A lot of people these days are very poor at dealing with criticism. I try not to be one of them. At the same time, however, there are a lot of people who carelessly rattle off criticisms based on thoughtlessness, false claims, unjustified assumptions and shoddy arguments.
Critics often expect writers to put a lot of care into constructing their articles. They don’t always apply the same level of care, however, when constructing their criticisms.
And if you’re a writer, it can be rather time-consuming to try to deal with carelessly-constructed critical responses individually. You want to respond and help the critic develop some better arguments, but it can become tedious when you find yourself pointing out the same basic errors again and again to different people.
So, I wrote this article to try to help. The idea is that if any writer gets the sort of critical response I’ve mentioned above, they can refer the critic here. The critic then has the opportunity to review their criticism using the checklist below. They may then see fit to amend their criticism, potentially leading to a much more positive and fruitful discussion than might otherwise have taken place.
So, if you’re a reader with a criticism of someone’s article, please make use of the following checklist:
1. Please check if the article really does say what you think it says.
A very common error is for people to criticise an article for saying something that it doesn’t actually say. A lot of poor criticism stems from reading errors, where people have succumbed to their prejudices and read into an article something which simply isn’t there.
2. Please check that you’re responding to what the article actually says, rather than what you imagine the author to be thinking.
As you read an article, you may have formed an impression of the author that is at least partially influenced by your prejudices. What often happens is that if an author expresses a specific opinion, people will assume they also hold all sorts of other views commonly associated with that opinion. But you don’t know they do, so try not to base your criticisms on such wild extrapolations.
Just because an author holds one left-wing (or right-wing) opinion, it doesn’t mean they hold all the other left-wing (or right-wing) opinions too. If you want to know if the author does hold one of these associated opinions, why not just ask them?
3. Please check that you understand the terms you are using.
It’s ridiculous how many people will argue on and on about something, despite never having bothered to get to grips with the definition of what that ‘something’ is. And please don’t assume you know what a key term means simply because you’ve often heard it being used. Please at least make the effort to look at and study the actual definition of the term. It may not mean what you think it means.
4. Please check that you’ve stated the assumptions on which your argument is based.
Not all writers are mind readers. Some of us are pretty good at it, but we’re not perfect, so we don’t necessarily know what is in your head. And it can be very tedious to have to tell people their arguments are illogical and to have them repeatedly deny it, only for them to eventually realise they were basing their arguments on assumptions which they never mentioned.
5. Please check that your assumptions are reasonable.
Please don’t base your arguments on claims that something is always true, when you know perfectly well that it’s only sometimes true.
6. Please check that your arguments are logical.
Do your conclusions necessarily follow on from the suppositions you’ve stated? Or have you leapt ahead and claimed something must be the case, when it only might be the case?
7. Please amend your criticism, so as to avoid the mistakes mentioned above. And get ready for a response.
It is very important that you are mentally prepared for what might come next. Your criticism might be criticised and it’s important to have a positive mindset when you respond. Don’t be that person who is eager to criticise others, but throws a hissy-fit when people criticise them.
If one of your criticisms is shown to be invalid, please don’t resort to insults. And please don’t try to distract from your errors by bringing up yet more ill-considered criticisms. It’s childish and unhelpful and may just lead to a protracted argument which doesn’t really get anywhere. Please don’t do it. It’s far more productive to discuss one point at a time. And if you have made errors, please just make your apologies, acknowledge your mistakes and try to learn from them. It’s much better that way.
I hope writers and critics alike find this checklist useful. If anyone has any more points they think I should add, please feel free to let me know. And if you’ve got any criticism of this specific article, please follow the checklist first! :)
Additional (for writers):
To save you further time, you might like to make use of the following text:
Thank you for your response. In order to assist me in addressing your criticisms, please make use of the following checklist: (Insert link here)
Or sometimes you might consider this text more appropriate:
Sorry, but your response has been deemed not to meet a sufficient standard of coherence, rationality and reasonableness to merit further consideration. Please refer to the following checklist for tips on how to improve your response: (Insert link here)
Having updated your response, you may then post it in reply to this message to qualify for further consideration. I look forward to receiving it, should you decide to take advantage of this option.
I thank you for your understanding in this matter.