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Running the Gauntlet: The Value of Criticism

the value of criticismOnce upon a time, I set out to create a truly awful book cover. Not just a bad cover, but a mockery of a cover so excruciatingly amateurish that people would immediately erupt in laughter when they saw it. I would show it to my friends, we’d all have a good laugh, and then exchange horror stories about bad cover designs we’d seen (or made).

I pulled out all the stops. Bad stock photos mashed clumsily together. Lousy composition. No theme. Hideous color palette. Type set in Comic Sans, with random Photoshop effects applied.

Elements via Shutterstock, iStockPhoto, and the salty tears of professional cover designers

Elements via Shutterstock, iStockPhoto, and the salty tears of professional cover designers

And then I posted it to Facebook. “Hey guys, here’s my entry for a book cover design competition next week! What do you think?”

There’s an internet adage known as Poe’s Law, which states that without some indication of the author’s intent, it’s impossible to create a parody so exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken for sincere belief.

The day I posted that cover, I learned the truth of that statement.

“Wow, nice job!”

“Good luck!”

“Looks great, when can we read it?”

Now, some of my friends are as snarky and mischievous as I am, so my first reaction was to chuckle at their sarcasm. But as the polite compliments continued to roll in, I realized they weren’t being sarcastic. They were being supportive. And they would rather let me trot out that abomination of a cover than crush my dreams.

I promptly ended the joke. “Guys, I was kidding! You know how much I despise Comic Sans.”

“Oh, thank God, I didn’t want to say anything mean…”

“I wondered if you were joking!”

“Hahah, that’s one ugly cover. Are you going to enter it in the contest anyway?”

I looked at that cover, with its fluorescent, Day-Glo green type in Comic-freaking-Sans, and I was terrified. How many embarrassments had I set loose on the world, propelled on the praise of family and friends?

That incident changed my perspective on feedback and criticism. Over the next few years, I distilled my experiences into these personal guidelines for soliciting and receiving feedback.

Reframe feedback to create emotional distance

When someone tells me, “Your shoelace is untied,” that’s not an attack on me. It’s helpful information, and I appreciate someone saving me from a faceplant in the middle of the street.

But our art and writing are not shoelaces. We pour our heart and soul into those creations, so it’s natural that we identify with them on a personal level. That means criticism of our work can be perceived as criticism of us.

It’s vital that we shake off knee-jerk reactions and create emotional distance from our work. Only then can we evaluate criticism objectively and make use of the priceless information it provides.

My mantra goes something like this: I am not my work. Negative feedback doesn’t mean my work is bad; this is how I find ways to make it better. My work can always be better.

I find that repeating this to myself periodically helps me reframe criticism into something positive and constructive. It’s certainly more effective than curling up in the fetal position.

Seek unbiased feedback

As I learned from my “Alien Conspiracy” prank, the people closest to you are rarely unbiased. While there may be a few truthtellers in the mix, you’ll probably need to venture outside of that safe, supportive circle of friends to find the unvarnished honesty your work requires.

Give permission to be blunt

It’s not just your immediate circle of friends that may be reluctant to hurt your feelings. When you ask peers and professionals for feedback, they don’t know your threshold for criticism, and some may hold back for fear of alienating or upsetting you. Or they may soft-pedal the criticism for diplomacy’s sake, and fail to convey their true concerns.

Give them explicit permission to be brutally honest, no holds barred. Hang your work from the ceiling, hand out sticks, and let them whack that piñata until the candy explodes out of it.

That kind of unfiltered criticism can be an ego-deflating experience, but it’s some of the purest, most helpful feedback you can get.

Remember that criticism is a window into the minds of your readers

If you view feedback as a peek into the thoughts of readers, even flawed criticism becomes useful. Less-than-helpful comments like “I don’t like it” and “ugh, no!” can be expanded into useful information with a gentle prompt. “Oh, is it the typeface that’s off? What would you prefer if this was your book?”

Don’t push back

When someone voices feedback that goes against what we know, believe, or just don’t want to hear, we tend to dig in our heels and push back. Avoid this, both internally and externally.

Don’t challenge the feedback you receive, because that may have a chilling effect on other comments. Thank them politely and move on, no matter how you feel about it. The goal here is to coax feedback from your peers, not to defend a point of view.

Don’t automatically reject feedback you disagree with, either. When you encounter a comment that makes you want to reflexively push your laptop off your desk, stop. Look at it from all sides and try to figure out what it is that bothers you about the comment.

Is it a statement that goes against what you know? Maybe it’s an alternative point of view that’s just as valid in another context, such as a different age group or a different genre. Could this be an opportunity to include a new target audience?

Is it a statement that makes you recoil because you don’t want to deal with it? Maybe there’s a great deal of work involved to implement that suggestion, and you can’t even contemplate that right now. But in 24 hours, you might feel differently. Don’t discard that suggestion yet.

The opinions we want to reject are the ones we need to consider most carefully. These are the ideas that brush up against our internal biases and assumptions, and the resentment we feel may actually be the cognitive bias that’s blinding us to new approaches.


I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise. — Noel Coward


I recently had a chance to put these guidelines into practice. The rough draft of a cover I’d been working on wasn’t coming together as well as I’d hoped, but it received enthusiastic feedback from a few random readers in the book’s target audience. I persuaded myself that I was being hypercritical, and it was probably okay.

But, just to be safe, I ran it past my colleagues. I asked for their opinions and made it clear that I welcomed “brutal honesty”.

And boy, did they oblige.

In the course of the discussion, I learned:

  • The typography was dated and suggested “soppy romance”
  • It was unclear that the central figure was a woman
  • The figure clashed with the background
  • The subtitle failed to engage readers
  • The cover did not appeal to its target demographic
  • The overall style was more reminiscent of a greeting card than contemporary fiction

Ouch.

Ten years ago, I would not have been able to accept that criticism.
I would have rejected the opinions that conflicted with mine. (“So what if the font is ‘dated’, Garamond dates back to the 15th century!”)
I would have tried to defend my design choices, rather than consider why they didn’t work for others. (“What? That’s obviously a woman!”)
Having a dozen people agree that the cover wasn’t up to standards would have sent me into a deep depression.

Instead, reframing that criticism and embracing it saved me from a potential disaster. Sure, I was disappointed, but after a little reflection and a pint of Double Chocolate Fudge ice cream, I quickly realized they were absolutely right. I had been deceiving myself, and the cover was not a good fit for its genre, the target audience, or the book itself. In fact, it wasn’t a good cover, period. Perhaps not “Alien Conspiracy” bad, but nowhere near professional standards.

This book launch would likely have been a flop had it not been for the honesty of my colleagues.

I’m grateful to them for sharing their experience.

Over to You
How do you deal with criticism? Let us know in the comments below.

Writing: How to Deal with Bad Reviews

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5 Responses to Running the Gauntlet: The Value of Criticism

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 9, 2017 at 1:48 am #

    I accept critique from people who know what they’re talking about. Period. I accept no random critique from people who read, but are not in the target audience. I thank them politely for their input – no point in being rude – but I know where they’re coming from, and it isn’t helpful.

    And I seek specific help from people whose work I admire – and I still think about it very carefully, and run it against all kinds of filters (who says it? why does he say it? what does he know about X that is helpful? is there any reason for it not to be genuine feedback?).

    If you’re in the middle of a popular genre, there will be more advice that’s easy to swallow. If not, you have to be sturdy enough to be very hard on yourself, and carefully qualify the input you accept.

    The above all comes from experience.

  2. Richard Lowe September 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

    I make a distinction between critique and criticism. To me, critique is specific, and because of that has value. “Your character Erika is head-hopping in chapter 7, it would be better if she didn’t do that.”

    I define criticism as general and, because of that it is not actionable. An Amazon review of, “I didn’t like it” is criticism. What does that mean? Didn’t like what part? How could it be better? These kinds of reviews don’t help the author or the reader.

    Criticism is usually malicious; critique is usually helpful.

    I find those definitions to be very helpful to me when deciding whether or not to take the opinions of others to heart.

  3. Kathy Steinemann September 7, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

    Excellent, John. You made me laugh before steering me into serious thoughts. Thanks for your insight.

    I always wait before reacting to criticism. A few hours of deliberation often changes my perspective.

  4. Chris Calder September 7, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    Thank you, John, you right on the button. I learned a long time ago that I should not just accept, but welcome all criticism. Yes, all of it. It really is the only way to improve what we do.

    I am fortunate to have a small number of readers who have become friends (those who would not normally do anything that smacks of ‘being cruel to be kind’. When my novel kISmet was in draft form, I sent it to them with a threat: I would not speak to them ever again if they did not tell me exactly how they thought I could improve it.Be brutal, I said.

    Wow! They were. The same perceived shortcomings came up again and again. I licked my wounds and went back to it. The result was a much better product. I truly believe that there is nothing that has been written that cannot be improved.

    So now on the Author’s Notes page of my books I put a plea addressed to readers, asking for their opinions as to how the book could have been better. It is something that commend to all my fellow writers.

  5. Margaret Skea September 7, 2017 at 3:46 pm #

    Great post, John. I have an HF book coming out next month. I gave several chapters to an academic with an interest in the topic (who also happens to write very readable and accessible NF in a similar time frame) and he came back with various comments re my query. He also wrote, ‘I wasn’t asked to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway…’ and then proceeded to make a couple of suggestions including commenting on one particular character in the book to suggest that I should make them more nuanced.

    I was grateful for both suggestions, which I recognised as valid butmight not have thought of them myself, and re-wrote the relevant bits. Although this was a person I didn’t actually know, but had met on one occasion – when my mobile phone went off in the middle of their PP presentation at a book festival (how to win friends and influence people), I realised that they’d commented outside their remit from a desire to be helpful and I appreciated that they’d made the effort to do so.

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