Thursday, December 06, 2012

Accentuating the Negative

I was noticing something about myself the other day. I read a ten-point article on creative expression and agreed with almost everything the writer said. However, there was one point I strongly disagreed with. I was talking about the article with Lana and found myself focusing far more of my time during the discussion on the point I disagreed with than on the other nine that I considered sound advice. At first, Lana seemed to think I strongly disliked the article and the author’s viewpoint, at which point I realized I was giving that impression by focusing on the smaller “negative” to the exclusion of the stronger “positives.”

I’ve also noticed that when I’m critiquing student papers that I need to “consciously” make an effort to focus more on the positive aspects than the negative aspects (assuming there are some).  I often find when I go back through a paper I’ve marked that I’ve put far more negative comments down than positive ones, and I adjust for that during my second and third trips through the piece.  

Apparently I’m not the only person that does this kind of thing though. I recently saw a review of a story that I’d also read.  The reviewer gave the story 4 and half stars and said some very good things about it, but he/she also pointed out one “con.”  The reviewer listed the “pros” briefly and concisely, then went on to discuss at some length their “con.” They came back to the “con” during their summary, which gave the impression that the story was almost ‘fatally flawed,” when it seems from their stars and other comments that they really “liked” the story tremendously and were highly recommending it.

Do other folks do this kind of thing?  Do you?  What possible purpose does it serve for us? Might we not all be better off if we didn’t do that?  What do you think?


Tom Doolan said...

I think it's normal to focus on the negative. When you have a list of items that you agree with, that one thing that you disagree with sticks out like a sore thumb. So, you naturally focus on it, and try to rationalize it. Either to correct them in your mind, or figure out why you don't share that view. It's basically a "conflict" and it's human nature to turn your attention towards a perceived "threat", whether it's rational or not.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think it's human nature. Like how that one bad thing that happened ages ago will stick in our minds long after the good has faded.
A review of my last book was just like that. Four stars, one line of good, a long list of bad, followed by one line of good. If I was reading that review without the stars, I wouldn't want to read my own book!

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, irrational for sure, but perhaps driven by some evolutionary process. I'm gonna have to give it more thought.

Alex, I know what you mean. Amazing how those things stick out for us.

SQT said...

I actually have this conversation with my husband fairly often because he's a natural pessimist. He tends to focus on the way things can and will go wrong more than focusing on the way things can go right. He's also more likely to see the negatives in most things than the positives- though he no harder on anyone than he is on himself.

The thing is, it's a very useful trait to have. He's a financial planner and it's rare for him to be caught off guard because he's always prepared for all the potential disasters. He's also been very good at planning for our future- so no big complaints here.

The only downside I've seen is that he has a hard time relaxing and enjoying the now because he's always worried about tomorrow.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I know I'm the same, and since (grin) what we write is forever, I've actively tried to avoid throwing in that negative comment when it comes to reviewing friends books.

Am I coping out? Some might argue yes, but I also don't want a truly small missive to overshadow something I truly enjoyed.

An example - I didn't like one tale out of six in a collection I recently read-do I still think you would like the other five and that you should read the book - yes, but I didn't want to taint public reaction.

I suspect with your background, you get these human nature traits a whole lot better than I do anyhow.

Ron Scheer said...

I had to unlearn the impulse to be overly critical of student work. You need to reinforce what a student does well; otherwise they might stop doing it. The negatives can be couched in terms of "what to work on next time," like a performance review. Too many negatives and a student learns not to read your comments at all.

As a reviewer, I concentrate on what I like in a writer's work. My motto is that if you look hard enough, you can find fault with anything. Unless you are doing serious risk management for someone's investment portfolio, that approach quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns.

Deka Black said...

maybe is because the bad things do a more strong memory for some people?

BernardL said...

Reviews do have notoriously suspicious incongruities. It's very difficult to get any review so if the stars are good, I guess we take what we can get. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

SQT, he sounds a bit like me in that way. I have to try and turn my pessimism off at times but it is not an easy task.

David J., although I know about such traits I don't necessarily get them. I tend to look for some reason why they happen and sometimes it seems clear. At other times not so much. I tend to accentuate positives when I'm reviewing a work, unless I really didn't like it at all.

Ron Scheer, yes, I always have to double check myself on the comments I make on student work. It takes effort but is necessary to make sure you give them some good stuff and credit where it is deserved.

Deka, that seems likely to be an element of it, I'm sure

Bernard, yeah, and we hope that those paying attention to the reviews sometimes read through the lines.

G. B. Miller said...

I knew early on when I started writing book reviews (first on my blog then on Amazon) that I have to curb my impulse to overly critical on something that I didn't like.

What helped me (and still does) is that I briefly point out what I don't like, state it in terms of personal preference, then move on.

I never try to overly concentrate on the negative. I always try to make the negative somewhat positive, so that the person reading it will realize that it's my own personal quirk and not an overall dis of the book.

I do this as well when on the rare occasion someone asks me my opinion on a story or something that they've written.

I've dealt with so much negative in my life that I really try not to overly negative on someone else.

Just becuase someone tried to crush me with a negative review/comment doesn't mean I should do the same thing.

Unknown said...

"At first, Lana seemed to think I strongly disliked the article and the author’s viewpoint, at which point I realized I was giving that impression by focusing on the smaller “negative” to the exclusion of the stronger “positives.""

You often make that mistake. I thought no such thing, actually.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think this is human nature. Not much to talk about when you agree. But disagree and it opens the doors to a discussion. Not necessarily negative but differences.

laughingwolf said...

is it related, somehow, to readers liking character flaws when reading, making them more 'human'?

as to why the emphasis, unless unknowingly we try to say: am i that bad, too?

Snowbrush said...

I guess it's more stimulating to focus on differences than similarities. I think it could also indicate that our differences distress us, and that we want to find a way around them. They're like even a small splinter that keeps one's attention even when the other 99.99% of his or her body feels just fine.

Golden Eagle said...

I do this. Even if I really enjoy something, if there's one element I don't think is quite right I'll seize on it and point it out.

Cloudia said...

it is evolutionary I believe, so scan for potential problems. It is EVOLVED, and a choice, to find positives and to praise them, Charles.

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Ty said...

As Tom and others have pointed out, I think it's part of the human experience, though whether biological or learned thinking, I can't say.

I get reviews like this from time to time. Usually they make me shake my head and chuckle. I'll get 4 stars or better, a quite brief sentence on what the reader loved, then paragraph after paragraph about one little element they hated.

the walking man said...

I think it is not so much personal outlook per se because that changes, we are malleable beings. BUT for over a decade the entire world has been in the shit and that is going to affect the individual viewpoint. *shrug* At least you go through them a few times to look for something positive.

Charles Gramlich said...

G. B., yes, if we could reverse the pattern, mention any negative early and get that done, then move on to focus more on the positives, we'd be better off and maybe more clear on our final take on a story or book.

Lana, again I perhaps interpreted the comments you made as more negative than the general range of comments. Proof of my hypothesis. :)

Patti, true, and people do love to talk. Maybe it's as simple as that in a way.

Laughingwolf, I don't know. I hadn't considered that. It seems unlikely to me at first thought but I would need to consider it more carefully.

Snowbrush, the splinter analogy is a good one. Have to give that some thought. It makes sense though.

Golden Eagle, I certainly seem to do so as well.

Cloudia, I tend to agree. A good lesson for us to put out the effort to identify the positives.

Ty, I'm suspecting there is some biological element, evolutionary element. Perhaps, those who focused most on the "negatives," as in dangers, were more likely to survive. I don't know.

Mark, it would be interesting to trace it back through history and see if there has been a change over the last decade in that.

eric1313 said...

A lot of this is why I tend to think that literary criticism is overrated. The reviewers have opinions colored by their own experience, as well as their own ideas and tastes in art that they project onto the work and communicate in their reviews.

Of course, the art and industry of writing would likely be better served if people made a conscious effort to balance their views, as you have with your students. But there are a lot of critics who clearly do not - and many more of them would like to think that they and their opinion are at least as valuable as the stories and novels that they apply it to. I hate to say the term "frustrated writers" when describing critics like that (show me an author that is not frustrated about something or someone at some time or another), but it often leaks out in spite of my efforts to hold it in check.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I agree with the rest about alluding this trait to human nature. I think people get perverse pleasure in focusing on the negatives of other people, a sort of sadistic glee in someone's plight. I have seldom found people actually being happy about the good things in somebody else's life. The workplace is a beehive of negative activity, for instance. I'm hoping all that negative aura translates into positive energy at some point.

X. Dell said...

I don't know if it's natural or not. But I realize that if I put too much emphasis on the negative, the world isn't as much fun. There are fewer things to enjoy.

Then again, a tiny negative really can ruin a humongous positive. Say if you went to a restaurant, where they serve your favorite dessert (e.g., baked Alaska), and when you order this favorite, it comes back with a single rat dropping on it. Now, the mass of the dropping itself is negligible to the mass of the goody. But is the dessert still acceptable?

Charles Gramlich said...

eric1313, I bet you're exactly right. That tendency to focus on the negative is what ruins so many reviews. The balanced review also seems to be getting less and less common because most people don't know how to do it.

Prashant, yes, I've seen that as well. So many people do act as if it is a one wins others lose sort of world.

X. Dell, I suppose we'd have to "weight" the negatives and positives. Although tiny in itself, the rat dropping suggests some very large negative with the restaurant.

Greg said...

I think a lot of people probably do that without realizing it. Maybe we gloss over the stuff that we agree with or like, because it fits into our mindset already, but the parts that stick out and grab our attention are the ones we disagree with or can't figure out a reason for.

ivan said...

Far too analytical, I think, Herr Doctor.
But then you're a PhD.
We hackers try to get to the heart of the matter, in article or story.

e.g. In Gone With the Wind, I would probably go,

"Bang, Miss Scarlett
The war is over." :)

Travis Cody said...

Hmmmm...I'll have to think about this. I'm sure I do it as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, I'm sure that is much of it.

Ivan, judging from your writing, I suspect you're abit analytical yourself, my friend.

Travis Cody, it's often unconscious, I think.

EA said...

Hoo boy, this is a good post. As an editor, it's my job to go after the "cons" point 'em out and weed 'em out. But one has to be so careful not to trample the flowers going after the weeds. Writers have feelings too, and it's just as important to build up their confidence and courage about the stuff they're doing right as point out the stuff that "could be better." I think it's human nature to desire perfection (particularly in others) and harp on the stuff that bugs us while giving short shrift to the stuff that passes muster.

Thanks for the reality check, Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

Elaine, I go through the same with my students, trying to encourage without giving them false buildup.

Erik Donald France said...

Charles, this is a great question~! To which I can add nothing negative :->

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, uh oh, I've disappointed someone. Now that is a negative. :)

jodi said...

Charles, I can almost always be counted on to see the best side of anything I read, altho errors or 'easy out' reading can be infuriating!!

SzélsőFa said...

from time to time i edit/revise/review some of my fellow writers-to-be's pieces.

i have experienced the same, but to avoid such confusion (did the editor liked it or not, what was her overall impression?) i usually go by the following rules:

1-i start with an overall impression and here i try to emphasize the positive.
2-more often than not, i write down the following sentence: those parts that were not mentioned were to my liking or appreciation.