Susan Slaughter

The Reviewer Is Always Right

In Everything, Little SAS Book Series, Publishing, SAS on June 1, 2011 at 1:13 pm

…about something

…and it’s up to you to figure out what.

At SGF I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion titled “So You Want to Be a SAS Press Author!”  The panel was organized by Nancy Brucken, moderated by Michael Raithel and included authors Art Carpenter, Cynthia Zender, and Mike Molter.

During the discussion, the topic of reviewer comments came up.  I mentioned that when Lora Delwiche and I first sent our proposal for The Little SAS Book to SAS Institute, one of the reviewers said, “It’s not possible to write a book like this, and if you do, then you will be doing a disservice to readers!”  That was a pretty strong statement, and it stung—a lot.  I mentioned this to make the point that you can’t let negative comments derail you from following your dreams.  However, I now realize that I may have left people with the impression that they can safely ignore any comments they don’t like.  On the contrary, I have learned the hard way that

There is something to be learned from every reviewer’s comment.

Those comments you don’t like…they’re the ones you should pay the most attention to.  Maybe, just maybe, that reviewer knows something that you don’t.  And maybe, just maybe, that reviewer is even right.  If that is the case, wouldn’t you rather find out before your book goes to press?  Yessiree, that reviewer might be doing you a favor.  Maybe you should (politely!) ask that reviewer for more information.  At times like this, it is important to set aside all defensiveness and listen because there is something to be learned from every reviewer’s comment—although it is not always what the reviewer intended.

For example, you will likely get some comments that are just factually incorrect.  When you do, it’s tempting to think, This reviewer doesn’t understand!, and then ignore the comment.  However, when you get such comments, you should ask yourself, Why doesn’t this reviewer understand?  If the reviewer didn’t understand, then perhaps readers won’t understand.  Can you make your writing more clear?  Did you fail to explain something?  What does this reviewer need to know in order to understand?

So what was the lesson to be learned from the reviewer who said that it was impossible to write The Little SAS Book, and that if we did, we would be doing a disservice to readers?  The lesson I learned is that some people will react very negatively to a book that is small and friendly.  Of course, Lora Delwiche and I never imagined that we were writing a book that would appeal to everyone and that would meet every SAS programmer’s needs.  But we also never imagined that some people would react so violently.  Honestly, I do think that some people need to get a life.  It’s just a book, for goodness sake.  But even so, this reviewer did us a favor by warning us.

  1. Susan,

    I think that the success of your book, now in its umpteenth edition, clearly shows another commonly understood side of things, namely that one can’t please all the people all of the time.

    Yes, one has to consider any positive one can glean from any reviewer’s comment, but I received a unique set of SGF presentation reviews, today, that has me TOTALLY baffled. Were the following two reviewers at the same presentation?

    Judge 1 Comments
    16 = Relaxed & comfortable presentation.
    17 = Speaker has clear command of and enthusiasm for material
    20 = Engaged with audience during presentation; good eye contact.
    21 = Content of presentation/paper is novel or innovative
    22 = Excellent paper. Great resource after conference.

    Judge 2 Comments
    1 = Slides/Poster contained too much text, lacked variety in format or difficult to read
    5 = Future presentations should cover less material at the same level of detail.
    6 = Presentation/Poster could have been better organized or was hard to follow.


    • That’s a great example, Arthur! Sometimes the only lesson to be learned is that you can’t please everyone.

      I may get in trouble for saying this, but I’m not a big fan of evaluations for conference presentations. The people who get roped into doing the evaluations are rarely in your target audience so it’s not surprising if they fail to get excited about your presentation. And the people who evaluate your talk are totally different than the people who evaluate other talks so the inter-rater reliability is nil. And the sample size is so small that your rating can be destroyed just because one reviewer’s shoes hurt. I’ve had presentations that were rated low because the audio system malfunctioned. Is that fair?

      Maybe I should have qualified my blog by saying that it applies to book reviews, but not necessarily other kinds of reviews.

  2. Susan, I can relate completely. The Little SAS Book was groundbreaking in how it tackled a traditionally complex topic and made it accessible to so many more people. SAS For Dummies took that to another level — the very idea that there could be a Dummies book about SAS was offensive to many SAS professionals. (By the way, I’m in the habit of recommending LSB to new users who want to dip into SAS programming. I recommend SAS For Dummies to people who want to learn about all that SAS can do with a minimum of programming.)

    Do these types of books demean the profession? No, of course they don’t. The goal of books like these is to educate and help people to be more productive with the tools they use. There are SAS professionals, and then there are people in other professions who happen to use SAS. The latter greatly outnumber the former, and these books aim to help those who don’t call themselves “SAS experts”. And the more people that there are out there using SAS as part of their jobs, the greater the demand will be for people who know it inside and out.

    It’s why I review SAS Press books:

    • Absolutely. Chris, I’m not surprised to hear that you have caught some of the same kind of flack for your book. Despite their differences SAS for Dummies and The Little SAS Book are examples of the same basic genre of SAS books designed to be accessible to anyone.

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