The simple truth is that some posts are better than others. Some topics excite, or move us, or rile us up more than others. And sometimes, when we’re immersed in what we’re reading, we’re swept away by feelings that range from “Right on! I’m so with you on this” or “This is written so amazingly well, if this post was a person, I’d totally ask it out on a date”, to “Fool! You haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about” or “This person can’t write for s*it”.
If it’s the former, and you feel like praising the writer for a post you really enjoyed, there’s no wrong way to write positive feedback. The writer will always appreciate nice things being said about their post.
But if it’s the latter, and you’ve just read something that annoyed you or that you vehemently disagree with — you may feel compelled to criticize it, so you do.
The problem is, there’s a wrong and right way to leave a ‘negative’ comment, and if do it the wrong way, more often than not you’ll be the one that both the writer and other people reading the comments will deem the real a*hole in this scenario.
Imagine you published a post in a public forum, and someone came along and left a scathing, embarrassing, nasty or generally demoralizing and thoroughly unhelpful comment on it. If it’s someone you don’t know, you’d likely be thinking “who the hell is this moron who thinks he knows me well enough to talk to me like I care about what he’s got to say?” — and you’d be right.
That’s not to say that your post doesn’t deserve criticism, but usually people listen to and heed criticism only from people they look up to or whom they feel have the right sort of expertise to be critiquing the post in the first place. They don’t tend to appreciate negative feedback from total strangers unless it’s done tactfully and with a positive spin.
Which brings me to the right way to leave a critical comment on someone else’s post.
A lesson I learned in one of my first ever jobs as a content manager
Here’s the ‘express’ version of that story: Once upon a time, it was part of my job to brief graphic designers in the Art Department on the visuals we needed to accompany copy elements like email campaigns, landing pages, etc. When the time came to review the designs they created, I found that when I delivered feedback on things I didn’t like and wanted changed, these requests would sometimes be met with defensive comebacks or shrugs of sudden apathy.
Thankfully I was quick to realize that just as I feel demoralized when someone dumps on something I wrote, so too do other creative folks feel like crap when receiving negative feedback, and the antidote to all of this unpleasantness was actually pretty simple. The secret to providing ‘negative’ feedback on someone else’s work effectively, is to use tact, positivity and constructive criticism.
Instead of telling designers, “This design is horrible, I don’t like this part and I think you should re-do this whole other part too”, to which they would be quietly (and rightfully) thinking, “You’re a class-A b*itch or a*hole” — it would be nicer, and more productive to say “I see where you’re going with this and I really like the way you did this , but I wonder if we tried it this way if it might create this desired reaction . Do you think you could create another version and then we’ll compare and decide on the best way to go?”
The idea isn’t to only say negative things when you need to give negative feedback, but to also find something positive to say, explain your rationale politely and logically for wanting to try it a different way, and make the designers feel like they’re involved in the process and that their input is appreciated too, rather than being treated as second-rate service providers who are only there to obey your commands.
As a wise colleague once reminded me, “You get more with sugar than you do with vinegar”, meaning that if you want someone to do something for you, they’re far more likely to want to help you if you’re nice to them. If you’re nasty and aggressive in your tone and approach, they may tell you to take a hike, or if they’re your subordinates they may help you because they have no choice, but they won’t give it their best effort. It’s a lesson that continues to serve me well to this day.
This story is a slight digression from my point about commenting on written work, but the lesson is still relevant, and a similar principle applies when you feel compelled to critique someone publicly for something they wrote. If you lash out as a total stranger — oozing negativity, the writer will either write back defensively, or tell you to shove your criticism, or just ignore you (which is my personal preference when dealing with nasty, tactless commenters).
But — if your intention in leaving a critical comment is to be helpful, by bringing something to the writer’s attention that might require some sort of correction or further personal reflection, if you approach it tactfully it may actually be taken in the spirit it was intended rather than causing offence.
So, to sum up, here are some basic do’s and don’ts for leaving critical comments on other people’s posts:
- Instead of pointing out only negatives, offer a positive remark as well, and phrase the criticism in a way that’s helpful rather than preachy.
- If the post is blatantly offensive in a way that violates the rules of the publication, then report it to the appropriate channels. But if it merely presents opinions or advice you don’t agree with, then be polite in pointing out your objection. The writer is much more likely to give your comment some thought if it’s respectful, and dismiss it out of hand if it’s not.
- Before you do anything, stop and think about it: Will the world be a better place for you having posted that negative comment? If it’s not going to add any value then it’s just grandstanding, and maybe it would be better for everyone (most especially yourself) if you don’t leave a comment at all.
- Sometimes it might be appropriate to qualify your expertise for your criticism to carry weight. For example, if the post is about goat herding and you have experience with goat herding, then say so: “As someone who has herded goats extensively in the past, I think that…” etc. Otherwise, there’s no reason why anyone would take your criticism seriously. (Not sure that’s the best example but it’s 2:24 AM as I’m typing this, so goat herding it is!).
- Don’t leave a negative comment on someone else’s post for the wrong reason:
Is it because you feel like venting and this seems like a good opportunity to let off steam? Then stick your head in the fridge for a couple of minutes and cool off. Don’t ruin someone else’s day just because you weren’t able to step away from the keyboard in the heat of the moment.
Or is it because you want to show off among other commenters by belittling someone else with your so-called smarts? Don’t. It’s way lame. Write your own brilliant post rather than crashing someone else’s comment thread to tout hoity toity witticisms. Most people will see right through it.
Here’s my final thought (on this): Whenever we read a post we consider a real ‘doozy’ (for whatever reason) — many of us simply comment quietly to ourselves ‘Man, what a disaster of a post’ or ‘This writer is such an idiot’ and move on. But in the event that you feel compelled to comment on it publicly, remember that your comment will reflect a lot better on you if it’s courteous and helpful rather than rude and condescending.