So good people, as the title suggests, we’re talking about two things; critique and criticism. You notice how I’ve delineated those two? Although they’re often used interchangeably, I view them very differently.
So, let’s talk definitions for a second:
For ease, I will be using criticism in ONLY the first definition above.
I’d love to tell you that I am writing this blog for other people. A selfless act of generosity as a pick-you-up when you’ve been bruised by wise words spoken harshly…
But that would be a lie.
This blog is for future me. A reminder of perspective and sanity when it all gets a bit… raw.
Why am I writing this?
A little while ago a fantastic literary critic asked if he could feature my short stories on his YouTube channel with some of his friends. My first response was “you want to use my work? Really? Me? Hell yes”. But then I had a second, third and fourth thought, all of which reminded me why I love this guy… his gory, incisive analysis of books. No punches pulled. All flaws exposed and ridiculed in a public forum. In my mind I had agreed to feed my stories into a meat grinder.
What have I done?
Colour drained from the day. Fear and a growing sense of panic. I wasn’t ready for this. I’ve only been writing ten months, I’ve no formal education as a writer. It would be bloody. Violent. Devastating. How could my self-confidence survive?
Should I change my mind and save my stories from public humiliation?
I’ll be honest and say it was a close-run thing. Even now, the possibility that this could happen in the coming months makes me nervous.
But… watching his videos again, I was reminded of what he does. Critique. Not criticism. Whilst it is done for entertainment, behind the laughter is a wealth of knowledge and love of literature. Flaws are pointed and discussed from an honest, genuine and constructive perspective. Personal opinions are highlighted and analysed. Issues with structure, pacing, dialog and action are aired in a clear fashion. Time is taken to discuss WHY the issues are there and, often, how to fix them.
That has value. Real value.
The thing is, in life we’re often surrounded by criticism. Waves of negativity based on ignorance, jealousy, stupidity or random unpleasantness. As writers we often only get that type of feedback. Hate filled bile, vomited over our work by strangers with malice. Wit and sarcasm taking the place of valuable feedback. What does criticism achieve? It draws emotional blood. Provides fuel for self-doubt, but actually? It teaches nothing. It lacks a constructive “because”.
I mean, if you hate my work, okay, but tell me WHY. That I can do something with. But just telling me you hate it is worthless. You’re wasting your time and mine. I may take that view and use it to undermine myself, but it won’t add anything to my day, my writing abilities or your life. Give me a why and I can improve and progress.
Critique is often more destructive and painful than criticism. It exposes our flaws, failings and mistakes. Where our technique is lacking, or our understanding falls short. It says WHY there’s an issue with what we do. I think I know some of my weaknesses, but every time I have had my work critiqued by someone with wisdom I have found more. So many more.
That can feel devastating. Like its time to give up. Go home. Enough of this.
Which would you rather hear? Some hate filled criticism which leaves you with nothing to do or critique which tells you where and why you have problems. One of those gives you ways to grow and progress. It tells you where to focus to make your work better. The other just leaves you feeling awful.
The only place where these two intersect as experience is that, overall, neither is fun. Having someone look at your work with an analytical eye is not nice. It isn’t. Whether you’re a new writer or established name. It all sucks on so many levels.
But, you know what? I KNOW I have a lot to learn. I try to improve my writing and style every time I do something. Have you looked at my early blogs? I’ve already come so far. But I would rather have someone that I respect point out my flaws now than a random hate filled review on Amazon in two years’ time.
I’d also rather have that critique done publicly on YouTube than silently between a reader’s ears in years to come. With the former, I can do something to make myself better. With the latter I’ve just lost a reader.
So, to you, whether you be a writer, artist, musician or whoever (and to future me) try to learn the difference between criticism and critique. Both will hit your ego somewhere. But one should be disregarded as soon as you can, whilst the other should be analysed and learnt from. If you can’t hear critique as an opportunity, then you’re missing out on a great resource and chance to learn. You’ll pass up growth and new perspectives. Things which don’t turn up every day.
When you find critique, take some time to take the hit and feel grumpy about it. That’s natural. Then pull your socks up and see what you can learn. Try to ensure that whatever negatives are levelled at you in the critique can never be said of your work again. Make it the first and last time you hear that.
Your work will be better for it. I promise.
6 Replies to “The secret value of good critique”
I love this! I think it’s also worth mentioning that critique should be invited. That way we have time to prepare for what’s coming, and are in a mindset to appreciate it. When I send stories out to beta readers, I’m inviting critique – and bracing for it. If someone, uninvited, randomly sends me a message telling me my stories would be better without dragons (true story, and it was offered with the best of intentions, but still), I’m unlikely to listen.
Well, they said no dragons. I’m not going to listen anyway. But you see my point. Critique, to me, is a contract between the giver and the receiver, where the recipient agrees that they’re ready to listen. And it’s still not easy.
Agreed and well said! Plus, no dragons? Are they MAD?!
It really was offered in the nicest way, but I think they rather missed the point of cosy mysteries *with* dragons…
Awesome post was just thinking about this today from something someone said to someone else. If you are not suggesting ways i can improve your intention is most likely to tear me down not build me up. However i have also learnt to evaluate some of the things people say to you to get the best out of it . This morning my daughter criticized my baking and at first I allowed her commet to make me change my mind then on further thought i decided what i wanted to accomplish was more important than how she felt about what I was doing. Thanks again!!!
Good for you! Being able to listen, evaluate then make up your own mind is an admirable skill, go you! Thanks for your comment. 🙂
Critique and criticism mean someone has taken an interest in your work. Bravo!
The death knell to any creative work is “oh, it was good.” (As in it’s nothing to write home about.)
So my takeaway is when someone is talking about your work, you have done your job of sharing your style and making a connection with your audience. And we the audience are talking about you and sharing your gift.