How to Judge Whether Criticism Is Fair or Not - Joanna Campbell Slan

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How to Judge Whether Criticism Is Fair or Not


“Kaizen” is a wonderful Japanese word that means constant and neverending improvement. I’ve taken that idea to heart. I want every book I write to be better than the last. One way I can improve is by paying attention to criticism. But not all criticism is equally valuable. And some criticism should be promptly forgotten. How can you tell what’s what?

By considering the intent of your critic.

People share their criticisms for a myriad of reasons:

1. Because they really care. Yesterday I went to the website of my favorite local restaurant. There I discovered that they had misspelled “romantic.” I called them, made my reservation, and mentioned the misspelling. I said, “I love your place so much that I don’t want anyone to misjudge how perfect you are! Your place is awesome! And your food and service are superb!” Yes, I really, really love that place, so I told them what I noticed in the hopes that I might contribute to their wonderfulness.

2. Because they are jealous. This is the saddest form of criticism because it comes from a nasty place. How can you tell jealous criticism? By the level of emotion. When the criticism springs from a jealous place, it is almost always full of hyperbole. The tone is overwrought. Frantic. Excessive. Therefore, I am suspect of any review that’s full of clever stinging remarks, but no substance. The reviewer is saying, “See? I am smarter than the author whose work I’m reviewing. Look at me! Aren’t I clever?”

3. Because they are disappointed. That’s what happened to me the other day. The person reviewing my work expected me to take a certain approach. But I didn’t. So my reviewer was disappointed–and his criticism was colored accordingly. After nursing some bruised feelings, I tried to sort out which portions of his criticism were valid. Among the lumps of coal there were a few diamonds. Now I’m more excited than ever about my project.

4. Because they have experience and knowledge that leads them to believe you’ve gone astray. This is a variation of “they care,” but in this case, there’s a professional bias that underlines their suggestions. The reader has expertise to drawn on. However, the reader can still be wrong. For example, I approached another author about a pre-publication blurb (an endorsement) for Paper, Scissors, Death. She had some publication experience, but not a lot, and she was very confident in her work. So she read Paper, Scissors, Death and promptly called me to say it should never be published. Ever. Fortunately, my publisher did not agree. After Paper, Scissors, Death was nominated for an Agatha Award, the author sent me a lovely apology along the lines of “gee, maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about!” I don’t think she was being malicious. I think she honestly thought I was making a mistake.

5. Because they’re having a bad day. Or a bad month. Or a bad life. Let’s face it: On any given day, some readers would have told Will Shakespeare to chuck his work into the fire. Call it the “bad hair day” syndrome. You know how it goes. Everything looks awful when you’re having a bad hair day. And so, dear author, when a “bad hair day” reader reviews your work, you are sunk. They can’t see the true merit of your project because misery has colored their lenses.

Once you realize that criticism can be leveled for a myriad of reasons, you can sift through the suggestions of your readers and decide whether these points are valid. More often than not, you’ll be left holding a mixed bag. It certainly is tempting to toss out the whole mess. But if you do, you’ll cheat yourself.

Here’s my thinking… If there’s even ONE helpful idea in a critique, I am eager to put that idea to good use. Never mind that my feelings are hurt. Never mind the reviewer’s intention. Those are transitory things. My work is what matters.

Okay, your turn. Why do you think people offer criticism? How can you tell if the critic is being fair or not? Have you ever had to apologize because you misjudged something?

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