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.

– Ryan


6 Responses to Avoiding “But” in Critiques

  1. Eric Lytle says:

    Did you use ‘but’ after the quote on purpose so we wouldn’t go look at the rest of Paul’s old post?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’m glad someone noticed. ;)

      (There is a time and place for “but,” like there.)

      – Ryan

  2. Steve Hickey says:

    I’ve often used de Bono’s ‘6 Thinking Hats’ methodology when I’ve run script editing sessions or reviews of read-throughs. It’s a similar methodology to what you described with Sean’s GM critique session: what’s good; what’s bad; what general ideas do you have.

    It also adds ‘How do you feel?’, ‘What questions do you have?’ and a neat section where you examine the feedback process itself.

    Really, my comment is just agreement with you: I’ve found it incredibly productive to separate my critique out into these different areas. It seems to remove quite a bit of my ingrained defensiveness to receiving feedback.

    And I love the idea of applying it to an actual RPG session or to improving GM and player skills.

  3. Greg Sanders says:

    Have you read or thought of anything on ways to incorporate practical constraints into GM critiques?

    I’m co-GMing a game right now and definitely try to be open to player feedback and I do try to encourage it. In fact, I’ll probably pass this post on to my players.

    However, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’m not trying to run the best game I can. I’m instead trying to run the best game that’s fun for me (and my co-GM) and can be managed on 1-6 hours of prep. Any suggestions which would require a regular investment of more time are thus out unless I can identify an area where I can spend less time or find ways players can help.

    Of course, literally whole books have been written on prep problems, so I’m not looking for advice there or anything. I’m just curious if any of these means of critique have a way of incorporating that the page count is fixed, we can’t afford to add color to the print version, I don’t have more time available, I can’t afford to get the latest supplement, etc.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I’m not sure what you’re asking for. The first three paragraphs sound like GMing, but in the last one you start throwing out publishing terms, so I’m confused.

      – Ryan

  4. JDCorley says:

    This is excellent advice BUT I am going to try to do it anyway.