Avoiding “But” in Critiques
My friend Paul Tevis is smart. Here’s a bit from him a couple years ago that I continue to think about:
I am very attuned to my use of the word “but.” I took a class last year that pointed out to me that when we heard the word “but” in the middle of a sentence, we throw away whatever came before that. When someone says:
“Your story is very good, but there are a few changes I’d like to make.”
what we hear is:
“There are few changes I’d like to make.”
Strangely enough, just leaving out the “but” helps.
“Your story is very good. There are a few changes I’d like to make.”
There’s more on the post, but that’ll get us started here. I was there for the conversation he described, and that changed how I critique people. And back when I was working on Don’t Hack This Game, I had to send out such critiques to a couple dozen people. In that, I strove to avoid “but,” and that had two effects:
- The effect Paul points out in the avoid passage.
- And it made all of my points stronger, as they stood on their own.
When critiquing, and especially when editing, you need all of your points to come across — points about what was good and points about what needs to be changed or cut. If you structure your critique in a way where the focus is too far shifted to “Here’s what needs to be changed,” you run the risk of having the good elements detrimentally altered or cut because that point didn’t come across.
I watched Sean Nittner once lead a GM critique session where he had specific formula:
- Everyone will take a turn saying one good thing about the game they just played, from the GM’s skill/presence standpoint. The GM gets to go last, and no one interrupts.
- Everyone will take a turn saying one bad thing about the game they just played, with the same caveats. Not how to fix it, just what it was. Again, the GM gets to go last.
- Finally, everyone will take a turn saying one thing they would do to improve the game, with the GM again going last.
This caused all those points to stand on their own — especially divorcing “here’s what wasn’t good” with “and here’s how I’d change it.” I’ve lead playtest critique sessions where I’ve had to tell people “this is the time where we list what’s wrong with the game, not how to change it.” Those have been fruitful.
When you avoid but, when you ditch conjunctions and let statements that need to stand on their own do just that, you’re promoting success. Sure, we do the “but” trick to blunt someone’s feelings, but if we’re intending to make amazing stuff, getting your feelings hurt is part of that process. And the best way to recover from those bruised feelings is to get back up and keep working — and if every point in the critique is clear, you can do just that.