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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Accepting (and Giving) Criticism--Some Great Guidelines

Criticism is part of being an author. In fact, we even have a special name for one type of it: editing. I mean, think about it. Editing is, in its broadest form, a type of criticism. However, the best editors manage to share their suggestions in such a way that they don't seem like criticism at all! And those are the types of editors we all hope to work with--compassionate to our self-esteem yet focused on helping us create a better product.

But some criticism comes out of the blue. From readers, from other authors, and from reviewers. Some is valid and useful. Some criticism, however, is downright destructive.

Recently, a site for motivational speakers fielded a question. Seems this particular speaker finished a presentation and someone unknown to her offered a on-the-spot critique. She wondered how she should have responded.

I thought Paul Radde's comments about how to handle that situation were worth re-posting here--yes, they were intended for a speaker, but every writer can benefit from this as well:


If the feedback has begun and you are momentarily blind-sided, and they (the persons offering feedback) are adamantly continuing with the feedback, you can deflect what they are saying by referring to the rules of feedback: coming from a contractual source, e.g. a supervisor when requested, or when in a position to receive it, in private. With presence of mind, you could request that you would be much more able to receive what they had to offer when you could concentrate on their comments completely.

Should they persist anyway, you could ask that colleague what his/her intention is in providing the feedback right now.

Even so, there are only two kinds of legitimate feedback:

* confirming: specific and detailed description of what the recipient did right in recognition of their accomplishment, or to recommend that they continue.

* corrective, re-directive, focusing: specific and detailed description of a better direction, practice, or how to get back on track.

The other kinds of feedback are not appropriate:

* demanding: stated regarding something that the recipient cannot correct or change, and so constituting a denial of reality...

*denouncing: stated with the intention of belittling, demeaning, or putting down the recipient.
It’s the intention, tone, and content.

* general: so lacking in specificity and precision as to leave the recipient lacking in any direction, correction, or value to take from the statement. General feedback is worthless.


Here are a few ideas of my own:

What is the person's intention? Is the person offering feedback because he/she really has something to share that he/she thinks you can use? Or does the person have an agenda?

What is the person's background/training? Okay, you don't have to be an expert to offer an opinion, but someone with a very narrow scope of experience might not have the best platform from which to offer a thoughtful opinion. I especially shudder when someone starts a criticism with "I do a little blah-blah-blah and I wanted to offer you some feedback." Usually, it's a veiled attempt to play "I can one-up you."

How does the person support the criticism? Can he/she point to an example? Can you confirm what he/she is saying or give it accurate consideration?

How emotionally charged is the criticism? Is it a rambling attempt to put you down? Look for emotionally worded critiques. An example might be, "That book will NEVER..." or "You don't EVER..." or "I can't BELIEVE that..." Those capitalized words are all clues that the speaker/giver of criticism is responding to an emotional issue and not to your work.

How willing is the speaker/critic to defer criticism to another time? In my opinion, anyone who keeps hammering home a complaint or who doesn't take timing into consideration, is probably someone with an ulterior motive. I've noticed that if the person just can't stop criticizing or can't wait to tell you his/her opinion, it has more to do with that person that with the project.

What's the language the criticism is couched in? For example, if you tell me, "I think I'd feel more emphathetic to your protagonist if you did such-and-such," that's a lot different from "I hated your protagonist because..." In one case, the critic is offering me a way to improve. In the other, he/she is leading with a strong emotional response.

Our work is out there for all to see and remark upon. But some remarks are worth hearing and some are meant to be daggers in the heart. You can't give both sets of information equal attention. If you do, it will seriously hamper your ability to keep writing!

Paul Radde is the author of the definitive book on meeting environment, available at Once there click on "Products," scroll down to "Books" click on SEATING MATTERS.Want a preview? Click on "Articles" and read "How to Get YourAudience the Best Seats in the House," from Professional Speaker Magazine.Workshop advised for meeting professionals, CPE, affiliates, chapters.

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