On the care and watering of noders
A few weeks ago, I returned from vacation, and as part of my return to "normality", decided to check the state of the wilder bits of the back garden. During my peregrinations I discovered a potted plant, abandoned and forgotten. And when I say abandoned, I really mean it - tucked away in a back corner under a tree, where the irrigation doesn't reach. Oh, and bear in mind that we've been in this house for two years, so that's how long it had been neglected. Two years at least, this poor plant had been slung out and left to fend for itself.
It was in a dire state. Barely green, it had that greyish hue associated with death and dying, with a few meagre dried-up leaves. Being the tender-hearted soul that I am, I pulled it out from under the clinging and ubiquitous ivy, dead leaves and other backyard detritus, and put it in a new location where it would receive more in the way of sunshine and water. Then I proceeded to water it with the garden hose, and then waited to see what would happen. Frankly, I didn't expect it to pull through, it was in so poor a condition, but this morning (on a trip to the compost heap) I checked on it. Lo, and behold!, it was greener, the leaves had uncurled from their self-preserving state, and it was showing signs of growth. I applauded both the plant and myself. The plant, because despite years of dusty oversight, it had recovered. Myself, because I'd taken the time to transplant it and nurture it, supply its needs and even talk to it. In short, I am pleased with that day's work.
Noders have needs too
Yes, they do. I know this from my own experience. 7½ years ago, I joined E2 and began writing. My first effort was terminated, "nuked". No commentary, no feedback, no reasons given. Just uprooted from the database and tossed on the compost pile. I was angry at this, so I rewrote and reposted it. This time it survived, albeit it in a rash of downvotes. I left it and carried on, like so many newbies before and since. I wrote more - mostly short factuals, with a scattering of opinion pieces, but remained largely un-noticed by many people, apart from a few who pointed out typos and whatnot.
I got myself a mentor, the illustrious and patient Rancid Pickle. Shortly afterward, I discovered a (now-defunct group) known as the Content Rescue Team. Their self-appointed task was to "raise the bar" for factual writing, by improving the many short factual writeups (many of them from the days of the original Everything). I read their manifesto, decided that I could do that, rolled my sleeves up and dived in. Between my mentor and the other members of the group, I got much feedback, much of it good, some of it critical. People began to point out areas where I might improve, made suggestions and praised me when I responded. I quickly moved from noding short and terse pieces to more personal commentaries on the facts I was recording. Many of the long-standing and well-respected E2 writers began to see this change and gave me even more positive, critical feedback. Then guess what happened? I blossomed. My writing, at first uncertain and unclear, began to take shape. I developed a style of my own, and set forth confidently as a fully-fledged noder, in a position not just to write, but to help, advise and guide others in my turn.
Community is nothing without support
Nowadays E2 has changed again. We have fewer regulars than we used to, and the perceived higher standards are putting off many of the newcomers who wander, or plunge, in. But as a community, we have matured and learned a lot, and one of the things we have begun to develop is the art of feedback. Back in February 2004, I pointed out that with the advent of the blab! box against each writeup, there's a quick and easy way of offering feedback, whether that's "Oooh! I loved this!", through "Oh, I found a typo...", to "This is promising..." I suspect that a lot of us are good about the first two, but how about the third?
Pointing out weaknesses in someone's writing is tricky. For one, we're inclined to stay away from doing it because it's somehow so personal to offer that level of criticism. Typos are easy, telling someone that their grammar or style is getting in the way of their material, that's tougher. Guiding people to improve their writing is always going to be harder, partly because many folk are supremely confident in their own ability as writers that any suggestions may be met with hostility. Many is the response that I have had saying "How dare you criticise my writing! I used to write/edit for our school magazine, and I can write real good!"
My favourite, for what it's worth, was "...as far as guidance goes please save your advice for someone who wishes to climb this ladder. i never asked for your advice nor do i need it...i consider this negative. i also find this whole experience leaving a bad taste in my mouth...stick it up your ass" This is hard to receive, and has doubtless put many people off trying it again. It didn't deter me, though, and never will.
So, how do we do it? These days, I take a fairly gentle approach. I will quote from my Editor Log: February 2004 to illustrate my point.
First, ask yourself one question - "if I am getting feedback, how do I want it?" The answer to that is the most important thing to understand. Compare these messages:
"You mis-spelled 'parameter', you moron!"
"Typo ALert: 'parametet' -> 'parameter' in para 3"
"Why not do some more research, pinhead?"
"Good as far as it goes, but could use some expansion"
Now, ask yourself which you'd rather get. "Typo ALert" suggests something altogether different than "spelling mistake". It suggests that the writer acknowledges human error and frailty. I know, I'm possibly the King of Tyops, I'm renowned for it, and no matter how many times I run a spellchecker (I can spell quite well) or proofread, I frequently miss things. So in my feedback, I err on the safe side. This softens the message and still gets the point over, everyone wins.
Even if I'm being critical of content or style, I see no point in being harsh. Frequently I come across writeups whose content is lacking. So I tell the author, or refer them to an FAQ. Frequently they write back, sometimes after months, and say "Thanks, I did something about it", and I go and look and lo! it is better. Often the improvements are sufficient that I reward the author - along with a suitably blab!bed message, of course.
I intend my feedback to be constructive, to offer something to the recipient. I like it when I get comments back, it proves that I'm doing my job right. As members of a community of writers, we all appreciate feedback. I'd like to see more people doing it, and doing it well. A recent comment from one of the gods made a valid point: "I consider all of the users editors." In one sense we are each responsible for the improving standards on E2, each of us is a content editor, in the sense that we can impact the content through our feedback to others.
It's a case of opening dialogue. First, give something positive, even if it's on something really simple. "Thank you, I learned something about X I didn't know..." is a good opening gambit. It establishes that you're not there to beat the author, and establishes something positive at the outset. I then often then say that there was something I found difficult, as in "The introduction was fine, really clear, but the second and third paragraphs were less so, for these reasons. Have you considered X course of action...?" That could be something as simple as using a spell-checker - I sometimes point people to http://www.spellchecker.net/spellcheck for typos, and there's a useful (if slightly anally-retentive) grammar checker too.
Of course, it's nice to say something else good at the close. Especially if I'm removing something, I like to end with something along the lines of "Please consider an expansion/rewrite, and reposting this", and offering to answer questions or provide whatever additional support may be required. For those of you who've been in management or education, you may recognise this as the "shit sandwich" - sometimes overused, often abused, but still useful if you're cautious with your wording and tone.
The thing is, not to belabour the point, but to try and get the author involved. Sometimes, they respond favourably, sometimes they don't, but I try to make it clear that not only do I want to help, but that they have a choice in being helped. Some want to struggle on themselves, and that's fine - we're not a grammar school, nor a writer's crammer, we're a site for people to be able to enjoy reading and writing, adding to the store of goodness that we're still collecting.
Responding to criticism
This can be as difficult as giving feedback, for reasons already given, and it's especially difficult if you do consider yourself to be a great writer. You may have studied poetry, for instance, or written for a school paper or similar. That said, consider this. Reading a book on engineering wouldn't qualify you as a builder of bridges, nor would your ability at bat in junior school qualify you for the World Series, or a cricket Test Match. Also, whoever is giving you this feedback is doing so out of the goodness of their heart, whether a member of the E2 "staff", a mentor or simply another user. So please consider that as you compose your reply.
First thing you might do is thank whoever took the time to write to you after all, I dare say you've offered help to others, and even if unwanted, common decency suggests that you thank' em. I like to think that if I hold a door open for someone, the least I get is thanks, even if they were perfectly capable of opening the door themselves. They may mutter under their breath at me afterward, but if I don't get a lecture on, for instance, male chauvinism, I'm happy with that. Following thanks, if you really don't want a critique, say so clearly and politely. If you find anything even remotely useful, say that you did. Something is better than nothing, and as I said earlier, whoever has taken the time has done so with the highest of motives, and no-one is paying them to do so - we are all volunteers here, and maybe you should be grateful that someone is prepared to water you, even if you feel you don't need it.
A Vision of the future
Each of us has something to offer, not just as writers, but as authors, critics, editors, mentors. If you think you're up to it, step up to the plate. If you're already a mentor (formal or informal), consider how you can expand your ministry, so to speak, and get the voice of our community to improve even more.
There are always areas where angels fear to tread, and each of us has our weak points and bêtes noire. Mine is poetry - I dare not step on that ground, simply because I don't consider myself well enough versed (sorry!) in the subject. All I know is that some of it I like, and some I don't, so I steer well away from commentary, as a general rule.
I'd like to think that E2 could provide a good foundation for those who want to improve as writers. I've been here for a while now, and although people keep telling me I'm a good writer, I keep looking for ways to expand and extend my abilities. If anyone ever wants to give me advice, for instance, on writing better and more realistic dialogue, or tips on character development, I'd welcome it with open arms. I'd love to see us as a community of supportive folk sharing the vision of a website whose joint goal is making everything a pleasure to read, a garden whose every path leads us to a little patch of delight.
I'd like to thank Hachi-Control, who said Thanks for the message, community is nothing without support, giving me not only thanks, but some inspiration.
My first node recorded for posterity at www.wertperch.co.uk/article.php?story=20031226141557975