Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When Facing Critics

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Prov 15:1

I make my living as an editor for a small hobby magazine, which puts me into contact with a wide variety of people. Some are a joy to work with, others make me want to run and hide when I see their names pop up on my caller ID or in my inbox. And then there are the strangers who seem to wake up wondering what they can do to ruin some poor unsuspecting editor’s day.

One of my biggest frustrations as both a writer and an editor is that no matter how careful I am, and no matter how hard I try, there are always going to be mistakes that make it through to the final publication. It’s just going to happen. For example, a couple summers ago, a copy of an issue hot off the press landed on my desk. My heart sank as I saw the headline for a new product announcement that read: New Screensaver for Widow’s Users. It’s amazing what a difference that missing “N” made. I also once allowed for a “Grave Crossing” rather than a “Grade Crossing” to be announced.

I’m a perfectionist by nature. In college I was the student who re-read the graded papers that had just been handed back to me and marked up all the mistakes I’d missed (and that my professor hadn’t circled). There was a time when I would beat myself mercilessly for those sorts of mistakes. I still cringe, but I’ve come to accept that they’re part of life now. What I still struggle with, however, is coming into work and finding a message from a reader who has taken it upon himself to “educate” me in the matters of copy editing and wonders where I got my education from.

In those moments, it feels as if a monster awakens inside. I want to lash right back at him, perhaps taking his eyes and tongue as retribution for his cruelty. It’s so much easier to get sarcastic, to hurl back an insult and point out the misspellings in his own message. Instead, I force myself to close the e-mail and take a quick walk to cool down. I’ve discovered the truth in the above proverb. When I enter a verbal sparing match I don’t just lose face, I end up wasting valuable time that could be better utilized elsewhere. And the stress simply isn’t worth it.

So rather than allowing the message in my inbox to ruin my day today, I chose to thank the gentleman for catching what I’d missed and wished him a wonderful week. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by a generous response.

This lesson can also be applied to other areas of my writing. By and large I get positive responses to articles I’ve published, but from time to time I do get a reader who disagrees with my point of view. And that’s okay. As long as I remember I’m not writing for my personal ego and that I represent something greater, kind responses to these situations become more natural. And who knows, how I respond could result in my harshest critic becoming my staunchest supporter.

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