Mistake No. 72: Nice, nice, and more nice

A long, long gap since my last post, for which I apologise, but I took a much-needed holiday in August. Italy, to see some nice relatives and eat some nice food and enjoy some nice weather – and to deal with some not so nice lizards trespassing in my bedroom and some un-nice snakes seeking out water around our house and even less nice blood-thirsty mosquitos making the most of the opportunities my uncovered summer skin presented them. I’ll say no more, because holiday descriptions longer than what might fit on the back of a postcard tend to make for dull reading, but my point is there was a lot of niceness, and a bit of not-so-niceness too, and I’ve told you about both.
And that’s the theme of today’s post. You see, a lot of what I read by students is ever so nice – through and through. Take reviews, for example; specifically, restaurant reviews. The food is nice, the waiters are nice, the salt’n’pepper shakers are nice, even the blooming parking spaces outside are nice, and well before the (without doubt nice) dessert arrives my yawns have become very nice and my sleepiness has broken all niceness records since niceness records began.

Please keep me, and every other reader, wide awake with some not-so-niceness.

Remember: you are under no obligation to restrict yourself to positive comment when reviewing a product, location or event. I’m not quite sure why newer writers appear to feel they need to. Do they fear some sort of retaliation or comeback or complaint? It rarely happens – certainly nothing serious, anyway. I’m struggling to think of an instance in my experience. There have been a few minor grumbles, mainly from PRs, but nothing intimidating or of concern. Provided you are fair, honest and reasonably objective as you can be, it will be fine.

Perhaps some fear niceness is required or preferred by editors? Well, it generally makes no difference to the editor, I don’t think. In fact, he may prefer some not-niceness as it’s likelier to trigger stronger letters – and all editors love a vigorous letters page. What he definitely prefers is you to be fair and honest. If that means nice, fine – but balance is important too.

If you find it hard to criticise something, because it genuinely is too nice (or whatever superlative it may be), then don’t be afraid to say so – at least you’ll be telling your editor and reader that you considered any potential flaws, and it communicates that there’s really little or nothing not to like about what you are writing about. In other words, it’s not the case that you’ve omitted the negative or critical stuff – merely that there wasn’t any.

Another example is in the reporting of events – say, fairs or shows or theatre productions. Often I read of delighted audiences and thrilled exhibitors and chuffed-to-smithereens visitors. Well, they may seem on the surface all these things, and asking some individuals a few basic questions in order to obtain some quotes for your article is likely to confirm those first impressions, in soliciting little but general positivity. Yet this is the equivalent of asking a friend or acquaintance ‘How are you?’: you’re going to get the automatic response of ‘Fine, thanks’ and the like. But if you persist, and ask ‘No, really – how is your health? What problems are you having?’, you’ll hear about verruccas or tummy troubles or migraines…

And it’ll be the same with interviewees. ‘What’s been less successful about the show?’ and ‘What problems have you faced today?’ are examples of questions you may do well to ask, in order to tap into what may be lying under the surface. The stories lie deeper, quite often. You’ve really got to talk to them to get the not-so-nice stuff, and directly try to solicit the more intriguing stuff.

I’m not advising you aggressively dig for dirt, by the way; I’m not suggesting a trashing, as admittedly entertaining as these can occasionally be. But you should ask questions – of your interviewees, and indeed of yourself – which challenge that default niceness which is inherent in most of us, which is very human and, well, very nice, but not always useful or productive in the writing business.

It’s harder, granted, when your subject is an individual – for instance, when you’re profiling a notable figure. I’ve written before, very early on in this blog’s days, about the importance of asking some more probing and potentially difficult questions, and of putting the reader first, but it’s worth reiterating again. It’s the reason why you (probably) shouldn’t profile someone you know, or review anything you have a personal or deeply emotional connection with. If you can’t critique someone or something fairly and squarely, then you may not be able to be true to yourself, or fair to your editor or reader. Ethically, it can be questionable. You are not being paid to write advertising, but editorial.

And now I’ll await some not-so-nice comments with some disquiet …

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