Mike Spinak »

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When to Reject Criticism

Criticism can point out deficiencies, provide insight, and spark ideas. It can help you refine and improve your work. 

Some of the early test readers for my book Growing Up Humming felt that the unexplained absence of the father hummingbird was glaring and problematic.

It was a classic case where I, as the author, had been too close to the story to see this aspect the way readers would. As I was writing this nonfiction book, I simply related the events that actually happened. Those events didn’t include a father; ergo, neither did I. It never occurred to me to bring up the father.

The question “Where’s the father?” is perfectly reasonable, and I recognized this should be addressed, when readers mentioned it. They had no way to know that Anna’s hummingbird fathers just inseminate and move on, without helping raise the chicks, or that Anna’s hummingbirds are too promiscuous for the hummingbirds to know who the father is. These were facts that I took for granted during the writing process, because I knew them. But readers would not be coming to the story sharing my expectation of no paternal involvement.

I added a brief, child-appropriate passage about the “missing” father, and I think the book is stronger for it.

I love criticism, and I’m always open to it. However, that doesn’t mean I automatically assume all criticism is right and should be abided. Criticism can also be wrong. Or, at least, wrong for you and your art’s circumstances and needs. So, how do you know which criticism to heed and which to ignore?

One of my book’s early test readers suggested a number of changes. “Get rid of the parts about thermoregulation, regurgitation, and aerodynamics,” she said, “and don’t use any big words. Keep it very short. Switch from nonfiction to fiction, and make the story more fanciful. Give the birds names. Make it cute!” And so on.

When she gave me this feedback, I thought to myself, “I can’t please everybody. You’ll be among those I don’t please.” Not because she was calling for massive revision. Sometimes that’s for the best. Nor due to being offended. (I wasn’t offended at all.) Rather, it was because of the nature of her suggestions. Reading between the lines, all of her criticism equated to “It’s too geeky”; and all of her suggestions fundamentally meant, “Make it not-geeky.”

I am geeky. Unabashedly so. I wrote Growing Up Humming as a geek, in a way that other geeks would especially appreciate. That’s not to say that it only appeals to geeks – the fact that it’s averaging 4.9 out of 5 stars through 75 reviews shows it has wide appeal – it’s just to say that it has a somewhat geeky slant.

The reason I ignored feedback to make it less geeky is simple: Making the book non-geeky would have meant not being true to myself. When you stop being true to yourself in your creative expression, your creations become inauthentic. Thus, your results suffer.

I’m not aware of any all-encompassing way to determine which criticism you should heed and which you should reject, but I’m convinced this makes a good starting point.

Always be true to yourself.