More than once, I’ve advised authors to have their books professionally edited if only to reduce the number of scathing reviews from readers who take offense at poorly edited content. After all, the argument goes, isn’t it better to have one person be critically candid with you in private than endure the general public posting harsh criticisms in public?
Reviewers tend to be more candid than than our social networks. They have no relationship with the author to maintain beyond the purchase of the book. They don’t necessarily care about the author’s delicate sensibilities or feelings, while one’s social network of friends, family, and fans just might.
The social network usually works well for building confidence, even when it’s only meant to be encouraging. Post a picture, and you’ll receive comments of “beautiful” or “great” or other compliments. No one will post a comment telling you what’s wrong with the picture, that it’s not beautiful or great, that, in fact, it’s awful. Even when you post a link to something and ask for feedback, comments posted for public viewing usually trend toward the positive even when praise isn’t merited.
This is what I call the positivity trap. We do not receive the critical feedback we need to improve. The positivity trap lulls us into thinking that we’re doing everything the way it should be done, that there’s little to no room for improvement. The unwarranted praise gives us a false sense of accomplishment or expertise.
The positivity trap results in a general downgrading of expectations. This is antithetical to the concept of continuous improvement, the idea that there’s always more to learn and one’s skills can always be improved.
This does not call for false modesty.
I liken this to treating adults like young children. When a young child brings home a crayon drawing, we praise him for his effort and post the picture on the wall or refrigerator in proud display. We do this to encourage the child to persevere, to keep working at this new, developing skill. We do not equate the drawing with a museum-worthy masterpiece.
As adults, we should have the resilience not to fall apart when we receive honest criticsm. It’s fine to acknowledge the sting, but it’s smart to realize that the critic has a valid point (or several valid points) regarding the quality of our work. That criticism enables us to see the flaws in our work and make the effort to rectify them which then improves our skill. We all like compliments, but compliments do little or no good when they’re not merited.
We don’t necessarily want to hurt others’ feelings, but sometimes an effort deserves no fulsome praise beyond the encouragement of a “good try.” Criticism further helps when it’s specific, delivering details that inspire focused, remedial action. Vague criticism of the “I didn’t like it” kind is useless, because the person whose work is being criticized doesn’t know why the critic dislikes the work or what to fix.
We need details.
Criticism need not be sandwiched between compliments to make it palatable, but it should be specific and focus on the work, not the person who created that work. By keeping criticism objective rather than personal, the maker (or “artist” if you prefer) understands that the flaws reside in the work and not in the person. A fair critic does not say an author is a reprehensible person if the book’s flaws make it less than worthy of the critic’s appreciation. Objectivity is a key point of helpful (or constructive) criticism.
Details are helpful with compliments, too. While every author gets those warm, fuzzy feelings when told “I liked your book,” details as to which aspects the reader particularly appreciated help the author know what he or she is doing well so they can be repeated in future books.
The admonition to be kind fails when that kindness is not true. Candid criticism need not be cruel.