1 Way to Give Better Feedback: Don’t Call It Interesting

This isn’t Interesting and Neither are You

I enjoy the word “interesting”.

Correction: I enjoy using it to get out of voicing my actual opinion, which is why I go on a rampage of emotionally charged, if uninteresting, words when someone uses the word on me.

It’s a thoughtless phrase because it only covers a binary: Something holds interest, or doesn’t hold interest. There are a million things that might make a thing interesting or not interesting and not all of them are necessarily good or bad.

A baby dumping a bucket of acid on a turtle is pretty damn interesting, but there are a lot of layers to that:

Why does the baby have acid? Where did the turtle come from? Is the baby dumping the acid to intentionally harm the turtle or is it just being a baby playing with a bucket? What even is this place?

If someone asks what you think about that situation and all you can come back with is “it’s interesting” then it’s probably time you started re-evaluating your perspective on things. Or maybe trying to get a perspective on anything in the first place.

Open Heart Surgery = Interesting. Your Friend’s Poem = Probably Stupid

I usually come against this word in that terrifying encounter revolving around the heinous question “could you read this and tell me what you think?”

I’ve had to ask it a lot as a stupid writer with friends who are a lot smarter than me, and I’ve made far too many attempts to answer the question as someone who is sometimes, for some reason, perceived as knowing what he’s actually talking about. In that long awkward experience I’ve discovered that the phrase “it’s interesting” by itself is just a passive aggressive way of saying “I wouldn’t know where to begin fixing this bullshit.”

Showing someone a thing you’ve created is like ripping your chest open and telling them to operate, but asking someone for feedback is like placing a scalpel in their hand and lying down on the table. So I get it. Feedback is tough. But if feedback is surgery, then the word “interesting” is a plastic spatula, and all you’re doing with it is slapping the flat end against the open beating heart of this poor, shitty writer. It’s not helpful, and most of the time it’s just confusing.

Overuse of “interesting” drags discussions about projects into a polite grey void where nothing ever gets better. It’s hard to get honest with someone who has clearly spent hours laboring over a piece of shit, but if you don’t tell them about the shitty parts, they aren’t going to fix them, and in another shitty month they’re going to be back at your door clutching a latent assault on humanity just waiting for your tentative approval.

The only way any of us will escape is if we start throwing down some adjectives that carry some useful Goddamn information:

If you think a script is bad because there’s too much dialogue and nothing actually happens, absolutely tell a writer that. Say that one a lot. Beat them over the head and throw them in a pit of broken Clerks DVDs until they figure out how to pull their head out of their ass and stop trying to film everything in black and white.

“Why” is a lot more Interesting than “Interesting”

If you don’t like something but don’t know why, just say that. It’s okay. You don’t have to understand something.

In fact, if there’s something you don’t understand, or makes you feel bored or lost, that is exactly where you should step off the safe path of “interesting” and explain your reaction. The handful of times I’ve assaulted someone with a personal project and only gotten back “it’s interesting” or, even worse, “I like the potential,” I floundered for hours in ambiguity trying to work out where the interest and “potential” was so I could edit to that strength before realizing the person just didn’t have an actual opinion about any of it. I would have much preferred “I don’t know” to that so I could have just moved on with my life.

There’s an easy place to start with this, because all “interesting” really means (or is supposed to mean) is that something holds attention. Anything you can’t look away from is technically interesting. Once that part is established the only thing you have to do to find more to say is start asking why.

Why did this thing hold my attention?

“Because this robot made funny jokes about human kneecaps.”

Great. That’s a good start.

Why didn’t it hold my attention?

“There are five hundred words describing a tree that some guy sat under.”

Now you have a nice little blurb of helpful feedback: “The robot character was funny, but I got bored on the full page about trees and people sitting under them. My advice is to put significantly more robots than trees in this. Every time.”

That’s not exactly Gertrude Stein level criticism, but it at least creates a context of reaction that a writer can actually work with.

You Just Have to Expand a Little

I should qualify this, because “it’s interesting” is actually a fine place to start if a story/film/essay/cover letter/manifesto/grocery list/declaration of intent genuinely grabs your attention. Go ahead and say it’s interesting, but for the love of God, say something after that.

If it’s interesting, it’s worth talking about. If it’s not interesting it’s boring, it’s shallow, it moves too fast, there are too many characters, you smell bad and no one likes you. Anyone who creates anything they honestly care about improving needs to hear these things, because if they can’t handle anything more negative than “it’s interesting” they shouldn’t be doing whatever bullshit they just shoved in your face.

I’m talking about this in terms of writing feedback because that’s what I usually deal with, but this should apply to anything you can’t form an opinion on. If you’re in an interview and the employer asks what you think about your last job, you damn well better not answer back with “it was interesting,” because that’s what people say when they’re too damn afraid to have a personality.

So to get us started, here are a few words to help you out when you don’t know what to say after “it’s interesting”.

This stupid thing you made is:

  • Slow
  • Funny
  • Compelling
  • Bulky
  • Janky
  • Scary
  • Exciting
  • Confusing
  • Wholesome
  • Unwholesome
  • Entirely inappropriate
  • Kind of rape-y
  • Worse than if I got cancer in the balls
    • (or for women: Worse than if I magically grew a pair of balls and got cancer in them)
      • *Note that this is probably a lot worse than just getting cancer in balls you already had.
  • Too long
  • Too short
  • Too wide
  • And finally, but not least important: That doesn’t count as an ending.