~/imallett (Ian Mallett)


by Ian Mallett

When I solicit criticism, I want honesty and legitimacy.

The Singing Loon Principle:

Honest criticism means ignoring the other person's reaction to it. You should feel just as free to demonize, rip-apart, and devalue something as you'd feel free to praise it.

This is important because of something I'd like to call the Singing Loon Principle.

Everyone knows somebody. Some person who has no musical talent. Yet, she (usually a she) will continue singing and belting out songs at the top of her voice, and thinking she's fabulous. She'll ask other people to listen. She'll offer to sing. She'll randomly just start singing for no reason. And she's dreadful. You all know someone like that.

She'll keep doing it because no one ever told her not to. She'll say: "Hey, how was that?" And they'll say: "Oh, um, really good, Vanessa! You're really talented!" So, Vanessa will go off and keep singing and thinking she's really talented. And she'll keep singing for people and they'll keep telling her she is.

The problem with this white lie is that it makes the problem worse: Vanessa keeps tormenting other people and thinking she's doing them a favor. She'll start to build herself up. She might actually decide to become something. And, sooner or later, she'll end up failing. She won't be able to get a job as a singer because she fails all her auditions. She'll hear someone talk about her behind her back. And she'll realize that for all this time she's actually been horrible. And she'll feel terrible.

People tell me that this sort of lie is acceptable because Vanessa will actually start living up to it and improving—but I've been to universities and I've seen a lot of people. A lot of people just don't.


The second problem is that empty positive feedback is useless. It doesn't say anything. It's just a compliment.

What if Vanessa had been told: "Oh, well, that was a good effort, but you should work on both your tone and your pitch accuracy." The other person is giving constructive, useful feedback this time. Vanessa now knows that her tone and pitch accuracy weren't up to par. By how much? Who knows. So Vanessa will start working on improving those skills in particular.

Conversely, what if Vanessa has been told: "Hey, your pitch control is extremely impressive. Great work!" Then, she knows that her mastery of pitch control is acceptable. She can start working on honing other skills now.


Feedback should be intelligible as either a specific complaint or a specific praise. It does no good to say: "Vanessa, you're a terrible singer!", because this doesn't tell Vanessa why. It's also useless to say "Vanessa, you're a great singer!" for the same reason.

Feedback needs to address specifics and explain the reasons for an impression. This is in matching with the points above.


Good criticism also does not judge. This is tricky to get right, since you are still criticizing the creator through his/her work. The best way I can explain it is to try to focus on criticizing that work—not the person who made it. You're criticizing Vanessa's singing, not Vanessa herself.


When I ask for criticism, this is how I want it. Direct, honest examination of what was good and what was bad. This helps me learn how to improve. I will do the same if you ask me to provide criticism.

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