Handling Criticism by James R. Coggins

Anyone with a public profile, including writers, inevitably receives criticism from to time. How do we handle it?

I know criticism bothers some people greatly, but I have never had a great problem with it. Some of this has to do with my background.

I was trained as an academic, in a milieu where scholarly debate was considered a good thing, since questioning and debating are necessary tools in the search for truth. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV) says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The idea is that as an iron file sharpens an iron tool, so criticism can grind the rough edges off a theory (or a person) and make it more correct. The process might be painful, but it is useful and helpful.

Of course, this comes with the condition that the scholarly debate sticks to the issues and does not become a personal attack. When one academic debate got out of hand, another professor (R.H. Tawney) cautioned, “An erring colleague is not an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh.”

My other learning experience in this area came when I was an editor with a denominational Christian magazine for nineteen years. That magazine had always had a robust Letters to the Editor section. We used to say that we counted on one of our columnists to fill two pages in the magazine, one with his column and the other with letters responding to his column. This columnist was an academic who usually addressed important issues and stimulated people to think. We thought the resulting debate often helped to clarify issues.

Several principles helped guide our practice as editors.

1. It was helpful to realize that we had no monopoly on truth, we were not always right, and it was a good thing to let others correct our mistakes. That iron sharpening iron thing again. Proverbs 27:6 (KJV) says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” The idea is that a friend will correct your mistakes by telling you the truth even if it hurts, whereas an enemy will gladly let you continue on in your error. Proverbs 11:14 (KJV) says, “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” In modern parlance, “Many heads are better than one.”

2. It was also helpful to remember that the magazine belonged to all of the members of the denomination. The editors controlled most of the content, so it was important to let the other owners of the paper also have their say. Something similar may be said of authors who write a book or an article and release it to the public. The author owns the copyright on what he or she wrote, but not on the resulting discussion.

3. We also found it helpful to consider that we were often right and that other people’s criticisms didn’t negate that fact. That is, we realized we needed to have confidence in what we were presenting and not be threatened by every criticism.

4. It was helpful to put criticism into perspective. By that time, our magazine had established an enviable track record. The reality was that we received far more praise than we did criticism (even though people tended to write more often when they were upset with something), and we learned to take the good with the bad.

5. Another editor offered this advice: “Never take yourself too seriously.” One of my favorite illustrations of this came very early, when I was co-editor of our high school newspaper. It was the 1960s, the era when radical, left-wing groups were springing up on university campuses all over North America to demand all kinds of changes. A friend of mine wrote a letter to the editor criticizing something I had written in the high school newspaper and signed it, “SCN (Students for a Cogginsless Newspaper).” I laughed and published the letter.

6. We also had to accept that ultimate truth belonged to God and that while we were privileged to have been given some aspects of the truth, God would judge all of our words in the end and reveal what was true. In the presence of God, a little humility is in order.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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2 Responses to Handling Criticism by James R. Coggins

  1. Good insight. I never read reviews of my books, whether they’re good or bad, because the book is done and out there and I can’t do anything about it unless I do another edition. On the other hand, edits are well received. I think the mark of a good writer is the love of a good edit.


    • jrcoggins says:

      As an editor as well as a writer, the affirmation of editors is music to my ears. As a writer, I have also benefited greatly from good editors. As an editor, I found that the best writers welcomed editing, but the worst writers resisted it, being convinced that their compositions were already perfect


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