Taking the bite out of criticism

July 29, 2009 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

Getting feedback on your writing is hard. Even in the supposedly objective world of science, having someone criticize your prose can feel surprisingly personal – and with good reason. Writing, after all, is where you reveal your thought process and your ideas. It’s where you expose your skill with language – or lack thereof. I know I’ve often felt embarrassed when an editor points out a hole in my logic, a weak transition, a poorly organized section. I begin to think that if only I were smarter, or more skilled, or worked harder, I could spot those flaws myself.

And yet, I also know this is asking the impossible. All writers, without exception, need the perspective of others to improve their work. Think about it. That’s why editors exist everywhere in the writing world: in book and scientific publishing, in magazines and newspapers, and even online. If writers could do it all themselves, those jobs wouldn’t exist.

So, if critique is necessary, how can you survive it better? Here are a few thoughts and strategies of mine. I encourage you to develop your own list.

  1. As I said above, review – whether formally by editors or informally by colleagues – exists for a reason, and a conscientious review will reveal weaknesses in your manuscript that you simply can’t spot yourself. And it’s a good thing. So, just accept critique as an integral part of the writing process – a part that no good writer can do without.
  2. That said, choose your reviewers carefully and don’t put up with those who fail to offer thoughtful comments or use the review process to run you down. One of my most despised critiques goes something like this: “There’s a problem with this sentence/paragraph/section but I’m not really sure what it is or how to fix it.” My response: You’re fired! Writing is hard enough without having to contend with crummy feedback.
  3. The caveat to number 2, of course, is that certain critics cannot be fired (e.g., reviewers for the journal or your co-authors), even though their comments can sometimes be downright cruel. So, what to do? If a review really makes you mad, put it away for a few days until you calm down. Then, try taking a more objective look and ask yourself: Does this reviewer have a legitimate point, regardless of the nasty delivery? If you can honestly conclude no, that’s fine. But more often than not, I’ve found the reviewer does have a point, and addressing it results in a stronger paper.
  4. Seek the first critique of your writing when you’ve honed things enough that the basic reasoning and structure comes through, but not so much that you’ve become totally invested in – or sick of – your words. If you’ve reached the latter state, you’ll be in no shape to hear anything but happy things that don’t require work to fix. I’ve struggled with this myself: Often by the time I hand a draft to an editor, I can’t imagine mustering the energy to make one more change to it. That’s when a break comes in handy. While the paper is in review, try to purge your mind of it as much as possible. Then when the comments come back, you’ll be more ready to deal with them.

Entry filed under: Revision.

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