The Human Condition:

On Accepting Criticism – January 27, 2013

No one is good at this, including me. We don’t like having someone tell us that our life choices, our deportment, or our work product are unsatisfactory and need fixing. As a private person, you can usually avoid criticism by keeping away from social nags and family members. But as the kind of public person who writes for a living and must regularly push out product to anyone who can read, it’s hard to avoid hearing criticism. Sometimes you even have to invite it.

I’m going through this right now, as I’ve just sent the first draft of The Professor’s Mistress, which is the sequel to my 2011 novel The Judge’s Daughter, to my circle of five or six first readers.1 I’m working on their comments now and correcting the draft. But I’ve done this all my life as a writer in a corporate setting, drafting articles and press releases and then submitting them to my in-house reviewers, subject matter experts, corporate officers, and the legal department. If you write for a living, you spend half your time writing and the other half submitting your work for scrutiny on various levels. And, unlike my circle of alpha readers, these reviewers are seldom expert—or even acceptable—writers with an understanding of the mechanics of storytelling, sentence structure, diction, and grammar. However, the way to a short, unhappy career is to look at their copious comments, roll your eyes, say “No, I think I’ll run this article as it stands,” and walk away whistling.

What kind of comments, corrections, and changes do you get? Let me count the ways …

Nolo Comprendere

First off—and future reviewers please take note—the worst comment is a simple question mark, sometimes with a circle drawn around it. Sometimes it’s an exclamation mark. The reader has a problem with the text but declines to state what he or she thinks is wrong. The meaning may not be clear. The grammar may be out of whack. The punctuation may not be to his or her liking. Or the whole thought may be just too new and exciting. But you’re the mind reader so the concern must be obvious to you.

The writer is tempted to shrug off these punctuation marks. “If you ain’t sayin’, I ain’t fixin’.” But if you leave too many people with too many questions and clearly don’t take their comments seriously, that way lies a doubling down on frustration, anger, and more marks on the page.

The key to accepting this kind of criticism—and indeed for any criticism—is to look within the text. Something’s wrong, some nerve has been touched or massaged the wrong way. So as a writer you need to spend more time with that particular sentence or paragraph.2 You quickly learn in a professional setting that your choice of words and thought structure is not sacrosanct. Text is fluid. Choices are limitless. So the least you can do is recast the sentence or the paragraph. Along the way, you might find something better than your first attempt—and at least you’re covered if the reviewer ever comes back at you.

The Frustrated Writer

Occasionally—but not more than about 50% of the time—you come across a reviewer who fancies him- or herself an excellent writer. Either that, or this person doesn’t understand the review process. This reviewer takes every sentence you write and tries to find a different way of saying it. “Oh, look! Those words [or my different words] say the same thing in this order, too.” Usually the frustrated writer finds a way to use more polysyllables, more of the words themselves, and more complex sentence structures. The result is a bulging sore in your otherwise lean and efficient prose.

The only way to deal with this reviewer—and still keep friends—is to accept some of the rewrites and do your best to correct the worst excesses, lapses, and misinformation while keeping the overall flavor and intent. If you have more than one reviewer, or if this frustrated writer doesn’t happen to be the CEO, you can usually get away with accepting and adapting about 20% of this person’s changes.

Everything at Once

Some reviewers are busy-busy people and don’t bother to read the entire article or press release before sharpening their pencils. These people read the lead paragraph, think of five or six Very Important Points they’d like to see covered up front in the article, and try to rewrite that lead with all of them popping out of an 800-word sentence.

You can’t do much with this person, because you seldom have a chance to confront your reviewers (see Note 2 below) and negotiate their comments. The good news is that such a person, having piled the whole article into the first paragraph, generally leaves the remaining body of the text untouched.

A good writer knows that the art of storytelling is the reveal: separating key thoughts from supporting information, presenting them in a logical order, and leading the reader’s brain where the important thought in the story needs to go. As someone once noted, “Time is God's way of keeping everything from happening at once.” So is good story structure.3

The best way to deal with this reviewer is to add one or two of his or her points as subsidiary clauses in your original opening, recast the lead sentence, and move on.

The Double Bind

With multiple reviewers of a single article, it’s not unusual to have one reviewer delete a passage as irrelevant, extraneous, or wrong while another reviewer is busily rewriting and embellishing that same passage. Woe to the writer in the middle.

This is one of the few cases when the writer may have to make contact with the reviewers and test their dedication to their intended changes. Someone may have to give up and let go. But usually, I’ve found, the cause of these divergent reactions is the same: the reviewers did not like or support, or simply did not understand, what the passage was saying. In one case, the response was to eliminate the source of bother; in the other, to try to fix it with a rewrite.

In any case, the writer must deal with the suspect passage, either deleting or correcting it, and then figure out what that does to the overall thought structure of the article.

Wrong-Headed Analysis

Some reviewers just go off the deep end. They don’t fully understand the article, the point being made, the choice of supporting examples, or some other aspect of what you’ve done—and their screwy and unanswerable comments and suggestions indicate this derailment. These are the most troubling of review comments, because you hope to write articles and stories that anyone with a basic command of English and an interest in the subject matter can follow and appreciate.

Here again, the point is to look within the text. You have made assumptions about the story you’re telling—as a writer, you can’t avoid assumptions, because in a universe of endless possibilities, which you are trying to make concrete and comprehensible, you have to plant a stake somewhere in space, time, and among all the possible facts. If this reader—and reviewers are first of all readers—has misunderstood, that’s a problem for you, not for him.

It helps to think through this particular reader’s background and possible aims in reviewing the work. If he or she is a lawyer, you may be dealing with that peculiar strain of paranoia, courtroom phobia, that leads a lawyer to want to remove every bit of logic and assertion from the article, like stripping the wiring and plumbing out of an old house. If the text doesn’t say anything definite, then it can’t be challenged or used as ammunition in a court case.4 With other reviewers, however, you must put on your deerstalker and play Sherlock Holmes to analyze the comments and try to find just where the text—and more likely its underlying logic—went wrong for this reader.

This deeper analysis is usually the most fruitful for a writer, and these kind of “Wha-aa-at?” comments are actually hidden treasures. While most of your other reviewers may have simply nodded and smiled while skimming over your text, this reviewer has read deeply and come to no good end. That should tell you that some fraction of future readers—a tenth? a quarter? half?—may have similar problems. You must take it on faith that the wrong-headed reader is not an isolated phenomenon. Probe for this reader’s source of dissatisfaction, and you may well find your weak links and crumbling supports. And when you fix those, you’ll have a much stronger structure.

The wider point here is that critics cannot rewrite your article or text—or your novel—for you. You do yourself no favors if you roll over, play dead, and accept their changes without question or challenge. Then the language and its underlying thought structure will start to look like a piece of Swiss cheese. The fact remains that you, as author, are the expert on the purpose of the writing and the structure and examples you’ve adopted to make that purpose clear. Where reviewers have trouble with the text, they are revealing pits and potholes you didn’t notice in the heat of first writing. Your best strategy is to look within, be honest about what you’re doing, and work toward improving the text in these areas.

From early in my career I’ve followed this pattern—looking within the text and addressing the reader’s underlying problem but not necessarily adopting his or her proposed solution—and I’ve never had a reviewer come back and complain. I like to think that learning to accept criticism in this way has made me a better writer. But it still hurts when the little darling I send out for review comes back with dents and dings.

The alternative is worse, however. If every reviewer is full of glowing praise—but of that vacuous kind which is without specifics—you know one of two things happened. Either the reviewer didn’t pay attention, or he found your whole effort so damaged and muddled that he could find nothing to do but praise it with great praise and small conscience, offer a winning smile, and leave quickly.

What about honest praise, filled with specific things the reader liked? That’s nice. That makes me smile for about a minute, sometimes an hour. That makes me relieved I haven’t done something really terrible. But praise has this one great defect: it isn’t actionable. There’s nothing you can do with “Good job!” There’s nothing you can sink your teeth into like an honest dose of criticism.

1. These are some of my fellow writers, friends, and a couple of family members whose opinions I’ve come to trust. Generally, I’m pretty good at self-editing on the period-and-comma level and for making sense of a sentence. But I still need a second (third, fourth, fifth …) set of eyes to tell me about parts of the story that don’t work or need to be added. I may be blind in these areas because I’m carrying those parts in my head and not on the page, or because like all human beings I’m not as omniscient as a writer—who plays God to a universe only two palm-widths wide—must be.

2. No, you don’t get to write back to that reviewer and ask for an explanation. That will only get you a shrug and “Well, I just didn’t understand it” or “I just didn’t like it.” You don’t want to get into an argument on those grounds.

3. However, the journalist’s time-honored 5W lead (Who, What, Where, When, Why) and inverted pyramid structure come close for the hurried reader. What most people who don’t write regularly don’t understand is that not every article is an exercise in journalism. Sometimes you have to pose questions, raise issues, work from the general to the specific, and leave some key facts for a punch line. A good article is a path to a conclusion, not simply the report on an event.

4. Of course, dealing with a legal reviewer on this issue is almost hopeless. If his preference is that no article should be written—and he’s merely exercising the review privilege to kill it in the messiest way possible—you may have to go back to first principles and decide whether the subject is worth addressing at all.