I drove back from Portland yesterday. On the way down I had time to think about how to get the most out of critical comments.
In my reports on the reviewing process, I made the point several times that there was little consistency in the reviewers’ comments. At the time, I saw that as a problem: how do I know what advice to take seriously when the advice is contradictory? In thinking about how to deal with criticism in general, I now see that, given a critical statement, my reaction should be the same whether or not I’ve previously heard something contradictory. The lack of reviewer consistency is therefore not a problem at all, it’s just a fact.
During the long drive, I worked out the following method for dealing with criticism. First, imagine a world in which the criticism is 100% accurate, and you must change your work in reaction to it. What would you do differently? Can you visualize the result? If not, are there some experiments you can do to see what would happen if you took the criticism to heart?
Once you can see the results of having complete faith in a critical comment, decide if that’s an improvement. But shift gears before you make up your mind; don’t judge the success or failure of your reaction to the criticism by whether or not the change removes the reason for the criticism. If reacting to the criticism makes your work stronger by your standards, not anyone else’s, the criticism has helped you grow. If the changes you’ve made don’t please you, and you don’t see a path to ones that might, forget the criticism and move on.
Sounds like a plan, but is it a good plan? I’m going to try out this technique, taking what I heard at PhotoLucida and working with it over the next few months. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
By the way, I’ve thought of a way in which two completely contradictory criticisms can both be right. I’ll illustrate it by an analogy. Suppose you’re climbing a mountain, and your objective is to get as high as you can. It’s foggy, so you can’t see the whole mountain. You head north until the terrain flattens out and then starts to trend downward. Then you encounter two people. You ask the first, “Which way do I go to gain altitude?” She says, “Go east.” You ask the other person the same question. He says, “Go west.” You’re scratching your head and trying to figure out which one is telling you the truth when the fog lifts and you see that you’re standing on a saddle between two peaks.