Healthy Critique

by MB Huwe

Some things are hard to write about in the marketing world without coming across like a cantankerous, festering, perfectionist critic. Pointing out people’s errors can be a tricky business.

In my estimation, there are approximately two kinds of criticism.

  1. The tearing-down “this is crap” immobilizing kind.
  2. The constructive “here are some ideas” elevating kind.

Number one is the worst. It is “ew”-worthy. The best example I can think of this is in my college writing class workshop days. SHUDDER. All the undergrads wanting to be *the most clever* (ironic, unexpected, etc.) ready to drop elbows and Cobra Kai everybody else’s essays. It was brutal and unrestrained by the professor, who I think rather enjoyed the sideshow. Moreover, it was incredibly uninformative when it came to making actual improvements to a piece of writing.

“This is crap. Fix it.” is not helpful editing. It is opinion. (Bossy opinion.) It gives nothing to work with; it points out no real flaws; it demonstrates no understanding of how communication works. It is substance-less. It is, in fact, crap.

And actually, really, at its core destructive editing is a power trip for the editor. It centers his/her authority as the most important thing in the room. It serves that person’s ego. Please me, it says. (Author pauses to puke in mouth a little.)

The second version of criticism is still sometimes kinds of “ew,” but it’s actually very wonderful, ultimately. The constructive kind of editing is very specific. It sees and demonstrates the problems of a piece – where they occur, what they’re doing, what a different approach could look like. The constructive kind centers the communication – the idea, the message. It does not center the writer, and it does not center the editor.

Constructive editing can still feel like a blow, but that blow is usually to the Very Self-Cherishing Ego – the part of the self that resists improvement and change with all the naturally-occurring ferocity it can generate, plus some borrowed and/or stolen.

This is the self who sings maniacally (and menacingly) after creating something, “This song / copy / piece of art / choreography / site design / fill-in-your-blank is PERFECT. It is PERFECT because I MADE IT THAT WAY.”

And the Very Self-Cherishing Ego is not often that obvious, which makes it harder to recognize. Sometimes it is very, very crafty.

Anne Lamott, a national treasure of a writer, recently encapsulated constructive criticism and the ego response beautifully in a post on Instagram about her editor’s notes:

Each of his corrections and suggestions needs to be addressed by my tiny princess self. I agree with his marks 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time, I decide to break off our working relationship, as he is clearly an obsessive-compulsive sado-masochist. (I have a tiny, tiny problem with criticism of any kind.)

Yes. I can relate that that on both sides of the pen – as writer and as editor.

As an editor, I set myself the standard of constructive criticism. My little notes, suggestions, and explanations serve to liberate the message that is somehow entangled or obfuscated.

It can be challenging to accept and give edits. But centering the liberation of the message is the best way I’ve found to answer the call of editing without creating a host of unnecessary problems.


MB Outdoor Headshot

I’m Mary Beth Huwe (pronounced Huey. Obviously.) I offer writing and branding services for business and life.

The “business” part is content strategy for entrepreneurs. It’s intentional content marketing made fun, invigorating, and designed specifically for the entrepreneur and small business owner.

The “life” part is Writes of Passage. It is about crafting ceremonies that honor life’s big shifts – weddings, births, deaths, and other transitions.

These essays are forays into the art and essence of communication. They have not been subjected to the full scrutiny of my editor’s eye(s), and may contain typos. (But you’ll probably never find apostrophe abuse, because that’s just cruel.)

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