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Have you heard of “Critic’s Math”?
The term Critic’s Math, coined by author Jon Acuff, is basically defined as this: 1000 compliments + 1 critical comment = 1 critical comment.
On the face of it, this equation makes absolutely no sense! But as an author, I completely understand how this works.
Happily, most of the reviews I get for my novels are very positive. As I am writing this, ninety-two percent of the hundreds of Amazon reviews or ratings for my newest book, The Restoration of Celia Fairchild, are either four or five stars. And the five-star ratings are almost seventy percent! And only two percent of the people who left ratings for my new book gave it only one or two stars.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’m more of a word person than a numbers person. But you don’t have a to be math genius to figure out that a lot of people have really enjoyed reading The Restoration of Celia Fairchild, and I’m grateful for every one of them.
However, the rules of Critic’s Math mean that even when an author is blessed with hundreds of positive reviews of their work when faced with even one negative or critical review, that’s the one they tend to remember, focus upon, and sometimes even obsess over.
Because authors are human.
The Human Equation in Critic’s Math
Writers aren’t the only ones who fall prey to Critic’s Math. The tendency to focus on negative comments or critiques from others, even when faced with many more positive responses, is very common. If you think about it, you’ve probably experienced the same thing.
Let’s say you’re sitting down to dinner with your husband. You ask him how it tastes and he says that everything is delicious but the steak might be a little tough. Instead of focusing on the fact that he actually complimented the meal, all you hear is that one little negative comment which translates into negative thoughts such as, “He thinks the food is awful” or “I am a terrible cook.”
And if you’ve ever had a performance review at work, you know that critic’s math comes into play there too! Instead of feeling good about all the things our boss says we’re doing well or right, we tend to focus or even obsess about one or two areas where we’re told we need to improve.
That response to critic’s math is very normal, a result of simply being human. But something else that’s part of the human equation is our ability to change. And though we may not able to change that fact people may sometimes critique us, we can change how we choose to respond to that criticism.
Because reviews and critiques – both positive and negative – are simply part and parcel of a writer’s life, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn about dealing with Critic’s Math. Here are a few techniques I’ve developed for helping me put criticism into proper perspective.
Dealing with Critic’s Math: Constructive or Destructive
The first thing to do when encountering criticism is to consider the intent of the critic. Is the person who gave it trying to help you or wound you?
There are people out there who get some sort of strange pleasure or thrill from saying things that hurt other people. To borrow another example from my world, there are people in the book reviewing universe who actually set out to give low ratings and scathing reviews of books. Why? I honestly don’t know. And I don’t need to know because the criticism of these people is unimportant. I can dismiss it entirely.
The same is probably true in your world, though perhaps in a different form. Some critics are serial critics, finding fault with everyone and everything. That’s their agenda. You probably don’t know why but you definitely know who they are. So when those professional critics say something with the intention of wounding you, consider the source and pay no attention.
Dealing with the Constructive
Conversely, if the critic comes from a person who you know is well-intentioned and good-hearted, there are some other possibilities at play.
First, they may simply have let some careless words slip from their lips. We’ve all done that, haven’t we? So, if that’s the case, just take a moment to remember the last time you said something you wished you could take back and let it go. Another possibility is that you’re taking the words of this good-hearted person all the wrong way, seeing criticism where none exists. If you suspect you might be overly sensitive to what was really an offhand comment, let that go too.
But if a good-hearted person without an agenda is offering you criticism designed to help you in the future by enhancing your performance or making improvements going forward, that’s a good thing! And an opportunity you should embrace.
Dealing with Criticism: A Learning Opportunity
Constructive criticism should be viewed and embraced as a learning opportunity, a chance to make a good thing better.
If your boss says they love your vision, energy, enthusiasm, etc. but suggests you need to pay more attention to detail, take the opportunity to improve your performance going forward by asking for examples and specific suggestions about how to so in the future.
When it comes to cooking, my husband is my first-round taste tester. If I make a new recipe and he’s not thrilled with the results, I don’t let it hurt my feelings. Instead, I ask him for ideas about what could make it better. Often, he’s right. I can’t tell you how many recipes that end up on my blog were improved because of my husband’s input.
Taking constructive criticism as a learning opportunity is one of the best ways I know to counter critic’s math and turn a seemingly negative comment into a positive direction.
Just Not Their Cup of Tea
So often (too often!) we allow ourselves to be hurt by comments that truly don’t matter.
Now and then, I’ll get a negative rating or review from a person whose comments or reading history indicates that they only read a mystery or only like novels with sad endings. When that happens, I don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean I wrote a bad book; it just means it wasn’t the right book for that particular person.
And that’s okay! You can’t please everybody.
And if a girlfriend makes a less than complimentary comment about your favorite purple shoes, that doesn’t mean she dislikes you or thinks you have terrible taste in clothes. It probably just means that you like purple and she doesn’t.
You already know what I’m going to say about that, yes? (Cue theme song from Frozen) Let it go! Let it go!
Accentuate the Positive
A final important suggestion for dealing with critic’s math is to make a conscious effort to give those many, many positive comments just as much, or hopefully even more, weight than that one negative comment. Because, let’s face it, allowing one negative comment to eliminate one thousand positive comments is really bad math.
One way I counter critic’s math is by saving letters from readers that have especially touched me in a file folder. When I’m feeling down or doubting myself in the wake of unfounded criticism, I pull out that file and re-read those letters. It always helps me put criticism in its proper perspective.
You can do something similar.
The next time someone says something nice or complimentary to you, write it down on an index card and tuck it away to be read later when your confidence needs a boost.
Or, if you’re tempted to obsess over one or two negative comments in an otherwise good performance review, take out a piece of paper and make a side-by-side list of the positive comments or praise and the negative comments or suggestions for improvement. That will give you a clear visible reference to help you weigh the two more realistically.
Writing things down can be a powerful tool in helping you focus on facts instead of feelings, and help you properly weigh positive and negative comments.
Giving in to critic’s math is an all too human tendency. But by considering the source, accentuating the positive, and embracing constructive criticism as an opportunity for improvement, you can help balance the equation – and your life!