Tag s | Criticism

Misunderstanding the Written Word

Back on June 8, I wrote “Barriers to Effective Communication,” attempting to look at some things that get in the way in relationships, business, and writing.

I’ve continued to reflect on this topic, particularly with regard to the written word. Not only in books and articles, but also in our emails and social-media posts.

Author Intent

Have you ever been upset by an email from a colleague? Or from a friend? Or a spouse or family member? Of course we have.

I came across a fascinating look at “authorial intent” in a recent book Church Doctrine & the Bible by David Instone-Brewer (Lexham Press, 2020). His context was to introduce the challenge of biblical interpretation by making a parallel to our written words:

It is actually impossible to know … what the author was thinking about and intending to convey in their writing…. You can mistake irony for plain speech, misunderstand who or what they are talking about, interpret advice as criticism, or even misunderstand the meaning of a word – for example, “that’s incredible” (“amazing” or “unbelievable”?), “that’s confusing” (a reference to what they describe, or the way they’re describing it?), “How much?” (“too much” or “too little”?)…. When you add  the fact that an author is from a different family and area, possibly from a different culture, language, country, religion, and time period, there are so many possibilities for misunderstanding that some have concluded we can never be sure what the author meant (pp. 4-5).

Chew on that for awhile, and think of the times where you reacted strongly to something you read.

Reader Understanding

We often read meaning into words that isn’t there. That last kerfluffle with your spouse or relative? Did they really say what you heard? Fortunately, there is something called forgiveness!

In the study of literary criticism, there is something called the “Reader-Response” theory, whereby each reader can read the same material but understand it or absorb it differently. It’s one reason why two people can read the same novel and one thinks it’s trash and the other thinks it is brilliant. Which one is right? Could it be both?

On a side note, this can be rather theological in that it is one way that God meets a reader where they are. That unique connective space that the reader and writer alone (with God’s help) meet. I see a wonder here, a divine mystery. Sort of the “how” writing reaches past the intellect and to the heart. The same way God meets us intellectually (via assent), as well as emotionally/spiritually (via repentance) and practically (via holiness).

Grace Is the Solution

The beginning of understanding is to first check the anger at the door. Of course, there is a place for genuine outrage. At the same time, don’t take offense when a colleague was merely expressing how they felt about having to complete that task by 5 pm today when it’s 4:45 pm. They aren’t necessarily upset at you personally, but at the situation and its demands.

At the same time, it is critical for your emotional and spiritual health to respond properly to bad reviews or harsh criticism of your book or article. Our initial reaction is to take it as a personal attack.

Grace is the solution! Giving benefit of the doubt is a wonderful starting point.


Leave a Comment

Responding to Criticism

When someone tells me she’s not sure she wants me to read her manuscript, I know she’s not ready for publication. Such sentiment shows a lack of confidence and a fear of both rejection and criticism. Even though readers usually treat writers with respect, a critical word can puncture the heart.

Imagine the wounds delivered on Internet sites such as Amazon from readers who lack that respect. A major complaint I hear from distraught authors is that people download free Christian novels and then post hostile reviews. A cursory bit of research reveals some say they felt duped because they didn’t realize they were downloading a Christian novel. It is likely they just grabbed it because it was free and did not look at other reviews or the book’s description. These readers aren’t victims of duplicity, they were, at the very least, lazy and then blamed others when the book wasn’t to their taste. Unfortunately the temptation is for the author to strike back with a serrated reply.

Read More

Criticism Is an Unhappy Part of the Business

I would like to tell you about a most enjoyable day. Our agency’s guidelines request that unsolicited manuscripts come via the post (I know it’s old-school but it works for us), but we still receive e-mail submissions. I spent an entire morning going through that particular in-box, having an assistant send standard e-mail rejection letters, since none were anything our agency could/would handle.

Very soon I received three separate responses:

Read More

The Truth About Criticism

Last week I talked about limiting the amount of mean criticism you have to put up with. This week, let’s revisit that topic, only to learn from it. Yes, we can learn when someone is mean to us. We’ve all had unhappy feelings when attacked. Maybe it’s a twinge in …

Read More

Handling Criticism

Recently I received criticism about myself. I didn’t like it. Like all humans, I prefer praise. However, the points made were from someone (not connected to the publishing industry) I know has my best interests at heart, so I stepped back, tried to review the criticism without emotion, and I hope I learned from it. I can say I learned enough to take steps to improve.

Our writing lives are affected by our moods and situations, so whether the criticism is leveled at ourselves or our work, we need to assess accordingly. Not all criticism is valid, but we can learn from an occasional reassessment. When you are criticized, consider:

Read More