When is it Appropriate to Offer Unsolicited Criticism of Someone’s Art?

cat-up-a-treeThere’s an old story about a chap who goes on vacation and leaves his dull-witted brother to care for the household.

After a week, he calls home and asks how his cat is faring.

“Cat’s dead,” his brother blurts.

“What? It’s what? That’s no way to tell someone their beloved pet died! Ya gotta work up to it.”

His brother, eager to learn, asks how one might do that.

“Well, something like ‘He climbed that old oak tree the other day, and he wouldn’t come down, and we tried everything and eventually the fire department came and got him down but he caught a cold and I’m very sorry but the vet couldn’t save him.’ Something like that. Build up to it, don’t just blurt it.”

Having taught his lesson, he moved on to other concerns.

“How’s Mom?”

“Well, she climbed that old oak tree the other day . . . ”

Blurting is Hurting

Rosanne Bane uses brain science to teach us why blurting feedback to an unprepared writer is the single greatest cause of writer’s block and writing anxiety. She teaches us that it’s not the maturity of the writer but of the writing which determines what kind of feedback is valuable.

If your goal is to add value, know those things. (If your goal is to spout off and look smart, go away.)

What Was the Question? Oh Yes:

When is it Appropriate to Offer Unsolicited Criticism of Someone’s Art?


Only the writer can determine what kind of criticism or feedback they’re ready for. There are 7 levels of feedback, and as brain science tells us, it’s the level of writing, not the maturity of the writer which determines what level will work.

Level 1 feedback is praise. It’s the only form of feedback which it’s polite to offer without being asked. (Did you know that there are two absolutely acceptable ways to interrupt a public speaker? One is to shout “Louder!” — they don’t know you can’t hear them. The other? Spontaneous applause.)

I’m still confused by the concept that anyone thinks it’s good manners to approach a total stranger and say hey, you made a bunch of mistakes.

Do you walk up to total strangers on the street and tell them “That’s not how to parallel park” or “your dog should follow here, not there” ?

Is it because they wrote a book, and that makes them fair game for any passerby to criticize? Or because it’s online, and not in real life?

If someone has not asked for feedback, in most cultures it’s considered bad manners to volunteer it.

Also, if your goal is to help, consider learning the psychology of persuasion before attempting to persuade. Approaching a total stranger who is proud of their art, and saying “You did it wrong” is precisely the wrong way to persuade.


(“Doesn’t bother me!” is hardly a reason. We don’t get to decide how others react to what they rightfully perceive as rudeness.)

Next time a “helpful” reader points out typos in your book, send them here.

8 thoughts on “When is it Appropriate to Offer Unsolicited Criticism of Someone’s Art?

  1. Love the joke! But you told it wrong… Just another example to add to your list. Seriously, I do love the joke and you told it just right.
    Thanks for the ping-backs to my blog posts.
    BTW: Whaddya mean I shouldn’t tell people how to walk their dogs?

  2. One of the many cool things you did to help me in my early writing was ask the question: What kind of feedback do you want? That really made me stop and think about what DID I want.
    You really don’t know how amazing you’ve been during my writing journey. When I was still working in Michigan last year, a coworker’s relative asked me to read his draft. My question was to him: What kind of feedback do you want? 🙂 You’re amazing, Joel. Keep it up!

  3. If people only knew that my very expensive coaching could be had for a few kind words. [insert Mark Twain quote here]

    Fact: I have spent more time working with you than my next 5 clients combined. And I could never, ever, take a nickel from you. Your enthusiasm and smarts make you pure joy to teach.

  4. Wow! I am truly honored. 🙂 I didn’t realize I had commandeered so much of your time but I am wicked glad you gave it to me.

  5. Yo, Joel — tell me where I went wrong: Today I happened onto LinkedIn and saw a German friend’s recent blog posting. Her ability to translate her native language into clear and unambiguous, as well as merely correct, English is really wanting.

    I was kind about it, thinking, “well, we haven’t spoken in some time, here’s a chance to say hi, good job on your posts, and would you like some copyediting done on your pieces here for clarification of what we both know you are trying to get across to your readers.” That’s not a quote, but that’s what I essentially said and asked. And it was not a bit more curt than that.

    Is that unsolicited — and Rude — intrusion of an individual’s work? Or was her cold and defensive response due to some insensitivity on my part? Or is she merely a German? hahaha (Don’t tell anyone I said that, especially Klaus!)

    Can you just email me on this question, when and if you get a chance? I value your input, as you know.



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