How To Tell Someone Their Work Sucks

Don't do that.
Don’t do that.

For my high school English class, I wrote a short story about penguins who tried to take over the planet. I got a C.

Your story makes no sense, wrote Mrs. K.

IT MAKES SENSE BUT YOU’RE JUST TOO STUPID TO UNDERSTAND IT, I wanted to scream. But I didn’t, because she controlled my GPA. It didn’t matter; my hopes of becoming a novelist were crushed.

A few months ago, a friend sent me a short story he had written.

What do you think? he asked.

I’m no literary reviewer, but I’m pretty sure the story sucked. Except he probably thought it was great. He wouldn’t have been so eager to share his work otherwise.

I don’t want to tell anyone their work sucks, because it’s not nice to curb-stomp someone’s dream. But what if it really does suck?

I loved it, I lied. Maybe he needed to keep at it. Creative writing is not an innate talent any more than writing code is an innate talent.

But what about Mozart, who was composing music by age 5?

Listen to Mozart’s early symphonies. They suck. In fact, his first seven compositions were largely plagiarized. His first decent concerto, No. 9, was written at age 21. Symphony No. 40, deemed his greatest work, wasn’t written until age 32.

You suck. Try harder.
You suck at piano. Try harder.

Mozart began working with his father, a teacher and composer, at age 3. He practiced at least 3 hours a day, which is over a thousand hours a year. By age 21, Mozart had spent nearly 20,000 hours playing and composing [1].

Talent, even creative talent, takes a lot of hard work.

Now that I think about it, I should have said to my friend, I loved your story but your plot was lacking any conflict or resolution. Also, your grammar and sentence construction need work.

This way he could maybe go back and revise it instead of wondering why The New Yorker still hasn’t answered his queries.

See also:
1. Genius Explained, by Michael Howe

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