How do you deal with criticism that’s wrong?

editor wrong
Graphic: Godefroy Durand via Wikimedia Commons

When someone in a position of authority — like your boss — wants to ruin your writing, you can’t ignore them. You’ve got to deal with it. Today, I tell you how.

At a clear writing workshop I gave this week, a participant asked this question: “How do I deal with someone who is in a position of authority and criticizes my writing — but based on erroneous ideas?” She explained that her boss insisted on spelling holistic with a “w,” and that no presentation of the actual facts would persuade him otherwise.

This happens all the time, and usually with problem more serious than spelling. Your boss, or some other editor in a position of authority, has a mistaken belief — that passive voice is good, that jargon makes writing sound sophisticated, that there is no upper limit on the length of a sentence.

Here are some suggestions on what to do to resolve the issue:

  • Don’t ignore problem editors. If you’ve got a fundamental disagreement with an editor who has the final say over your writing, don’t let it fester. You’ll be writing from fear, which gets in the way of bold, clear communication. Get it out in the open.
  • Have a chat to help you understand. Editors, bosses, and others in positions of authority are intelligent (at least, I hope yours are). That means there’s probably a basis for their belief. Sit down, not to argue, but to understand. Get them to reveal the philosophical reasons behind their (potentially misguided) belief. Try to listen uncritically, rather than convince — this is an exercise of discovery.
  • Could you live with the editor’s perspective? Sometimes, when you listen, you find out that it’s you that are stuck with a hidebound belief. Try on the editor’s perspective. If the editor is actually right — or at least not wrong — you might learn something by doing it their way, or by integrating their perspective into what you do.
  • Do research and marshal evidence. If you still think you’re right, you need proof. Find out, not just the rule that supports doing it your way, but why it’s better that way. (For example, I point out that passive voice writing leaves a mystery in the reader’s mind about who is actually doing things, which creates distance and uncertainty in writing.) A search on my site, or on other writing authorities like Grammarist, will often illuminate the truth and the reasons behind it.
  • Set time aside for a principled discussion. Sit down with your editor for a general discussion about the issue. It’s important that you do this separately from any given piece of writing, so the question becomes a question of policy, not of usage in a specific context. Bring your evidence and discuss what’s best for the reader, rather than which of you is right. (No one wants to be wrong, but any good editor at least wants to learn.) Bring the Iron Imperative to bear: are you treating the reader’s time as more valuable than your own?
  • Seek the higher truth. In all good arguments, the solution lies not on one side or the other, but on a higher plane — one where you gain the perspective to realize the merits of the arguments on both sides. Seek that higher plane. It’s where you and the person you’re arguing with can find agreement and new insights into what makes writing better.
  • Do an A/B test. Create two similar pieces of writing — one done your way, one done the way your editors insists. Show them to customers — ask which is better. Measure which one delivers better results. Ask the CEO or other people in your department. A fair test — one where both pieces are well written, except for the one difference in philosophy — will reveal what works best. (If you’re afraid of this test, you’d should figure out why. And if everyone thinks you’re wrong, maybe you are wrong.)
  • Find a resolution. Your objective is to settle things. Find a way you can coexist. (My workshop participant just resolved to avoid the word “holistic,” but most problems can’t be solved so simply.) Develop a style guideline that reflect the higher truth and describes when you’ll do it the boss’s way, and when you’ll do it your way. And then write in the confidence that you won’t get undermined the next time you run afoul of an editor’s pet policy.

5 responses to “How do you deal with criticism that’s wrong?

  1. Hi Josh, I love your work. But the first sentence of this piece is grammatically incorrect. The subject “someone” does not agree with its complement “them.” You could use “people” as the subject or “him or her” as the complement. Joe

    1. @Joseph, the first sentence is an example of the singular “they.” Josh wrote about it a while back. I am not a fan. But it is correct grammatically.

      1. @Sylvia Thank you. I did not know that. Sorry Josh. My 17 year-old son is also a fan of yours. Now if I can just get him to write.

  2. love your blog … keeps getting better as you relax more!
    john, sunshine coast, queensland, aust.

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