he doesn’t ‘get’ it is a reflection on the writing and its creator as opposed to anything in themselves, it’s imperative a writer has a very strongly identified intended audience and purpose. Otherwise, these sorts of reviews can just wreak havoc.

“I” statements, people. Learn it, love it, live it. For everyone’s sake.

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